How to Select and Ask Faculty to Sit on Your Dissertation Committee

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Graduate study can best be explained as a series of hurdles. First is getting in. Then comes coursework. Comprehensive exams typically are the culmination of coursework in which you demonstrate that you know your stuff and are ready to begin your dissertation. At this point you are a doctoral candidate, unofficially known as ABD. If you thought coursework and comps were difficult you’re in for a surprise.

Most students find the dissertation process to be the most challenging part of graduate school. It’s how you show that you are an independent scholar capable of generating new knowledge. Your mentor is critical to this process, but your dissertation committee also plays a role in your success.  

What is the Role of the Dissertation Committee?
The mentor is highly invested in the dissertation’s success. The committee serves as an outside consultant, offering a more broad perspective as well as support for the student and mentor. The dissertation committee can serve 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 competences. 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.

Choosing a Dissertation Committee
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. Each committee member should be carefully selected based on the project, what he or she can contribute, and how well he or she gets along with the student and mentor.

It’s a delicate balance. You don’t want to argue over every detail yet you need objective advice and someone who will offer insightful, and tough, critiques of your work. Ideally you should trust each committee member and feel that he or she has your (and your project’s) 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.

Suppose you have thought long and hard and chosen a number of faculty to approach. What next? How do you ask a professor to serve on your dissertation committee?

Give Some Warning
Work with your mentor to select committee members. As you select potential members, ask your mentor if he or she thinks the professor is a good match to the project. Aside from seeking insight – and making your mentor feel valued – professors talk to each other. If you discuss each choice with your mentor beforehand he is she is likely to mention it to the other professor.

Use your mentor’s reaction as an indicator of whether to move forward and approach the potential committee member.  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 task, visit each professor with that as your purpose. If you haven’t explained the purpose of the meeting by email then when you enter, sit and explain that the reason you’re asked to meet is to ask the professor to serve on your dissertation committee.

Be Ready
No professor will agree to participate in a project without knowing something about it. Be prepared to explain your project. What are your 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.

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? Know what the professor does and how they fit in with the committee.  Likewise, be prepared to explain why you think they are the best choice.  Some faculty might even ask, “Why me? Why not Professor X?” Be prepared to justify your choice. What do you expect expertise-wise? Time-wise? How much or little time and effort will you require? Busy faculty will want to know 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 that they’re too busy. Other times they may not be interested in the project or may have issues with other committee members. It’s not always about you. Participating on a dissertation committee is a lot of work. Sometimes it’s simply too much work given other responsibilities.

If they are not able to meet your expectations be grateful that they’re honest. A successful dissertation is 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.