Selecting your dissertation committee

By Tiffany M. Montgomery | 01/09/2016
They are supposed to work for you, not the other way around!

The selection of a dissertation committee is one of the most important decisions a PhD student can make. The members of this committee serve as dissertation “overseers.” They have been through the process of completing a PhD and have, it is hoped, helped countless others also navigate the process. Your committee will be with you every step of the way. They hold the key to your degree.
Tiffany MontgomeryI started thinking about potential members for my committee during the break between my first and second year of study. As a first-year PhD student, I had the opportunity to interact with numerous faculty members in the school of nursing. I had also taken a couple of courses in other departments, so I knew non-nursing professors as well. During the summer between my first and second years, I let my faculty adviser know I wanted her to chair my dissertation committee. The type of research career I would like to have closely mirrors her research career. We share the same passion for women’s health and intervention research, so it seemed to me the perfect fit. Just as I imagined, she gladly accepted my invitation.
During the first quarter of my second year, I met with my chair to finalize the list of potential committee members from the school of nursing. Next, I asked each professor on that list if they would consider being a member of my committee. Finally, after taking a non-nursing course with a fabulous psychology professor, I met with my chair again to discuss adding this person as the “outside” committee member.
For each academic institution, there are specific guidelines for selecting members of dissertation committees. Most PhD programs require a minimum of three to five members, one of which should be from a department other than the student’s home department. Typically, a maximum number of committee members are allowed. Regardless of the number you choose, I have identified, in addition to the mandatory committee chair, a few key roles you should include in your committee. Depending on the size of the committee, one person may take on multiple roles. It is also possible that several committee members may share the same role. No matter how the roles are divided, I’ve found that each role is necessary.
Montgomery women imageCommittee chair
The chair of every committee comes from the student’s home department. The first member of the committee to be selected, the chair is the shot caller, the head honcho, the person in charge. They have the final say on every decision made by the committee, as well as the final say on who should be asked to join the committee. The chair may or may not be the most senior faculty member on the committee. His or her length of time in academia is less important than familiarity with the dissertation topic. The most important aspect of the committee chair is the person’s relationship with the student. When selecting a chair for your committee, consider personality compatibility. If in the past you and a potential chair have not worked well together, find a different person to fill that role.
Content guru
At least one person on your committee should be an expert in the subject matter of the dissertation with extensive publications in that area. Their names should be synonymous with the subject matter. If they teach a course on the content, that’s even better! The content guru will serve as the go-to person when writing the literature review chapter.
Methods expert
Similar to the content guru, the methods expert should be well versed in qualitative or quantitative methodology. If the dissertation is a mixed-methods study, both qualitative and quantitative experts are needed. These experts will serve as the go-to persons when writing the theory and methods chapters.
Committee regular
The committee should have a member who has been on numerous other dissertation committees. This is very important! If the dissertation committee consists of only faculty members who are experts in their fields but have not been through the dissertation process many times, the student may get caught in the middle of trial-and-error issues. Someone who has had experience in dealing with multiple committees can shed light on the dissertation process, appropriate timelines, and disagreements, whether major or minor. Because they have a history of participating in many dissertations, they will have the wisdom needed to help the student navigate the dissertation writing and defending processes.
Lastly, every committee needs a cheerleader, a person the student can go to when times are tough. The cheerleader will help the student remain focused on the end goal. He or she should also support the student when disagreements arise. The main job of the cheerleader is to ensure that the student does not become discouraged or feel alone.
As the dissertation committee is being formed, remember to remain flexible. Always have a list of back-up faculty members in case a potential member falls through. For instance, one of the people I wanted on my committee was already over-committed. I totally understood and had no problem asking someone else. Then, after having my committee approved by the graduate division, I lost two committee members.
One had to attend an out-of-state meeting on the day I was to defend my dissertation proposal. There was no way to reschedule my defense, so I had to reconstitute my committee. Another member took a position at a different university after I had advanced to candidacy. That required me to reconstitute my committee again. I began with six committee members (the maximum number allowed), but I am currently down to four (the minimum number allowed). I have learned to go with these types of unexpected, uncomfortable changes.
Do your homework!
Before selecting a committee, do your homework. Talk to other students to determine how well potential members work with students and other committee members. Each committee member from my department has served as dissertation chair for at least one of my colleagues. So, before selecting committee members, I had a good idea of how they worked with students. Furthermore, I had attended quite a few dissertation defenses in my department, and someone from my own committee had chaired the vast majority of these committees. So, in addition to talking to students about their experiences with my committee members, I have also had the opportunity to see those members “in action.”
After speaking to other students, select, if at all possible, only committee members with whom you have worked. For instance, I have taken a class with everyone on my committee. In fact, from one of my committee members, I took three classes and also worked as her teaching assistant for two years. Before agreeing to be on my dissertation committee, each potential member was familiar with my topic, knew my writing abilities, and my personality.
Whomever you choose to serve on your committee, remember that they are supposed to be working for you—not the other way around. They should be helpful, available, and committed to the successful completion of your dissertation. You shouldn’t have to chase them down to pose a question. They shouldn’t make your life any more difficult than it already is. Consider these things before collaborating with your chair to create a short list of potential committee members. At the end of your journey, your committee will be the only thing standing between you and your degree. Choose wisely!
Tiffany M. Montgomery, MSN, RNC-OB, C-EFM, a women’s health nurse since 2005, initially worked as a labor and delivery nurse before broadening her focus to obstetrics and gynecology. She is now pursuing a PhD in nursing at UCLA.
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