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VII. Creating an Advisory Committee

Apr 06, 2011 by Dr Sally

Once you have an advisor, you will be ready to form your committee. The make-up of the rest of the committee is also a strategically important decision. Ideally you want to assemble a group of mentors who will freely collaborate with you and one another, communicate openly and frequently, and support you throughout the dissertation process.

In most doctoral programs, you are required to have three committee members from your program or department; you may be encouraged to have someone from the outside who has a particular expertise that contributes to your study; and often, but not always, a reader or reviewer will be appointed to your committee at some point during the process. The role of the chair, and to a lesser extent the other committee members, is both to guide and evaluate you. The role of the reader is to offer an independent and objective appraisal of your work.

Entering the Political Arena

Select your advisor and chairperson first and then, always, always discuss the selection of the other committee members with your chair before approaching anyone else. The number one consideration is finding people who will support and even sponsor you; and, if they do not work well with your advisor, you are in for major problems along the way.

Selecting Your Committee

What do you need to look for when selecting the rest of your committee? Ideally, they should have the same qualities as your advisor or, perhaps, complement your advisor with qualities and content expertise that are not his or her strengths. In the best of all worlds, you will find experts in all your variables of interest and your methodology.

The most important criterion in composing your committee is finding a group that will support, and not impede your process.

Look for committee members who will provide useful advice and guidance, but who will respect and defer to your advisor, so that you do not end up in an impossible situation of having too many chiefs on your committee. Avoid any committee member who has a reputation of being an obstructionist and, thereby, has the potential to slow down your process. On the other hand, you will strengthen your dissertation and your chances of successfully completing the final defense of your work if you actively seek out and learn to manage rigorous and critical feedback in the early stages of the process. The bottom line is that the better the design of your study, the more likely you will find the support you need to see it through to completion.

Once you and your advisor have chosen the rest of your committee members, the next hurdle you face is to convince them to join your committee, support you, and become your sponsors. Faculty are under no obligation to do so and may be unwilling to serve on your committee unless they feel professional pressure or can see a benefit for themselves. One of the very best ways to handle this is to have your advisor approach them and enroll them by extolling your personal and professional virtues. If and when you do approach potential committee members, see yourself as they see you, and sell them on your merits as an academic scholar in the same way you did when you approached your advisor.

As you are considering the composition of your committee, plan ahead: The dissertation involves a lengthy journey, and the odds of someone dropping off your committee are somewhat higher than you might wish to consider, especially if you appear to be taking too long. If you can avoid starting over with someone who has not been part of your entire process, you will be in a much more secure position. If at all possible, put at least one more person on your committee than your program or university requires so you never need to go out searching for a new member when you should be fully engaged in the dissertation process itself. Be strategic in considering which of your committee members could step in as chair if you lose your advisor during the process.

Last of all, with your advisor and all of your committee members, regard the initial stage of your proposal writing as a courtship period. If you find that one of your members is unavailable, uncompromising, or unworkable in some way, make changes early in the process. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will become to replace the troublesome committee member, and you may find yourself stranded along your dissertation journey, unable to proceed.


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