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Life as a Dissertation Committee Member

Today, I am hosting Dr. Steve Tippins from Beyond PhD Coaching to share his thoughts on being a committee member. You may also remember that I recently interviewed Dr. Tippins for the “How I Work” series.

The reason that most of us serve on dissertation committees is for the V.I.P. flights to exotic locations, passes to all Hollywood premiers, and unlimited free dry cleaning. Actually, none of that has ever happened for me or anyone that I know. We serve on dissertation committees because we like to help people and the job is interesting. That said, there can be challenges.

Every committee member that I know goes into a committee assignment hoping that things will go smoothly and the student will finish quickly. Sometimes that happens and other times hopes are not met. I will share here some things that help and hinder the relationship.

It’s important to start the relationship off properly. At many institutions, students get to ask faculty members to serve on their committee. If you get the opportunity to choose committee members please take this responsibility seriously. As a faculty member, it is frustrating when a student who has not done their homework about me asks me to serve on a committee that my background and publication history do not match in any way.

After serving on over 80 dissertation committees several things stick out as practices for students to follow.

1. If a committee member makes a comment, make sure you address the comment in the next draft – it is frustrating to take the time to comment on a student’s work and then not have the comment addressed. It can feel like a lack of respect.

2. Do not ask a comment member to just tell you what they want you to write – your dissertation is just that, your dissertation. Committee members are there to guide you, not tell you exactly what to do. Part of earning a doctorate is learning how to work with others who have opinions about various topics.

3. Do not assume that you know everything about the topic or school procedures – it is frustrating when you tell a student that, for example, their literature review needs to be 15 pages longer and the student says that the length is sufficient. A committee member only asks for things like this if there is a school requirement or if the literature has not been thoroughly explored.

4. Follow all school requirements – I once served on a committee as the second committee member where the student never got approval for his proposal and went out and did the actual study (no IRB approval either). The committee was presented with a completed dissertation. It was hard to tell the student but his original idea was flawed and the research was not acceptable. He wasted time and thousands of dollars by not following requirements.

5. Back statements up with references and don’t write to impress – academic writing is a skill and must be learned. Write like they write in the articles that you read. And, don’t use big words just to sound impressive. You want the reader to understand what you are saying.

6. Don’t get tired in Chapter 5 – Chapter 5 is where you get to tell the reader what your research means. It is frustrating to see a Chapter 5 where, after a year of hard work, a student writes two paragraphs about the implications of the work. Take some time and really explain what you study means.

7. It is OK to hire people like statisticians to help you but it is your work – but when asked a question at your defense you can’t say “my statistician did that, I’m not sure”. If you hire people to help you, make sure they also teach you so that you can talk about your work.

My best advice regarding your defense is to be prepared, treat your committee members with respect, and do not read your slides during the presentation. Take time to have practiced your presentation and, if possible, have people stand in as committee members and ask questions. Breathing is good too. Your presentation should not be one long sentence.

It is frustrating as a committee member to see slides filled with words and then have the student read the slides. We can read so keep us engaged.

Finally, answer all questions honestly. If you do not understand what is being asked ask for clarification. Do not make up answers, we will know. It is OK to say you don’t know and engage in a conversation with committee members.

You should never be allowed to schedule your oral defense if the committee is not ready to accept and pass your work. Keep that in mind as you prepare your slides and your talk. This is the last hurdle to earning the title Dr.

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