by Andrea Pappas Ph.D. Candidate, Art History, USC October
I. The Committee-Overview
1. How the student views the committee (refer to grad school handbook for rules)
Advisor is in charge of area of your interests Second member of exam committee in charge of departmental minor Outside member in charge of required outside area Members 4 and 5 from department may work in related areas or with similar methodologies.
2. How the Graduate School views the committee
Advisor is primary mentor and supervisor for student's project 4th and 5th members of committee enforce department regulations --department representatives on committee Outside member of committee enforces graduate school regulations --graduate school representative on committee, also functions as go-between if difficulties arise between student and advisor.
3. How graduate school works--psychological aspects Re-enacts adolescence--pass your screening exams, get promoted to high school; pass your Ph.D. exams, get a driver's license; turn in your outline, get the car on Saturday nights; turn in chapters, get your curfew lifted; get your cover page signed, leave home!
*Choosing your committee is like choosing someone to be your legal guardian.*
Your thinking will change as you progress--this may mean changing adviors, or moving to a new department or different institution.
4. The problem of limited choice
Small department--you may be stuck with a less than ideal advisor simply because they ae the only member of your department with expertise in a certain area.
5. Other Sources of Information
Other graduate students who have formed committees and/or passed their qual Graduate School Handbook Guidelines for Ethical Faculty and Graduate Student Relations (Grad School) Dissertation workshop
II. Choosing the Committee
You will have to balance the following factors as best fits your individual situation. Asking yourself these questions can help you decide which factors should be given the most weight and can help alert you to potential problems.
A. General Strategy: Choose your advisor first. Present your advisor with your suggestions regarding other members. You may ask your advisor for suggestions as well. Remember, the final decision is yours. Build relationships with faculty members in your department, and in other departments, early--this will help you select a committee that can work together, that will enhance, not hinder, your intellectual development, and will help you avoid problems.
1. Outside member: Do not select this person for purely intellectual reasons. Remember, you may need this person's help if problems develop between you and your advisor, or between your advisor and other members of your committee. This person ideally will have tenure, will have served on prior committees in your department, and is someone who believes you are a good student. Under no circumstances should this person in any way be dependent on your advisor for professional favors or advancement.
B. Personalities: Can all these people communicate with each other? If you have a style of communication radically different from your advisor, you may have problems meeting his/her expectations. If your advisor and one of your other committee members rub each other the wrong way, or if one of your committee members is so poorly socialized he or she continually offends the other members, chances are you will have to replace him or her, either for your own peace of mind, or at the command of your advisor.
C. Disciplinary Divisions: Committee members with radically differing methods, premises, and ideologies may lend richness to your committee, but they may also result in deadlock. Humanities students are particularly vulnerable here-- if two members of our committee do not agree on what constitutes research, chances are you will have the impossible task of meeting conflicting requirements. [example: archive/chronology based accounts vs. critical/reception based accounts; quantitative vs. qualitative approaches; modern vs. postmodern paradigms]
D. Availability: Is the person you are considering going to be available to you? For example, you will have grave difficulties starting your project if your advisor is going to be away for a year doing field work in Tierra del Fuego. Likewise, if your outside member is going to be away, he or she will have difficulty interceding for you, should it become necessary. You have to consider planned sabbaticals and research leaves when scheduing your quals--is it worth it to you to postpone your exams for a year while a committee member is out of town or overseas?
If the person is going to be in town, how many days a week are they at school? How often do they hold office hours? Are they willing to set up a regular appointment? If so, how often? Do they have email? Can you call them at home? Do you have to pull teeth to get an appointment? When you have an appointment are you continually interrupted by phone calls, other students, etc.?
When you turn in papers or chapters, how long do you have to wait for it? A week? A month? In what form is do you get feedback? Verbal? Written? Is it vague or do you get specific questions and suggestions? Is the feedback uniformly negative? Is it balanced? Is it copious or minimal? If this person is a potential second department member, are they willing to chew the fat with you while you are in the incubation stage? Are they willing to read your chapter drafts?
Last but not least: does the prospective advisor have tenure? Is the person up for promotion? Do they have offers from other institutions? Is the person being courted by another institution? What will happen to you if he or she takes a job at another school? Is this person near retirement? What will happen to you if he/she retires early?
E. Control vs. Guidance: You need to consider the style of guidance the potential advisor provides. Do they have a hands-off, sink-or-swim approach? Do they provide more supervision in the early stages and less later? Do they tightly oversee all areas of the project? Do they force their views upon the student? Is this person willing/able to learn from your growing expertise? Faculty members should be able to discuss their pedagogical philosophy in this area. What kind of guidance style works for you?
F. Support--Financial and Moral: How are discretionary funds distributed in your department? If by a committee, does your prospective advisor sit on this committee? If by faculty consensus, will your advisor be a strong advocate for you? Is your prospective advisor willing/able to help you apply for outside funding? Is your prospective advisor well-informed about such sources?
Has your prospective advisor supervised other dissertations? More experience isn't necessarily better--senior faculty members can be burnt out or consider graduate students a burden. However, senior faculty have seen the process ma ny times and can be in a good position to de-mystify the process for you. Younger faculty members often have the benefit of youthful enthusiasm, but may be preoccupied with preparing for their third-year review or be overwhelmed by new teaching or grant-writing responsibilities.
III. Beyond the Dissertation:
You need recommendation letters from your advisor to get a job. Many grad students worry about this in the committee selection process, "Should I have Dr. Famous Firebreather or Dr. Solid B. Niceguy as my advisor?" Consider your sanity and emotional health while making such a decision. Do Dr. Firebreather's students have a high non-finish rate? Do Dr. Niceguy's students get jobs? Consider whether an enthusiastic letter from a scholar who knows your work well might not be worth more to you than a lukewarm one from an established authority. While Dr. Firebreather may or may not be willing to pull strings on your behalf, you can be almost certain that you will inherit his enemies.
Real students, names and identifiying circumstances changed to protect the guilty.
1.) Importance of 4th and 5th members as advocates:--real example from the last 5 years: Student in a dept that spelled out format for written PhD exams--essay q's with set amount of time for each. Student gets into exam, finds one faculty member--Dr. Flake--has done something completely different. Student tells Dr. Flake this is a problem, Dr. Flake balks. Student's advisor and Dr. Flake are buddies, so the student goes to the other members of committee, who tell Dr. Flake to adhere to dept regs. Dr. Flake redoes his part of the exam to conform to dept rules, student didn't have to come between advisor and Dr. F.
2.) Importance of outside member as advocate--more serious. Real example from last 3 years. Student on a leave of absence in a dept with 2 faculty having an ideological struggle--senior fac is winning, junior fac goes on leave. Student, (whose advisor is the junior faculty member on leave) one of the last on the losing side, out of the blue a gets letter saying he has been dropped from the program. Violation of grad school regs--dept must issue warning letter first, must also show cause. Student calls outside member, who is tenured, high profile faculty. Outside member calls chairman of department and informs chair which grad regs have been broken, and that student has grounds for lawsuit, better for dept and university if dept reconsiders handling of situation. 2 days later student gets call from dept. chair saying "ignore the letter, terrible misunderstanding, etc."
IV Last but not least: Communications: several points. Make sure the outside member is familiar with your home department's qual exam procedure and policy. Some students give the outside member a copy of the home dept guidelines with relevant sections highlighted
Memos: everytime you meet with a member of your committee--send a short note re-capping what you discussed and what you agreed. This ensures no mis- understandings and leaves a paper trail in case of later trouble. In addition to projecting an image of competence (esp. important in a large department), if you agree to do things by a certain deadline, you will do them!
Memos especially important after exams--faculty often complain that students dissappear into the woodwork after the exam. I send a memo every 3 months with a list of things I've done (panels, research, etc), with evaluation--did I meet goals from last memo, list of upcoming stuff (panels, conferences, teaching), goals for me to meet before next memo (outline, chapter draft), and date of next memo. I also include grant application deadlines, so they will know a couple months ahead of time when I will need letters.
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