Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Nearly Useless

At the end of each day this week, in the approximately 20 minutes between finishing my day's tasks and falling into a deep workshop-induced sleep, I have been reading an MS thesis. I am on the MS student's committee, and he sent the thesis to me just before I went into an internet-challenged zone for a few days.

I understand the theoretical value of having committee members read and comment on the thesis before the defense, but in reality it is harder to know the best way to proceed as a committee member/reader.

This student has given informal talks in the department over the course of the research, so I have had opportunities to comment on the work long before the thesis is written. Now the research is done, so there is no point in making any more comments about the research design or methods. It is even too late to comment on the interpretations and conclusions. It's August, the student is defending, and unless there some major fatal error is discovered, the thesis isn't going to change much based on committee comments.

I refuse to do technical editing -- the advisor can do that. If I see something that I don't think the student or advisor will catch, I will comment, but I don't think my role as a committee member is to spell-check the thesis.

So, what is left for me to do, other than read it and draw a smiley face on the cover page to show that I approve of the thesis? The most useful thing I can do at this point is comment on places where I think the thesis is not clear in its explanations or logic. Presumably the thesis will soon be a manuscript or manuscripts, so perhaps this type of comment can be useful beyond making the thesis *perfect*.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Believe me, the smiley face helps a lot.

// Science Student

Mister Troll said...

I think your role is oversight -- to make sure that fatal error is not present.

The role is not scientific, so a smiley face should be fine :-)

Jenn said...

"The most useful thing I can do at this point is comment on places where I think the thesis is not clear in its explanations or logic. Presumably the thesis will soon be a manuscript or manuscripts, so perhaps this type of comment can be useful beyond making the thesis *perfect*."

That's exactly what I think thesis committee member "corrections" are valuable for... someone who's "outside" the project who can see where the holes are, or where the student has skipped over some details because they consider them common knowledge, when really, outside their lab or field, they need to explain themselves.

plam said...

At MIT, the MS thesis only needs to be approved by the supervisor. I wish more schools were like that; I'm now on my first MS committee and should probably read the thesis at some point.

Anonymous said...

Sure wish I were able to ignore misspellings and grammatical errors in such cases, but I find that I can't and end up doing what you appropriately point out is the job of the advisor.

JaneB said...

I usually assume that the thing I can usefully do at this stage is to give the student some indication of what I think might be tested in the defense, and maybe some advice about how to go about planning an answer. As an advisor I'm often too close to the work to see some of the issues that might come up, so I find it helpful for both me and the student when committee members to point out things like 'you haven't explained why you chose Cool Statistic' or 'Professor A has just written a really cool paper related to this topic in Journal In My Field, have you seen it? since your external works adjacent to that field, they might ask something about how your work relates to this...'

ds said...

An interesting point. In my department, in theory, the committee should have been assembled after the student is finished with coursework, but, in practice, this only happens a month before the defence. It's one of those habits more often observed in breach than in practice, and has become institutionalized among faculty.

So I suppose it's best to get your committee involved from the beginning, and try to keep them abreast. But what about the actual thesis -- should one send it by chunks over the course of the final year as it gets written or would it be better to send it all at once?

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Anonymous said...

I'm finishing a thesis now, and I know that each person on my committee brings a different perspective and expertise. Is there an area of the student's research that you feel you should focus most on? Also, while it is probably too late to make major changes to the thesis document, there may be an opportunity for additional analysis before the student starts writing a manuscript, so I'm sure that your comments will still be useful in that regard even if they result in few changes to the thesis itself. As far as grammar and spelling, I agree that it's the responsibility of the primary adviser and the student. That said, it's possible that you're a way better writer than the primary adviser, and the student might welcome your editorial changes!

Ms.PhD said...

Smiley faces are always good.

Minos said...

I remember one of my committee members describing his role at that stage of a PhD Thesis being thus: "I'm here to spot major flaws in the thinking in the thesis." I think that's about right. It's a very coarse-grained level of quality control, but an important one. You might spot a weak argument in the thesis that wasn't central to the whole thing (which is why it didn't come up before), but for which the data don't support that particular conclusion.

studyzone said...

My PhD program required us to submit dissertations to our committee two weeks before the defense date, on the premise that faculty would have a chance to raise any concerns about the presentation and discussion of data before the actual defense. I received NO feedback from ANY committee members - not even my research advisor (not even after I asked point-blank). [After all the time and energy I poured into it, my poor ego was bruised to think no one cared enough to read it]. I don't expect editorial-style comments, but would have really appreciated feedback on the presentation of my results (was it logical? Did my interpretations of the data make sense?), the quality of my figures/tables, and the quality of the discussion. When it came time to write the final draft of my paper, my advisor completely ripped it to shreds - at least I eventually got the feedback I wanted. I agree with FSP - comments from committee members can go a long way toward assisting in writing the manuscript itself. [And comments from committee members can be valuable simply to balance a one-sided view from the advisor.]

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't a committee member's contribution be a hint of what's out there in the big bad scientific world for the young scientist? I mean, shouldn't comments be similar to a "review": you point out flaws in reasoning, note waaaaaaaaaaay over the top conclusions and other things that are out of line. Can even be a single chapter closest to your interest. Smily faces are not what the student will encounter in the future! Even when the thesis is finished, the work is never "done".

Albert said...

That's what my former adviser mocked as a "validation" process: it's so late, one can't do anything about any aspect of the work, except smile. Just push the stack of papers along the bureaucratic degree assembly line.

Despite, committee members often make interesting questions during the defense. Why weren't they ever exposed to the work in such a way, much earlier, that the student/advisor could have benefited from the committee insight? I am only aware of one institution (the MPI-CBG in Germany) that does yearly committee check-ups on the progress of the work for each PhD student. Mine (University of Barcelona) never did.