Sorry.. Blogger ate this post, along with all of your comments.. but here is the restored post (without the comments).
There have been many interesting comments on yesterday's FSP post and Tuesday's Scientopia/SP post that touched on the topic of how graduate committees are formed. In particular, I am intrigued by the relative role of the student and advisor in choosing and inviting committee members. This leads me directly to my questions for the day (I have been asking a lot of questions lately, I know, but there is a good reason):
- When you were forming your graduate committee (for your final defense and/or prelims), how did you do it and who made the decisions: you, your advisor, or the two of you after some discussion?
- Did you know all of your committee members reasonably well, or were there some virtual or complete strangers (e.g., from other departments, serving as external examiners or providing some needed expertise not represented by faculty you know well)? If you had some unknown committee members, how did that go?
- What were your primary criteria for selecting committee members to invite? For example, was field of expertise your major or only criterion or did you also consider the sanity level and/or reputation of a faculty member in terms of their behavior in exams? Did you deliberately invite any faculty members known to ask tough (but fair) questions, or did you try to stack the deck so you could just get the exam(s) over with and get through that particular hoop as easily as possible?
- If your advisor suggested someone you did not want on your committee, did you object or did you go along with the suggestion?
- Did everyone you first invited to be on your committee say yes to this wondrous opportunity or did you have to search around a bit to get enough people? Some faculty are asked to be on more committees than is practical in terms of time and ability to do justice to the student/exam, so there are benign reasons for faculty members to decline a request to serve on a student committee.
- For faculty: Even if you are on board with the general philosophy of graduate committees, do you find it to be a good use of your time?
Here are my answers:
I made the choices of faculty I wanted on my committee, although I asked my advisor's advice about good candidates for an external examiner.
I had never met the external examiner before I asked him to be on my committee, but when I met with him to explain my research, he was immediately interested, so it ended up being a good experience. Many years later, I saw him at a conference, and he remembered my PhD research. I was very impressed by that, and I think I got lucky in having him on my committee.
My primary criterion was research expertise. Everyone in my graduate department was insane, so there wasn't much diversity in that respect.
I was reasonably happy with my committee, and everyone I asked agreed to be on my committee. That doesn't mean they all read my thesis when I wanted/needed or that all provided thoughtful, timely, and constructive feedback on my research or manuscripts, but each one brought something interesting to the experience, and I learned something from each one.
As a professor, my main deciding factor in whether I accept or decline to be on a committee is whether I have time. However, I have had colleagues who did not want to be on the committee of students advised by particular other colleagues, in some cases because of animosity, but more commonly because of a perception that some committees are a waste of time. I have experienced the latter, but fortunately not many times.
For example, I once served on a committee involving a particular advisor who was very controlling and who interpreted feedback on his student's research as criticism of himself. It was very unpleasant being on that committee, and it was a huge waste of time because the student ignored all committee input. Our only real purpose was to sign some documents. I suppose we can hope that some of the committee comments registered at some level with the student, who might have benefited from our input in some invisible way, but mostly the rest of us felt that the student had acquired the advisor's habit of being patronizing and impervious to the ideas of others. Would I serve on another committee of a student advised by that same advisor? The opportunity has not presented itself, but if it did, I'd have to think about it carefully before deciding.
For me, whether being on a committee is a good use of time varies vastly from committee to committee, in part owing to factors related to the student and in part owing to factors related to the advisor. Overall, though, I think these committees serve a useful purpose, even if that purpose may in some cases be a theoretical concept rather than a reality.
8 years ago