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PhD Committee struggles

Silhouette row of businessmen sitting in meeting room
Hopefully your committee won’t look this creepy.

I formed my PhD committee! Then it fell apart… Then I fixed the problem!! But really I didn’t… A PhD committee is a big deal and you can spend a lot of time trying to find the right professors only to find out that they don’t have the time. In my case, I got lucky and formed my committee without too much headache. Then one person left and the whole thing fell apart. So what goes into a committee anyway and why do you need one?

Well the answer is simple, so you can graduate. But the reasoning is a little more complex. When you do your PhD you’re (eventually) doing independent research that expands the state of the art in some way, at least from an engineering focused PhD. The committee plays a key role from the start of that journey, so it’s important to select people with a background that can benefit your research. You want the feedback, even if you don’t want it, trust me.

The committee is there to make sure you clear the bar so to speak. That you’ve done what you said you were going to do. Even if your experiment fails, you can still get your degree because you found something out that wasn’t known before. It’s not exactly publishable work, but it’s important work and that shouldn’t dissuade anyone from taking a risk early on… like me for example. The committee becomes the only thing standing between you and your degree, so know your committee and make sure they, at the very least, know of you.

However, that’s not the committees only role in the process. First and foremost they are there to make sure your proposed work is (1) feasible in the time you propose, (2) enough to constitute being given a PhD, and (3) to make sure the scope of the work is correct. These are important things that you may not be able to answer on your own without outside feedback. You may think you can do far more than you really can, or you may be asking, not the wrong question exactly, but not a well formed one if that makes sense.

Basically the committee isn’t there to fail you, in fact they do the opposite. There role is to make sure you succeed and to do that, they will (ideally) do their best to provide you with help. You may have one idea for your dissertation and walk out with something slightly different. That’s why it’s important to make sure the people you select have knowledge in the field(s) that are applicable to your work. I’m required to have a minimum of five people on my committee, that’s at minimum decades of knowledge there to help me succeed.

Which brings me to the other side of the coin, scheduling. If it’s one thing you learn in school it’s that PI’s are very busy people. It doesn’t matter if they are academic or clinical, I’ve been on both sides and they are all overloaded with things to do. That makes finding time for you difficult, but then you need to multiply that by five or more PI’s who all have very busy schedules to find a time and day that works for the whole group. So while in most cases there is no maximum to the number of PI’s you could have on your committee, certainly my school does not specify, there is a practical limit. The catch to doing your PhD proposal and the actual PhD defense is that you need to get all these people in the same room at the same time, at least in my case, it cannot be split up and you cannot have multiple defenses.

That pretty much sums up what a committee does and their role in your (hopeful) success. This makes selection, at least in my case, very important because I value the feedback and need more outside opinions on the scope of work. School-PI tends to have a higher bar than is feasible, so the committee will help narrow it some for me. In my particular case, I formed a committee I was very happy with, however one person left for another school… which meant I had an opening.

There’s another side I didn’t talk about and that’s the degree requirements. Your committee can’t just be any ol’ PI you want. Each school and more specifically department has their own special requirements on this. In my case I need three from within the department, one from outside the department, but at the same university, and one that could be in department, outside department, or even outside the university. Basically anyone with a PhD can fill the role of my fifth. I can have as many people as I want, but I need to meet those requirements before I get the greenlight.

Which wasn’t a problem until I found an error today when I submitted my updated committee selection. I had assumed that one of the PI’s I added, who had dual appointments in both the department I’m part of and another department, would fulfill the “within department” agreement. It does not! So today’s post was going to be about how I finally have my formed, but instead it’s be careful with the requirements!

The good news is that the person in charge caught the problem and let me know. It would’ve been a mess if I had gotten to the point of graduation only to find out it didn’t count. A fear that I have had since something similar almost occurred during my Masters degree, not with the committee, but requirements. So not a fun time for anyone involved if the committee and I (hopefully) celebrated (hopefully) a year from now only to find out it wasn’t valid.

Other good news includes the fact that I may have a good additional member (my committee is going to be > 5 for sure) that fits the requirements. I’ve reached out to him and I’m hopeful that he will say yes, but I won’t know probably for a few days a minimum, possibly longer if I have to send more than one email (again PI’s are super busy). So sort of a cliff hanger regarding my committee.

The good news is, if all goes well, I will be doing my proposal defense soon. As in, within the next month or two at most. Then it’s a mad rush to collect and process data! That will be fun (not really), but if I can manage it I will be very happy. There is quite a bit of work to be done between now and my proposal. An additional requirement is the physical proposal, a document detailing what I want to do. That needs to be written and distributed to my committee members at LEAST two weeks before my proposal defense. That still fits within my timeline, I’m going to try to do my defense at the end of this month if I can get everyone together, but I still haven’t written my proposal, sooooooooo yeah. I’ve got some writing to do between now and then.

Hopefully this helps anyone else going through a similar phase in their PhD. While most of this is probably only applicable to engineering type degrees, I’m sure there are at least a few points that are valid for anyone getting a PhD… I think… I hope.

As always, if you’re on the path to your PhD, welcome aboard and good luck!

4 responses

  1. It couldn’t just be simple, could it? At least you avoided disaster!

    I hope you’re starting to feel more on top of the degree path situation. Are you thinking the rest of your committee will counterbalance School PI enough that you’ll be able to submit something more like your original proposal?

    Liked by 1 person

    March 4, 2022 at 8:28 pm

    • Yeah I got really lucky with that one.

      I do think the committee will help, school-PI has a higher expectation about what can be done than most people and I already have at least a handful of the committee members agreeing that what school-PI originally suggested was far too much. Hopefully I’ll have my proposal written soon and can schedule my defense. I want to get things locked in ASAP.

      Liked by 1 person

      March 6, 2022 at 11:15 am

  2. I’m on a similar timeline, hoping to defense my proposal this semester. But I’m using secondary data so I hope that will help me get my analysis done. Happy proposing!

    Liked by 1 person

    March 6, 2022 at 8:21 pm

    • Thank you and good luck! It looks like you’re doing something similar to what I’m doing with your blog. I’m excited to follow along and see how it goes.

      Liked by 1 person

      March 7, 2022 at 9:56 am

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