We're a little crazy, about science!

Committee selection

Old black and white photo of blindfolded man in a suit reaching out in front of him.
It feels exactly like this somedays…

Well here’s a post that I thought I wouldn’t be writing this soon. Or maybe I’m right on track and I just don’t want to admit that I’ve made progress. Either way, even though it is the weekend I’m taking an important step in my goal to my PhD! I’ve formally submitted my list for my dissertation committee to my PI. Not a PhD or don’t know what that means? No worries, that’s why I do this, so let’s talk about my committee!

Think of it like jury selection. These are the people that you are going to be attached to from now until one of two things happens: one, you get your PhD; or two, you drop out. I mean, I guess a committee member could decide that they no longer have the time commitment for such an undertaking, but usually that happens up front, you ask and they say, “sorry I can’t.” Bottom line, your committee selection will follow you until the day you die graduate.

This selection could make or break your dissertation. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. That’s because the committee has several roles. First they WILL judge you, in the sense that they will decide if what you’ve done is sufficient to receive a PhD. That’s right, they are literally the jury and you need to make the case that you’ve done everything required to earn a PhD. In my case, I need to discover some hidden truth of the world. Or rather, I need to uncover something that no one else has found. Easier said than done!

There are other roles they have though and it’s important to highlight that as well. They are advisors on your journey. They will tell you what they expect of you, give you feedback, and should you need it, help you along the way. A good committee selection is one that has a broad knowledge base that is somehow (but usually not directly) related to what you want to do. That’s because they will all have different ways of looking at the problem you are trying to solve and one of those ways could help give you the insight you need.

That’s also why committee selection can be a challenge! There is an implicit time commitment and your committee members need to be okay with that. A word of warning, some faculty are more hands off than others. Some will not expect an increased workload from you and others will. Therefore it is important going in that you make your needs clear to the person you are selecting.

That’s all fine, but how do you select the right people? Well thankfully that isn’t too difficult to answer. The short of it is this, ask others! The easiest way to find out if a faculty member will be a good fit for your committee is to ask people who already have (or have had) that person as part of their committee (trust me, there will be at least one person if this faculty member isn’t new!).

As of today, I now have my committee selection done. My PI has given me his approval for my selection. Now comes the fun part, emailing all those people to ask them to be part of my committee! At my university, we are told to have 3 people (including the PI) from in the department, 1 person from outside the department — or at least in the department, but outside the area of study — and we can have 1 person from outside the university who holds a PhD or equivalent degree.

This means we have a total of 5 people (minimum) for my committee selection, they can and are sometimes larger, but the more people you have the harder it is to get them all in the same room at the same time, which needs to happen from time to time! Something to think about when you’re making your committee. In any case, I’ve got my PI, Co-PI (who is outside the school so that works great) and three others selected. One is a maybe because of the rule that they need to be outside the area of study or outside the departement, his area of study is outside our own, but is closely related so there will need to be some clarification from the department on if they will allow it.

The point of today’s post is a simple one, committee selection can be a scary thing. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and confused, but it’s also okay to ask for help and talk to others. With a little planning and a lot of questions, you will have no problems when making your committee selection. To those of you getting ready to do the same thing, good luck!


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