grad skool rulz #15 – working with your committee


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Your dissertation committee has to approve your dissertation before you graduate. They can also serve as mentors and coaches who can help you reach your professional goals. Therefore, it’s crucial that cultivate a strong working relationship with them. Here are some guidelines:

  1. You should have the most contact with your committee chair. That is the person whose opinion of your dissertation will matter the most. Most of the time, if they approve your work, the rest of the committee wll go along.
  2. You should give your chair *frequent* drafts of chapters and if possible, give them an entire draft of the dissertation way before you expect to defend. No semster should go by without the chair getting something substantial from you.
  3. Follow these rules even if you live far away from campus and you are doing field work. Get in the habit of sending material to your chair with some frequency. Do not be silent for a year or two and then show up with a complete manuscript. Of course, it’s better than not completing at all, but give people a long time to read you work.
  4. In general, give the rest of your committee frequent drafts way before defending the dissertation. Perhaps not as many as you would give your chair, but every person in your committee should get at least one draft of all the key chapters before they get the final product before the defense. Every committee member should feel as they have had a chance to help you at least through one version of the manuscript. You can talk with your chair to get a sense of how well developed the work has to be before you ask other folks to read it.
  5. Face to face action is important. Show up to the department and let people you know you live. When you talk with people, give them a sense of when you want to go on the job market.
  6. Keep writing while you wait for responses! Work on an article or other dissertation chapter. Don’t waste your time waiting. be constructive.

What can you expect from people in return for all this effort? In general, the chair should return some comments to you within a couple of months. It’s kind of like a journal article review. It’ll take a while. You might expect the same from a second reader, but expect little in return from “outside” readers unless they really, really, really like you. Few third readers will spend much time, unless their expertise is genuinely needed.

Hopefully, you will have a committee of helpful people. But sometimes there are some difficult issues.

  1. Tardiness: If a person takes more than a semester to get back to you, they may need a gentle reminder. Often, a friendly email or office visit will work. It’s quite often that a non-urgent dissertation chapter draft gets lost when emergencies pop up.
  2. Complete non-response: Sometimes gentle reminders get no results at all. Some professors simply abandon their responsibilities to students. Sadly, I’ve seen it happen a little too often. What you should do is (a) document that you actually gave the person the draft and (b) start working with someone else who will help you. Why? Basically, there is little a graduate student can do to make a professor do anything. If they are unable or unwilling to help, through hostility or simply being overwhelmed by life, you aren’t going to change that. Start getting help with your research from someone else. Sometimes, no comments at all on returned work may indicate that the person has “checked out of the hotel.” And if you have documented that you actually gave them the work, then any later complaints have no basis. Bottom line: if you have an AWOL adviser, document it, suck it up, and move on. Complaining rarely solves anything.
  3. Hyper-criticality: One issue is that some advisers are devastating. They seem to have a special ability called “crush student confidence.” Sometimes, they enjoy it. Other times, they don’t even know they are doing it. What I am *not* saying is that advisers should refrain from pointing out student errors. But there is no reason that any well adjusted student should ever leave a professor’s office in tears or in a rage. Instead, a good instructor can say “I appreciate what you are doing, but I got really lost here.” Or, “Are you aware that this argument has been made before? You can really improve this by working on the lit review.” Sadly, some profs just say things in the wrong way, and when your main coach is telling you that you are completely lost, it can be aggravating. But as usual, you’ll probably just have to suck it up and move on.
  4. Conflicting advice: A touchy topic is when prof X and Y gives you different advice. Luckily, the response is simple. Do whatever the chair tells you to do. Usually, solves the problem.
  5. Adviser divorce: Once in a while, you get to a point where an adviser has completely abandoned you or they are so hostile to you and your work that no progress has been made after you have seriously tried. Normally, I’d say “suck it up,” but in some cases it so extreme that it can hamper your career. For example, it is nearly impossible to get fellowships and jobs without letters from your chair, but this may not be possible if your chair is completely non-responsive. At this point, (a) ask yourself if there is anything you can do to improve the situation, sometimes you need to get your act together academically, sometimes students can annoy profs! Be considerate; (b) consult with other friendly profs, ask if they can help out or give you advice; (c) if you decide that your academic skills are fine and that you have been acting in good faith, then you might consider “adviser divorce.” I strongly recommend against this course of action because a new adviser might require totally new material, and you would have to start from scratch – a very bad outcome. But sometimes, the student-advisor relation becomes so toxic that it’s better just to move on. I had one friend who did exactly that. His adviser was hyper-critical and he wasn’t really able to deal with it. Solution: adviser divorce and he completed the entire dissertation two semesters later with a more normal committee chair. I don’t recommend it, but it can be justified in some cases.
  6. Non-responsive outside readers: On the other hand, I do recommend dumping any outside committee member who goes AWOL on you or is just a jerk. You really want to salvage your relationship with your chair and other “core” members of your committee. It’s very, very important. However, what’s the point of keeping on reader #7 from the linguistics department if they are rude or undependable? Answer: None. Just ask your grad secretary or grad director about dumping jerk outside readers. It’s usually no harder than an email from you to the grad chair.

You’ll find that being friendly, persistent, and open to fair criticism will usually lead to a good relationship with your committee and good progress toward your degree. Now that you’ve wasted your time reading this post, get back to work!!


Written by fabiorojas

October 10, 2007 at 5:04 am

Posted in academia, fabio

4 Responses

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  1. These, as always, are wonderful suggestions. I’d like to add a few of my own in the spirit of helpfulness:

    7. Give your readers advance warning that you will be providing them text to read and comment upon. (Don’t email them 70 pages and tell them you’re coming into town in two weeks and expect comments by that time.) It can be quite useful to produce a semester schedule to which you and your advisor agree. The mutual expectation of 5-10 pages of ‘product’ every two weeks can keep both parties productive, responsive, and engaged.

    8. Every time you circulate text, provide your readers with short memos or emails requesting specific kinds of feedback. Remind them of earlier conversations or debates relevant to the material, and ask them to address the changes/decisions you have made. These need to be concise and precise. I find it is best practice to enumerate your requests.

    9. Provide intuitive file names when sending attachments. Remember that advisors are getting copies of “chapter 1” from many people. (So “Lena_Chapter1.doc” is far better.) If you are emailing re-drafts, label them accordingly (“Lena_Chapter1_2.doc”). If you are passing lots of drafts this system will be critical to ensure you are reading and discussing the same document. This is also a skill you’ll find useful in collaborative endeavors.

    10. Be judicious when you send text. Do not expect your advisor to vet a single line, a paragraph or a page of text, unless they have specifically agreed to do so. Don’t expect that if they agree to do so in one case that this holds for all future drafts.

    11. Do not solely rely on your committee members as readers of dissertation drafts. You can join or establish a dissertation writing group to which you circulate drafts. Also, use the dissertation writing process as an opportunity to build professional contacts–identify junior scholars or graduate students in other departments who share your interests and ask them to read and comment on chapters. While they don’t have the final ‘say’, they are a better place to send mundane questions about argumentation, style, grammar, etc.

    11. Keep a running log of all phone, email, and in person communication with your committee members. You want a record of the sequence of decisions and promises that you have made, advice you have been given, deadlines and mutual obligations, emails or text that have not been responded to, etc.. This will help resolve disputes with little or no damage to the relationship. It may also be a keen tool toward the end of the writing process when you both need to “see” your progress and are looking to identify opportunities for your second or ancillary projects (as these may be buried in advise, dropped threads, and the like).

    12. Be as self-reflexive as possible about the gendered dynamics of advising. Time and time again I have seen good sociologists forget this, and consistently bring their “technical” questions to the men on their committee, and expect their female advisors to log long hours providing emotional support.

    13. Seek primary emotional support from friends and family, and qualified professionals. As much as your advisor, committee and colleagues love and support you, they should not serve as your primarily (or even a dominant) shoulder to cry on, confessor, etc.



    October 10, 2007 at 2:29 pm

  2. I find jlena’s idea of a log interesting, might help in case of *rising* standards or *changing* definitions of one’s dissertation throughout the process on the side of the advisor or other members of the committee. E.g. the idea that you should do additional fieldwork might be appropriate in the beginning or some time after but not right before you turn in your dissertation and the work is actually done.



    October 10, 2007 at 9:03 pm

  3. […] by lmw on October 10th, 2007 New advice from Fabio is posted at […]


  4. […] a comment » This is a follow up to grad skool rulz #15: working with your committee. The other grad skool rulz are […]


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