Thursday, May 12, 2011

Building Committees

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.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

Generally speaking our Graduate Director chooses our committee for us based on expertise in the field and commitments to other thesis committees (we have annual meetings leading up to the final defense), though it is not uncommon for the Director to consult with the student and/or advisor when selecting the committee if they aren't too familiar with your research area. The goal structure of the committee is the advisor (duh), the faculty member who's research is closest to you and your advisor's, someone who is in your sub-discipline who does something different from you and your advisor (bonus points if they're a theorist and you're an experimentalist or vice versa), and then someone from a completely different sub-discipline. For the final defense, the student and advisor must also find an expert in your field from outside the university to sit on the committee (in my case easy since we have a close collaborator located not too far away who could easily attend my defense, but it's not uncommon for the outside member to skype in).

Anonymous said...

I had the same co-chairs from my MS as my main chair had been contemplating retirement for some time. I picked two other faculty from my same sub-area: one for her undergraduate teaching insight (my career goal was a heavy teaching position) and the other for his statistical sensibilities. My outside person was actually an adjunct in our department, and taught courses pertaining to my research project. It was a fairly agreeable group, many of whom worked together before. They also generally deferred to my main chair on decisions, since all but the outside person had trained under him for part if not all of their graduate work. Yes, a little "inbred" but at the time it was one of the top research programs in the country, for good reason.

Anonymous said...

I'm based in the UK but we have a committee that is chosen by our Graduate Director who sometimes talks to the advisors first. The internal examiner usually turns out to be drawn from this committee. The committee (including the advisor but excluding the grad student) choose the external examiner. Custom varies across the UK but at my institution it is traditional not to tell the student who their external is until they have submitted their thesis (they can usually guess mind you....)

Anonymous said...

My advisor and I discussed the choice of committee members, and I mostly took his advice, but I wish I had followed my instincts a bit more. There was one particular committee member who has a good relationship with my advisor, but I had always had weird and uncomfortable interactions with him, for no reason I could put my finger on. But he made sense scientifically and so I followed my advisor's advice. He was my most negative committee member, and inexplicably resigned from the committee months before my defense, saying that he was "too busy" to read my thesis. At that point, I asked the person I had thought I should put on my committee from the beginning, who I had had many positive and useful interactions with throughout grad school. He was great, and I wished I had had him on the committee all along. In my second or third year I didn't really have the confidence to insist on him, but I wish I had.

MamaRox said...

I thought I was picking my committee, but it was really all about who my advisor wanted. My advisor held (holds) multi-decadal grudges against other members of the department and much to his dismay, once he caught me coming out of a lively discussion in ArchRival's office. He forbade me from future interaction. As if...

My advisor picked all the "nice" people. They were all knowledgeable, and none of them gave me ulcers with their feedback. I am grateful for that.

Later, the focus of my work became more theoretical and I felt I needed HeavyHitter from another department on campus, and he reluctantly agreed. HeavyHitter is notoriously gruff. I was very glad to have him, until his travels delayed my defense by 3 months. I had pleaded so vigorously for this addition that I was stuck waiting.

Bashir said...

I picked my committee with plenty of input from my advisor. There weren't that many free parameters. First the advisor is automatically on. We were required to have one person outside of the department. I happened to know a prof who had very relevant expertise that was in another department. Next I picked one professor who had a very well deserved reputation for being an advocate for students and being good on committees. That's 3 of 5. The final two were based on having similar enough expertise, likely to say yes, and not having a bad reputation. That left me with maybe 3 or 4 options. I picked the two I knew/liked the best from that set.

Canadian_Brain said...

My Committee has shifted a bunch over time as several members have changed jobs, become too close to me (co-authors on papers), etc..

I have been involved in the "discussion" of who should be on my committee, but mainly the new faces. When I first arrived and the committee was formed, I didn't know any of the members, so my input was fairly uninformed.

I will say, as a student, my primary goal has been "vetoeing" certain members, rather than try to land others. You should know about the reputation of these members (don't read drafts, ask obscure stats questions, combative attitude) and try to steer away from these...

Patchi said...

I picked my committee. I had to research for an external member, because I was in an interdisciplinary program - so finding someone outside the program with related interests and expertise was difficult. I came up with 2 names and my adviser said to contact the MSP because I had "too many women" in my committee (2 out of 5). The guy said no, so I asked the FSP who said yes. And I ended up doing a post-doc with my external member later on.

My only complaint was that the 3 women I put on my committee were very passive during discussions. I wanted to do a specific project which was in their area of expertise but they let the 2 guys talk me out of it and map out a project in a different direction. I just couldn't argue with my adviser without support in those early days. After 4 years of frustration I told my adviser I was doing the project I wanted in the beginning. One of my FSP committee members helped me get it working in her lab and it turned into a very significant publication.

Micro Dr. O said...

I mostly chose my committee based on expertise pertaining to different aspects of my project. My mentor did advise against one of my chosen faculty - sanity issues - and suggested another faculty from an outside department who would be helpful on a specific aspect of my project. As it turned out, my project changed directions vastly between my first and second committee meetings, so her expertise was never really fully employed.

I generally appreciated my committee, although I never felt like I gained a huge amount of unforeseen information from my interactions with them. Committee meetings often felt like more of a check-in: project was moving forward, results were mostly solid, proposed next steps were considered logical.

Sometimes I wish I had included the not-so-sane person that I had first suggested for a bit more excitement. Although I guess excitement can be highly overrated.

Anonymous said...

My advisor made suggestions, and I ended up agreeing with him. I was initially hesitant about one particular committee member, because she has a tough reputation, but my advisor preemptively volunteered to go to bat for me in case he might have to reign in the demands of that committee member. There were some trying times, as expected, but in the end I was happy with my choice of committee.

Anonymous said...

I think committees should just function as a net that catches gross bullshit. Unless the advisor and the student are doing something outrageous, the committee should just sign with a smile. The advisor is probably a tenured scientist and there is no reason to seriously doubt his/her abilities in guiding students under ordinary circumstances.

Anonymous said...

My advisor is very laid-back and a popular committee member himself. My two internal committee members were both obvious choices -- each a coauthor on one of my two major projects -- although my advisor said I didn't have to include either of them. I hemmed and hawed about the external member. The most obvious choice and my advisor's strongest-but-still-not-pushy recommendation was someone whom I had to confess to finding annoying: I respect her and on paper our interests align very well, but our interactions have been fraught with misunderstandings and awkwardness.

I ended up choosing an external member who my advisor mentioned as a third or fourth option ("... and then there's ___, I guess..."). My impression is not that Advisor and Outside Member dislike each other, just that they've never had much to talk about and don't know what to make of each other, despite both being well-established in our field. But Advisor has been very generous in letting me choose my own research direction, and my interests have turned out to be rather different from his; External Member complements these well. I've finished a preliminary exam, and so far so good...

Anonymous said...

My preliminary committe of my advisor and two professors I collaborated with closely had to be expanded to 5 for my final defense. After multiple rounds of doodle polls with all of the professors I had any contact with over my graduate career I ended up emailing several professors that my adviser recommended in another department because I couldn't find openings in a 2 month window. I had never met the 5th professor who finally agreed but he showed up having read my thesis, asked excellent questions, and ended up starting a small collaboration with my group following some of the discussion. It was the best outcome I could have imagined.

Anonymous said...

In my grad dept the prelim committee comes from a dept level committee. My field has two main branches and so you have 1 person from branch Y and 1 from branch X which are chosen from a committee of 4 (2X and 2Y)by them (they just divide up the students going through prelims because everyone in a cohort does it in the same term) those two faculty and your advisor are your prelim committee. I chose my dissertation committee based on research expertise (but of the options I may have avoided the serious crazies). I know all of them including my outside person as she was in a related field and I took one of her classes. I generally chose people based on the research connections (and not being batshit crazy) but honestly I also wanted people who were known to be rigorous. I think it's helped. The papers that came out of the diss published well and I have good connections outside my dept in part because my committee members are well respected and introduced me around.
Now that I'm faculty I'm trying to weigh time and research interests in deciding whether I should be on someone's committee. Unfortunately, politics keep coming up.

MathTT said...

My advisor & I had a meeting where we discussed the committee makeup. He then emailed committee members asking them to serve. It was a bit complicated, because I was in a small-ish department, and my advisor was graduating three students the same year. It was a delicate balancing act, who would be on which committee so as not to overwhelm the folks in our field.

In my case, I ended up with a postdoc on my committee to fill a last slot. There was an obvious very senior very famous guy who should have had the slot, but he was already emeritus and had agreed to be on the other two, so I wasn't allowed to ask him, even though he had been a big help to me throughout my grad career. (Postdoc guy later invited me to a cool conference and gave me a great idea that turned into a sweet little paper, so it wasn't a complete loss.)

In my current U, students are given much more responsibility for selecting and organizing their committees. I think this is not entirely a good thing.  They may not be the best judge of who is a good committee member. They are also really bad at organizing the meetings, not giving enough notice, or just stating a time and assuming we can all be there. I wish the advisors would give a little more guidance in that area. I plan to take a more active role, as my current students are getting near the stage of setting up committees.

John V said...

I wrote my criteria for serving on a committee yesterday - mainly time available and topical interest, not judging whether the student is lamentably misogynistic - so here's a general thought.

Composing a good thesis committee is extraneous for research that is rolling. The timeline for research may have been decadal back when thesis committees were conceived - that's no longer the case.

Student studies are conducted, in the best case, with several of the world's experts as co-authors, and they are not necessarily at the student's institution. The papers written are reviewed by more experts. Students participate in writing proposals that must emphasize the broader impact and ultimate purpose of the work.

A one-time review of a thesis by a committee of non-specialists is only a check that nothing has gone badly awry, and even in that case the outcome is not usually effective.

I can't think of a case in which a committee has redirected the research of a student I've worked with, although plenty of good oratorical and life lesson advice results from good non-specialist faculty being helpful.

My corollary would be get the most informed on the topic and least passive committee members (and ones that can write you persuasive letters for job applications) - may as well try to get something out of a process that is usually a rubber stamp.

It's like tenure with a 90+% passing rate. Angsting about exams doesn't help much, better to put that stress into forming collaborations for, conducting and panegyrizing the research itself.

FSGrad said...

Ah, committees. I picked one member over non-negligible objections from my advisor (personality clashes between the two but they are both crucial to my project) and my advisor strongly suggested one. My external fell into place through a series of events that made this person the best choice, but I guess in the end I selected him/her. It remains to be seen if this was a good strategy overall.

queenrandom said...

I just wrote out a long reply that got left in the ether thanks to a blogger hiccup :( I've actually written about this on my blog not too long ago; to summarize the salient points from my ether-bound reply:

-I made committee member decisions with my advisor.

-I did know all of them somewhat, some better than others.

-My primary criterion was that a committee member needed to be able to help me improve my science and my development as a scientist; I went for a variety of expertise and the tough-but-fair personality type. One member was chosen because he was a collaborator on the project.

-My advisor suggested too many people for the committee so understandably, some were not chosen.

-One person declined to serve on my committee because he was retiring.

Anonymous said...

I generally find thesis committees where I'm serving as the external member to be a big chore and waste of my time. Since they are in other departments, it's hard in the first place to get up to speed, and sometimes even the lingo is totally baffling. My input is rarely relevant, and I often find that if I ask the student general questions to probe his/her ability to explain the work to essentially a lay person, that the advisor or another committee member will jump in and answer. I understand the general idea that external members are needed to maintain integrity and standards, etc., but really, when you think of all the FTE that is wasted with totally clueless committee members sitting in on tedious, long committee meetings, there must be a better way...

karolinanatalia said...
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nicoleandmaggie said...

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Anonymous said...

My RSS reader has your missing post. Sorry no 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?

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Blogger has been a disaster lately. (And the formatting for the blog was terrible. Wordpress.com does provide a convenient transfer mechanism for moving your whole blog over.)

Micro Dr. O said...

Today was the last straw for Blogger - just made my move to wordpress. Transferred over seamlessly.

Female Science Professor said...

I am also on Wordpress (Scientopia), which has also had major problems recently. I know Blogger is annoying for commenters, but I much prefer it for blog-authoring and posting. I am in the process of pondering various options, though.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I'm still confused about being on a thesis committee as being some sort of quid-pro-quo between faculty.

Here the students choose their committees, and the relationship is almost entirely between the students and the faculty. The members of the committee meet about once a year to get progress updates from the student. The only substantial work is reading and commenting on the thesis (which is a large chunk of work if done properly).

Anonymous said...

First off I wish we had a proper committee that would know your work and can be turned to for advice at least from the point of the prelims. We just choose "examiners" for both prelims and finals. Also we are not allowed to have any personal contact with them (or even know who the examiners are) especially for the finals. However usually our supervisors tend to discuss it with us anyway. We need to have one person outside of our university as well. This person I do not know anything about except having seen their/group's work in conferences - I know their work is relevant to mine but nothing about their personality. The person was chosen entirely by my supervisor. For the internal people we did have a discussion. They also do relevant research but are probably two of the most difficult people to face in terms of how I have seen other finals they have examined have gone. But their insanity levels tend to be low and I am on reasonably amicable terms with them - so I do think they will evaluate my work objectively.

Anonymous said...

My adviser asked me for a list of people I was considering, then made suggestions of some people I hadn't thought of who had particular expertise. Also he told me the people on the list that he didn't think he could get along with... he said I could still have them if I really wanted, but that I should probably consider how "smoothly" I wanted my meetings to go. Then I approached each person to ask them if they had time to be on my committee. I'm in Biology if that's of interest.

Ria said...

Courtesy of the advice of another senior graduate student in my program, I chose based off of a combination of toughness (I wanted people to be strict so that I would have addressed all possible issues with my science prior to publication), seniority, and relatedness to my topic, in that order. I also specifically included someone who I respected greatly, but who I knew would strike serious sparks (and NOT in a good way!) with my advisor. It sure led to some long and vociferous committee meetings! That turned out to be an excellent choice, as she advocated for me heavily when personality issues and professional ethics (he didn't like the direction in which the data took the project) caused conflict between myself and my advisor.