Working With Your Committee

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Dissertation and thesis writers, have you talked to your committee lately? When was the last time you met with your committee chair (either in-person or online)? Do you receive good feedback and support from both your chair and committee members?

Probably one of the most underestimated factors in writing a dissertation or thesis is your committee. They’re often the X-factor. A good committee will be the motivating force that will encourage and support you. An inattentive committee will provide little to no feedback or support, thus leaving you completely on your own. A bad committee will slow you down, sabotage your confidence, and increase the likelihood that you’ll never finish.

The possibility of working with a bad committee is scary. There’s not a lot you can do about a bad committee. The best strategy is to choose your chair carefully and remain fully involved in the building your committee from the get-go. There are certainly ways to improve a toxic relationship with your committee, but the goal is to never get to that point.

Despite the danger posed by a bad committee, I believe the most dangerous situation is an inattentive or “busy” committee. Why is it so dangerous? It’s dangerous because it’s prevalent and common for dissertation and thesis writers across disciplines. It’s also incredibly easy for a good committee to become an inattentive one. Committee relationships require complex cooperation between you, your chair, and your other readers. Thus, it’s easy to allow time and circumstance to impede those relationships. An inattentive committee is costly. A lack of feedback, relationship, and conversation can lead to isolation, apathy, and a lack of progress.

Over the years, I’ve had both professional and personal conversations with Ph.D. and Ed.D. candidates who complain about their lack of progress. Inevitably I’ll ask about what kind of feedback they’ve received from their chair or committee. In reply, it’s not unusual to hear, “I haven’t talked to my chair and/or committee lately.”

Contrary to belief, a dissertation or thesis is not a solitary affair. In fact, isolation is disastrous to your progress. The benefit of a committee (at least in theory) is having a built in community of your soon-to-be peers. It’s your committee’s job to support, offer critique, and review your work. Writing a dissertation is an enormous undertaking. Thus, the purpose of the committee is to evaluate, judge, and support you during this crucial time of your life. No one is completely prepared to write a 100-250 page (or more!) document on his or her own. Therefore, the committee is designed to help you step-by-step and chapter-by-chapter until you’re done.

This is why I’m usually shocked to hear when a doctoral candidate hasn’t spoken to or heard from their committee chair and/or committee members. Going it alone is a recipe for disaster. Without a committee’s confirmation, there will remain a lingering doubt as to whether you’re on the right track, making enough progress, or completing everything correctly. And slowly but surely, infrequent communication and feedback will create a situation where writing either slows or completely stops.

Having an inattentive committee is neither the doctoral candidate’s or the committee’s fault. It’s often the result of a break down in consistent communication between the candidate and the committee. As a result, candidates don’t realize they’re in such a situation before it’s too late. Sadly, many candidates even expect their committee to not be involved. I’ve heard of a number of candidates who believe that it’s typical to not have regular contact with the committee chair and/or committee members. Sometimes these relationships require a little more work on effort on part of either the student or faculty, but it’s not normal to go it alone!

So, what can you do about an inattentive committee? Fortunately, there are a lot of easy things that you can do to get back on track (or stay on track) with your committee. None of these things are particularly hard. However, lapse in any of these and you’re likely to find yourself going alone. Remember, isolation is not your friend!

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A meeting with your committee doesn’t have to be boring! Invite them for coffee or even lunch. Campus coffee shops are great places to meet. 

Communication. I can’t stress this enough. Stay in constant contact with your committee! Especially your committee chair. Keep them apprised of your progress or struggles. Never, ever, let more than a semester go by without either checking in or meeting with either your chair or a committee member. If you’re struggling, say so! Many candidates tend to withdraw or even avoid their committee when things are not going well. You don’t have to feel guilty about a lack of progress! Your committee isn’t there to shame you or make you feel bad about not completing a chapter or section by a certain deadline. Share with them (again, especially your chair) if you’re struggling with the agreed upon goals for your work. Most importantly, don’t wait to communicate until you’ve made definable progress. Regular updates, meetings, and emails will let them know that you’re serious about finishing (even when progress is slow). Committees are more willing to work with students who act seriously about finishing. Take the initiative!

Flexibility. Faculty are busy folk. They’re usually balancing a full teaching load, meetings, research, and other dissertation candidates. Remember, your chair is probably chairing a number of other doctoral candidates. The same for your committee members or readers. It’s likely they’re involved with a handful of other candidates. This means that you must be willing to adapt and meet in their schedule. You must be willing to meet on days that might be inconvenient for you. Typically, an accommodating chair or committee member will make time for you. He or she will work with you to find a time when it’s convenient for both of you. However, always be willing to bend your schedule! Present yourself as adaptable and sensitive to your chair or committee member’s needs. And always express gratitude to him or her at every meeting!

Your chair is the key. I can’t stress how important your chair is to your success. A good relationship with your chair makes all the difference in staying focused and making progress. Your chair is your advocate, defender, and chief motivator. His or her role is to speak on your behalf, defend you during meetings with your committee, and offer plenty of support. Thus, it’s essential that you keep in close contact with your chair! Frankly he or she should know your work better than anyone else. Therefore, your chair should be the first person you seek whenever you’re struggling with ideas, research, and writing. Of course, relationships with the rest of your committee are important. However, those relationships are contingent upon the kind of relationship you have with your chair. You should never go more than a few weeks without checking in with you chair. You’ll need someone who knows your work well. Think of your chair as your anchor. It’s the chair’s job to keep you grounded and focused on the task when you start to drift away. Consequently, your chair can help if you’re getting off track, losing focus, or unsure about what to do next. Furthermore, your chair’s knowledge of your work will be valuable on your defense day! It’s always nice to have someone in the room who knows your work as well as you do!

Ideally, your chair is already someone you know very well. In many programs you will choose the person who you feel best knows you and your work. Furthermore, he or she is also a person that you’ll get along with easily. However, some programs assign you to a chair. In such situations it’s advisable that you build a relationship with that individual. Schedule a face-to-face meeting, ask to have coffee together, or take a walk with him or her across campus. Make your chair your new best friend!

Issues to consider for distance students. More and more students are completing their doctoral degrees off-campus. Consequently, many students don’t have the luxury of dropping by to see their chair or committee member in-person. Thankfully, technology is making distance less of a barrier for maintaining a relationship with your committee. Obviously, you’ll need to email them often. In fact, you’ll need to work harder to stay connected in order to build and maintain a relationship with your committee (a face-to-face meeting is worth 10 emails in my opinion). However, frequent updates via email are helpful, and you’ll want to email often.

In addition, learn how to use Zoom, Gotomeeting, or Skype. If possible, schedule monthly or bi-monthly video chats with your committee. Video conference really helps to reduce the feeling of distance and disconnection. Most faculty are now comfortable using these tools for both meetings and classes. And don’t forget, there’s always the old-fashioned telephone! Above all, stay connected!

You want to succeed right? And you want to finish on time? Of course you do! You owe it to yourself to have good working relationships with your committee. Use them to your advantage. So what are you waiting for?

 

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