What strategies can a doctoral student employ to maneuver the trials and tribulations of a dissertation committee?

In Part 2, we established that finding an advisor who communicates well and finding committee members who are willing to challenge you (within limits) are important. What is the fifth and final guideline you ask?

Guideline 5: Beware of the politics

The last task is to make sure your committee members are a good fit for each other.  Many university professors come equipped with high-minded principles and elevated egos, and they wouldn’t be where they are if they didn’t. This isn’t particular to university faculty members, but let’s be honest—it’s a human thing. However, various motivations sometimes lead to bickering amongst faculty members, and it can have adverse effects on you.

I’ve heard first-hand horror stories about committee members using a poor candidate as a proverbial punching bag to settle differences over theoretical stances during a defense. So it is important that you pick committee members who are, at the very least, ambivalent toward each other and, at best, collegial.

Try and get a sense of how these dynamics operate from other faculty members you may not be considering as committee members as an objective source. More often than not, they will already know the situation, having observed the politics play out in faculty committee meetings or other dissertation defenses.  This strategy can arm you with the knowledge you need to evaluate whether specific faculty members will be a good fit for each other.

For example, when I was probing faculty members before I started my committee  process, I listened to the advice of a professor who made me aware of certain faculty who were volatile when put in the same room; this helped me choose my defense committee members very carefully, and it worked out well for me. However, following this strategy may not be feasible given the limited number of faculty members in your department or the need to fill a methodological gap in your committee with a particular member.  Use your own judgement.  Sometimes a little conflict can be entertaining or thought provoking but you don’t want it to devolve into chaos and have it negatively impact your dissertation.

In conclusion, given all five of these guidelines throughout this blog series, it may be impossible to find the perfect committee. There are only so many faculty members in a school, and there may not be a perfect combination. However, these are just guidelines—not hard and fast rules.

I hope this discussion will help new doctoral students craft a solid defense committee and give them one more tool in their arsenal for academic success. Does anyone have additional guidelines or anecdotes that they want to share from their graduate experience?

P.S. I am happy to announce that I completed my final dissertation defense in April and graduated this May, hence the delay for this final post.


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