Committee Relations. It’s a topic of great importance to grad students, and one that covers a lot of ground. Last week in our office—on Wednesday, September 20, to be precise—we held a Brown Bag discussion on various issues that come up when working with a director (or, as some say, advisor) and committee members on a thesis or dissertation project. Below we share some of the big takeaways.
The Grad School has certain requirements concerning who can serve on a thesis or dissertation committee. We talked about these requirements and noted you can find plenty of information on composition of committees and other facets of completing your degree via the Grad School website. But we really wanted to talk about the process of choosing committee members, especially a director, that is, someone to chair the committee. We noted that the form you need to submit once you line up either a thesis director or dissertation director helps to contextualize the situation. But how to approach a professor about all this? While running through various scenarios, both clever and clumsy, we noted that sometimes a professor will approach the grad student about working together on a project. In any case, we firmly agreed on this: keeping in touch with faculty whose work you admire and/or whose courses you’ve taken and found especially relevant or inspiring is especially important as you progress through your first semester or year in your program. We also agreed that once you have a director lined up, a good procedure for filling out the rest of the committee—if you’re unsure about this part of the process, which can also be tricky—is to ask your director for suggestions. In the case of at least one participant in our discussion, the director was very glad to help with this important matter.
Once everyone is on board, then of course you have to move forward, together. Some tips for working with your committee members that we found especially useful:
* Plainly and simply, make a schedule. That is, a semester-long schedule for you and your committee. Think of it like a course syllabus. Plan dates for completing drafts, submitting drafts, and meeting with members in the same way you would when sequencing assignments over a semester. Distribute the schedule to your committee at the start of the term and ask if they have questions. We considered making such a schedule to be a constructive way to help initiate and keep communication lines open with committee members at different stages of the project. Another reason for a semester-long plan: many of us, in the course of the big endeavor, end up needing to make changes to the overall schedule of completion as outlined in the proposal. A shorter schedule can take such changes into account and inform all committee members about them clearly.
* Send updates to your committee. Think of these as progress reports for the benefit of all involved. Praise yourself and your committee for work you’ve already completed. “Look how far we’ve come,” or effusive comments of that sort, can pepper emails and/or face-to-face meetings. We noted that by sending updates, you can also reassert your role as one of the principal actors moving the project forward.
* Use “I…” statements when corresponding/communicating about submitted work. Such statements contrast with the all-too-easy hedging questions you might already be using with members such as “Can you please see about possibly responding to this draft within, say, a few weeks or so?” or even the slightly more direct “Please respond at your convenience.” Better results are likely when you politely state your needs. For example, “Our schedule has me starting on this next chapter next week, so I need your feedback on the last draft on. . . .” You get the idea.
The last phase of our discussion on committee relations touched on some of the things that can go right but centered on things that can possibly go wrong. Let’s say, for example, you need to make a change to your committee—the main thing we thought of in terms of things going wrong. Sometimes a member leaves to take a position elsewhere, must bow out for personal reasons, or for other reasons turns out to be not quite working out. What to do? Our biggest takeaway here: tread lightly but firmly. The Grad School does have procedures in place for working through committee changes and has form to use if needed for a thesis or a doctoral committee change. We also noted that a committee change usually won’t happen all of a sudden. Likely a series of events, signals, or impressions will lead up to it. In the end, we reemphasized the importance of keeping lines of communication open between you and all committee members.
We have a few more Brown Bags scheduled this fall—one of them planned just for faculty and staff. We also have more formal presentations and workshops happening over the next two weeks. Check out the details in our previous blog entry. Email us for more information or to sign up. We look forward to meeting you and helping you finish your project with flourish. Now: take a few minutes away from reading, writing, or revising…and wish your committee members a happy fall!