Working with Dissertation Committees

Help Navigating your Dissertation Committee

Working With Committees can freel like an unsolvable puzzle. Here is my take on how to improve your dissertation committee experience.

Beyond helping students complete the statistical component of their projects, I’ve become an expert in working indirectly with committees too, helping to navigate personalities and demands placed on my clients. In addition, I have previously served as both a committee member and Director of Research, seeing the committee process from every conceivable angle.

When I consult for dissertation students, I work with the committee as well. Student struggles are the norm, and committees range from neglectful to inspirational. I’ve learned so much, and have been truly surprised by what I’ve witnessed. Best of all, I’ve discovered how to help you succeed faster and easier, because I’ve seen it all before.

I’ve found that well-meaning committees are composed of wonderful people, but often fail miserably in supporting the success of the graduate student. Let’s unpack this contradiction by looking at the good and bad aspects of typical dissertation committees.

The good…

  • Most committees care about students deeply, and want them to succeed. When students express a need they respond to the best of their ability with honest guidance.
  • Committees also typically have vast knowledge in one or more topic areas, with research or practical experience in that area, and many research ideas they want to investigate.
  • Another positive aspect of nearly all committees is expertise in navigating the internal processes at the University. They’ll know the procedures, timelines, as well as preferences of people involved.
  • Ultimately, committees are on your side and want to see you finish. Most members will have several successful students to point to.

Beyond the above positives, specific attributes of committee members will add many benefits. If you found a true statistics expert, this is a real win. It is great to have a motivator/organizer type too, of course. Every committee has such strengths from individual contributions, but it is nearly impossible for me to list them all or predict which ones you’ll experience.

The bad…

  • Student’s often feel their project has gone off the rails, and they are living a horror story. They feel this is rare, but it simply is not. Sadly it is nearly the typical story, overwhelmingly common.
  • Committees typically don’t motivate, the student has to “drive the bus”. They are happy to let the student delay and languish. There is usually very little reason for the committee to care how quickly things move along, while the student continues paying tuition, the committee gets their paychecks.
  • Many committees are not competent in research or statistics, even when their title and qualifications suggest otherwise.
  • Statistics and research courses DO NOT prepare students for the complexity they will face at dissertation. I’m not sure that they can, to be honest, as projects are so unique that predicting what is needed can be difficult.
  • More students than ever are working while studying, raising families, etc. The demands on them are simply unreasonable, yet as hard-working achievers they blame themselves for being “behind”.

Summary of “the bad”: External pressures (relationships, family, moving, money, health) usually intervene make the dissertation process more difficult, and heighten the need for committee support. Support that, more often than not, the committee can not or will not provide.They care but are too busy, lack statistical expertise, or otherwise don’t take action to help things move forward.

So what are my suggestions? Here is my best attempt to summarize them:

Take responsibility for frequency of communication and deadlines, because they’re not going to. If they are more helpful, it won’t hurt that you move things forward together. You are the project manager! Politely yet authoritatively motivate, remind, and ask for what you need. See the big picture and all the moving parts. If you are using a consultant, editor, survey service, or other similar assistance, be certain that you get what you need when you need it. Adeptly managing the people and technology involved in your project will save you on tuition costs and reduce stress, while proving you’re ready for your new career.

Get clear written approvals of all details. Perhaps the biggest complaint I see is that a proposal is approved, then later the same committee that approved it finds faults. Whether due to laziness or honest mistakes, committees tend to give the go-ahead “nod” without much critique, but then see all the problems when later they give a harder look, or the data rolls in and creates problems they didn’t see coming

Get along and graduate. I’ve lost count of how many times I have said to clients “do what they ask, even when it’s wrong, even when it’s unfair – and graduate!”  You can optimize and be in charge once you have your degree, don’t let perfectionism and power struggles stop you from getting it. Usually fighting triggers egos and defense mechanisms too, so just stay away from these fights that will turn your committee against you. Even if not overt, I  have seen lots of evidence that committees somewhat enjoy the discomfort of students. I’ve seen it bad enough that the word “hazing” comes to mind, like something you must endure to join their ranks.

Find and regularly make use of social and emotional support resources.  Burnout and mental fatigue absolutely plague these projects, as few people feel they can take breaks, care for themselves, and seek guidance when the project is not done yet.  Without a doubt, the most successful students I’ve worked with are those that balance healthy motivation with regular personal care.  All-night grueling computer sessions and a lack of daily joy are not badges of honor, and will eventually lead to a disgust for the project and process.  Work balanced and healthy, and don’t sacrifice long-term health and sanity for short-term goals.

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