The dissertation is clearly the most challenging part of graduate school as it is the ultimate determinant of whether you earn the doctoral degree. It’s how you show that you’re an independent scholar capable of generating new knowledge. Your mentor is critical to this process, but don’t underestimate the role your dissertation committee plays in your success. The dissertation committee serves a consulting role, serving a checks and balance function that can boost objectivity and ensure that university guidelines are adhered to and that the product is of high quality.
Members of the dissertation committee offer guidance in their areas of expertise and supplement the student and mentor’s competencies. For example, a committee member with expertise in specific research methods or statistics can serve as a sounding board and offer guidance that is beyond the mentor’s expertise.
Who should you choose?
Choosing a helpful dissertation committee isn’t easy. The best committee is composed of faculty who share an interest in the topic, offer diverse and useful areas of expertise, and are collegial. Committee members should be carefully selected based on what they can contribute, but also how well they get along with the student and mentor. It’s a delicate balance because you don’t want to argue over every detail yet you need objective advice and insightful, tough, critiques of your work. You should trust each committee member and feel that he or she has your best interests in mind. Choose committee members whose work you respect, who you respect, and who you like. This is a tall order and finding a handful of faculty who meet these criteria and also have the time to participate on your dissertation committee is a daunting task. It’s likely that not all of your dissertation members will fulfill all of your professional and personal needs but each committee member should serve at least one need.
How do you ask professors to serve on your dissertation committee?
Seek your mentor’s input
As you select potential members, ask your mentor if he or she thinks the professor is a good match for the project. Use your mentor’s reaction as an indicator of whether to move forward and approach the potential committee member. Professors talk to each other. If you discuss each choice with your mentor, he is she is likely to mention it to the other professor. You may find that the professor is already aware and may have already implicitly agreed.
Make your intentions known
At the same time, don’t assume that each professor knows that you’d like them as a committee member. When it comes time to ask, visit each professor with that as your purpose. Explain that the reason you’ve asked to meet is to ask the professor to serve on your dissertation committee.
Be prepared to explain your project
No prof will agree to participate in a dissertation committee without knowing something about the project. What are your research questions? How will you study them? Discuss your methods. How does this fit with prior work? How does it extend prior work? What will your study contribute to the literature? Pay attention to the professor’s demeanor. How much does he or she want to know? Sometimes a professor might want to know less – pay attention and consider what this might mean for his or her participation.
Explain their role
In addition to discussing your project, be prepared to explain why you are approaching the professor. What drew you to them? How do you think they will fit? For example, does the professor offer expertise in statistics? What guidance do you seek? Why do you think that the professor is the best choice? What are your expectations? Busy faculty will want to determine whether your needs outstrip their time and energy.
Don’t take rejection personally
If a professor declines your invitation to sit on your dissertation committee, don’t take it personally. Easier said than done but there are many reasons people decide to sit on committees. Try to take the professor’s perspective. Sometimes it’s really a matter of being too busy. Participating on a dissertation committee is a lot of work. Sometimes it’s simply too much work given other responsibilities. Other times they may not be interested in the project or may have issues with other committee members. It’s not always about you. If they are not able to meet your expectations be grateful that they’re honest. A successful dissertation is the result of a great deal of work on your part but also the support of a helpful committee that has your interests in mind. Be sure that the dissertation committee you build can meet these needs by asking the right questions from the start.