JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

Hoop Number 314,159: Committee Time

Well folks, like I said in Chapter 31, I'm in my fourth year (eek!) of graduate school and I've found motivation, desperation, and rage to comfort me in my later years. In many departments, students have chosen their committees and proposed their dissertation research by now. In my department though, it's kind of up to you, but it usually happens, at the latest, between Fall and Spring of the fourth year. I've been mulling and obsessing about it for two years now and I've finally narrowed the field and chosen the privileged individuals who will usher me into life as a Ph.D.

Just Who is Your Committee and Why are They So Important?

Your committee, aside from being the people that grill you for extended periods for your oral examinations (in some cases), and your research proposal and thesis defense (in all cases), is the set of professors that will deem you ready to be awarded those three special letters: The big P, the little h, and the big D. These are the people who will make you do more experiments and research, question your reasoning--hopefully not your sanity--and stretch the limits of your thinking about your project and the greater cause of science.

Your committee will, if chosen correctly, offer guidance and insight when you lack direction. Then again, they can also direct you right back to the research dungeon until you live and breathe your project. Aside from your advisor, your committee is the other set of fabulously important people to whom you must prostrate yourself before you will be allowed to escape your Ph.D. program, degree in hand.

Some basic committee responsibilities could include the following:

  • Formulating comprehensive exams

  • Periodically evaluating and assessing your progress

  • Directing your academic plan

  • Helping you choose your dissertation topic

  • Supervising dissertation research

  • Mediating disagreements between you and your advisor

  • Making your life more hellish than normal (optional of course)

  • Helping you perfect your scraping and groveling technique

Other potential committee responsibilities related to your post-Ph.D. life

  • Offering professional mentoring

  • Providing connections and introductions to help with your job search

  • Writing recommendations for future positions/awards

  • Assisting your ascent into the academic/scientific community (if you so desire)

  • Telling the scientific community how brilliant/idiotic you were during your Ph.D. after you've become wonderfully famous

How Should You Compose Your Committee? Recommendations? Research? Reputation?

You are responsible for choosing your own committee. BUT, you ought to propose and discuss every potential committee member with your advisor before you invite them. Nothing is worse than having people in the room, during one of your most important days, who can not stand each other. Zen like calm is required during these crucial moments of the Ph.D. process. You might not manage to be calm, you might be sweating bullets, but at least you can try to make sure your committee members don't charge the atmosphere with extra hostility.

Once you have your advisor's suggestions and restrictions, choose individuals that will offer advice and guidance on particular areas that you are trying to gain experience in. It is also advisable to choose people that you already have relationships with. Having had a class with a faculty member would be nice, but not always necessary. If an introduction is needed, ask your advisor for assistance.

When asking a faculty member to be on your committee, come prepared to present your current research, ideas for your dissertation topic, or a description of a previous project. You need to show your commitment to the process, your ability to perform research, and your capacity for presenting one-on-one.

It is also important to think about your scientific future when considering committee members. Does this individual have a reputation for excellence in research? Is he known for being an excellent scientist/engineer, or only for the hot temper/scotch habit that he has?

How Do You Work With Your Committee to Move Towards Completion?

Timing and Scheduling - Deadlines and Working Styles

Just as you are responsible for choosing your committee, you are also responsible for scheduling your meetings with the members, keeping them informed of your progress, and taking care of all school bureaucracy and paperwork necessary for the completion of your degree. You are responsible for all deadlines, signatures, special sheets of paper, formatting, copying, and so on. They are responsible for reading and revising drafts of your manuscript, so provide these materials well in advance of any deadlines or meetings. Be warned that reading what you write is a duty that some committee members perform...inconsistently.

Your committee is also responsible for attending the meetings and defenses that have been scheduled...again, well in advance. Coordinating the schedules of three to five people is one of the most frustrating elements of dealing with a committee, so ask them if there are hard restrictions on their calendars when you select them. Keep in mind the beginning and endings of semesters, holidays, conferences, sabbaticals, and any other event that would either a) make them terribly busy, or b) take them off campus for more than 2 days are not convenient meeting times. Few things are worse than having a defense to which nobody comes.

A note on personality: If you have a committee member who operates in a manner that is markedly different from your advisor--a very rigid sense of scheduling, say, compared to your advisor's looser approach--be prepared to adapt. Better still, choose someone else and save yourself--and your advisor--the hassle. Learn to anticipate the responses of your committee members by talking with their own group members about best practices for dealing with them. Be upfront and above board about it, though. You don't want your committee members thinking you're a spy.

Awarded and Not Earned

In addition, there is a subtlety to the Ph.D. process that is lost on some students. It is said by some that a Ph.D. is awarded not earned. The committee chooses to grant you those 3 letters only after they've put you through your paces and determined that you have learned "enough" and contributed "enough" to the current body of knowledge through new thought and innovation on your part to be close to their level, close enough that you may have your degree.

Some graduate students are under the impression that if you just accomplish experiment X, prove theorem Y, or discover trend Z, that you have earned your degree. But we forget that we are requesting entrance to an upper echelon of learning, and you can't just snatch the key to the door and expect it to work like you think it should. You must learn to wield the key with finesse such that the door you are trying to pass through (your committee) deems you worthy of entrance into their world.

A Few Notes on Keeping it All Together

  • Keep several copies of everything electronic and hard copy (at home, school, and elsewhere). You don't want your future to depend on the competence of the local fire department, or worse, the folks at the Help Desk.

  • Keep everyone up to date with frequent status reports (bi-weekly/monthly).

  • Cull the data and make it presentable-- don't expect anyone to "figure it out" on their own; hit them over the head with the results

  • How is your story developing?

  • Stay organized!

Don't forget to feed your committee, at least coffee and donuts. You're going to be there for a while, and you want them to be happy. Getting to know their dietary preferences/restrictions isn't a bad idea either. Happiness is a jelly donut/chocolate éclair/ shot of espresso, a hip flask...

Happy Holidays to all and good luck with the coming semester. See you next year!

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the , , , or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.