Part 3: Expect Your Committee to Expect More From You

Part 3: Expect Your Committee to Expect More From You

After writing about how to choose your dissertation committee members, I thought it would be a good idea to let you know what you should expect from your committee members. This third post will be about how your committee members will involve themselves in your dissertation process and how you should interact with them. I’ll give you a hint: they probably won’t need to be as involved as you’re thinking. The following are a few reasons for this:

“A dissertation is not a homework assignment”

This quote is from Working with Your Committee: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Sources of Conflict. I agree with the statement above because a lot of graduate students expect their committee members to be a group of babysitters, even though they may not use those words. As a major piece of advice, I suggest that you not look to your committee members to confirm or deny your work each step of the way. Of course, the time will come for them to review your document, but let it come; don’t prematurely ask for your committee’s help.

For instance, when a child asks what a particular word means, what do the parents usually say? “Look it up in the dictionary.” The parents react this way because they want the child to learn on her own and gain the self-realization that she can do things without their constant help. Or when a student asks his teacher why he’s learning language arts because he’ll never use it again in his life, what might the teacher say? “Try reading restaurant menus, road signs, and birthday cards without going through this learning process.” The teacher would say something along these lines because she wants the student to understand how much he will actually read on a daily basis, so he needs go through a learning process first.

These types of situations can arise in your meetings or chats with your dissertation committee. Before asking them every question you can think of, make sure that you can’t answer the question on your own first. This process is important for you to learn because you’ll be able to give yourself the help you need instead of depending on others. Pretty soon, you’ll understand that working independently with a few help sessions from your committee will be much more valuable to you than if your committee held your hand the whole way.

 

“Those committee members. . .can be a source of support”

This quote is from The Role of the Dissertation Committee. Now that I’ve told you not to allow your dissertation committee members to help you more than they should, I’d like to calm you by letting you know that they are there for support. Being on your committee will be a sign of commitment to you and your project. Though you will face tough times in the process, your committee is there for you, so call on them when you need a helping hand.

The great thing about having a committee is that you have more than one person to have input in your dissertation process. Sometimes the amount of people can be overwhelming to students, but take heart: understand that not everyone in your committee will be happy with every single decision you make about your dissertation. Having different personalities makes that impossible. The most you can do is to meet with your committee on a regular basis to receive a balanced amount of advice and suggestions from each member.

When you understand that having multiple committee members can help you in these ways, you will know what to expect from them. You should expect different opinions. If your committee members agree all the time, you won’t allow yourself to grow in the different areas that someone else might have more knowledge in. You should also expect their expectations of you. They will be hard on you and difficult to please at times, but it’s not personal. They are helping you in your quest to earn your doctorate. Of course they have to tell you that you’re doing some things wrong! Nobody gets it right on the first try.

I hope you’re enjoying this series on dissertation committees. Committees have a lot of mysterious components to them that confuse some people, so I hope the series is also helpful. Please don’t hesitate to comment on my blog posts if you have any questions regarding dissertation committees or anything else to do with earning your PhD.

Also, if you’re looking for more resources for help with dissertations, check out PhDStudent’s page on surviving the dissertation and thesis processes.

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Comments 1

Pau on Tuesday, 27 March 2018 23:04

Nice post ! One thing I observed during my PhD and something I did myself: often at the beginning of one's PhD study, the student wants to prove him/herself to his/her supervisor and colleagues by not asking enough questions and trying to figure out everything alone. This can indeed teach the student a lot about his/her field, but it also often end up in time wasted, lots of frustration and getting depressed after only a few months... So I think like you are trying to say in this article, is that one needs to find a balance: indeed you should not ask everything to your supervisors and look by yourself "in the dictionary", but you should also know when you are wasting your time and should go ask someone.

In the University where I did my PhD in Switzerland, I did not have a committee, i.e. I had only 1 supervisor. Plus at one point we ended up being 11 PhD students for that 1 supervisor and only 4 postdocs but without clear "hierarchy" telling one postdoc to take care of one or two specific students. Meaning, it was a big mess and everyone was so frustrated of not getting enough attention from our only supervisor. Two mistakes we PhD students ALL did: assuming that our supervisor had enough time to help all of us as much as we wanted + wanted to prove ourselves by trying to figure out to much things on our own.

Here some suggestions: accept that you are only one among all the persons that your supervisor has to deal with (including secretaries, other institute's lab heads, admin staffs etc) and don't hesitate to ask postdocs, technicians and even other PhD students for help => don't rely only on your supervisor/committee and talk to everyone in your lab and institute, you'll be surprised how many other people can actually be more helpful and supportive that one overbusy supervisor :)

Hoping this helps someone in a similar situation :)

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Nice post ! One thing I observed during my PhD and something I did myself: often at the beginning of one's PhD study, the student wants to prove him/herself to his/her supervisor and colleagues by not asking enough questions and trying to figure out everything alone. This can indeed teach the student a lot about his/her field, but it also often end up in time wasted, lots of frustration and getting depressed after only a few months... So I think like you are trying to say in this article, is that one needs to find a balance: indeed you should not ask everything to your supervisors and look by yourself "in the dictionary", but you should also know when you are wasting your time and should go ask someone. In the University where I did my PhD in Switzerland, I did not have a committee, i.e. I had only 1 supervisor. Plus at one point we ended up being 11 PhD students for that 1 supervisor and only 4 postdocs but without clear "hierarchy" telling one postdoc to take care of one or two specific students. Meaning, it was a big mess and everyone was so frustrated of not getting enough attention from our only supervisor. Two mistakes we PhD students ALL did: assuming that our supervisor had enough time to help all of us as much as we wanted + wanted to prove ourselves by trying to figure out to much things on our own. Here some suggestions: accept that you are only one among all the persons that your supervisor has to deal with (including secretaries, other institute's lab heads, admin staffs etc) and don't hesitate to ask postdocs, technicians and even other PhD students for help => don't rely only on your supervisor/committee and talk to everyone in your lab and institute, you'll be surprised how many other people can actually be more helpful and supportive that one overbusy supervisor :) Hoping this helps someone in a similar situation :)

PhDStudent