Thesis committee or graduation advisors?

Apr 27 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

My previous experience with thesis committees and proposal defenses have all been from the vantage point of the student. When I was in grad school our committee was established once we figured out what our project was going to be on and we had regular meetings (twice a year or so) in order for the committee to get an idea of how we were progressing. They were generally informal, with a written summary circulated prior to the meeting and then an oral update at the meeting with comments. I found it helpful to have an outside perspective on my work weigh in once in a while and I got to know my committee members fairly well. The University where I did my post-doc had a similar organization and despite having spent that time in another country, I thought that type of committee set-up was more or less standard.

I have been surprised to learn that thesis committees at Employment U. function very differently, and in my mind, defeat the purpose. Here, the Ph.D. committee is established closer to when the student is ready to graduate. I think the intention is for the committee to get together earlier and guide the student along, but the reality is that people often push the "proposal" defense back so long that it is seen as a hurdle to jump a year or so before one defends their thesis. If the committee only comes on board in the last 12-18 months, what is the point? You can find people for an exam committee anytime, but the thesis committee should be there to make suggestions along the way.

This all comes up because I have been asked to serve on the committee of a Ph.D. student and I am reading their "proposal" document now in preparation for their defense of this in two weeks. The proposal defense is also odd here and a topic for another time, but this student is looking to submit their thesis in a year or less and graduate within the next 8-12 months. Other than the proposal document (which is on a topic different from the student's direct research, by design) I have not seen anything about the student's research, nor have we sat down as a committee to discuss progress or direction and the student will likely graduate in less than a year! Again, what's the point of having a committee if not to be an outside voice? Even if the official rules allow for doing things this way, why aren't the supervisors taking it on themselves to do it differently? Yes, it requires more meetings, etc., but there are some meetings worth having and I think this qualifies. I'm sure it's just one more thing that falls through the cracks when people get busy, but we're not doing our students any favors by letting it happen.

5 responses so far

  • DamnGoodTechnician says:

    That sounds like a rubber-stamp committee if I've ever heard of one. I can't understand its half-assed nature - either have a bunch of meetings and actually develop the grad student into a scientist, or have an actual rubber stamp and leave it at that. Who are you helping with just one meeting?Thesis committees worked the same way you mentioned at my academic institute too - profs may switch out occasionally, but I think most people kept the same members throughout their PhD. It may vary from grad student to grad student, or from committee to committee, but most of the grad students I knew didn't rely very much on their committee for input and advice. That came predominantly from their advisor, and through postdocs/grad students in related labs. On another note, is this one of those things where the student gets out what they put in? Can students (or do students) routinely seek out advice from other PIs outside of this rubber-stamp framework, or do they rely solely upon the guidance of their own PI?

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I'm just learning how it all works here since this is my first committee and my students are fairly new. I have set the ball in motion to get a committee together for both of my students though. I'm not letting it slip until the one year point. It probably is one of those things that is designed to be as involved as you want it to be, but it is probably the students who don't put any effort into it that need it the most.

  • Professor in Training says:

    I'm still learning how the US-grad-committee-system-thingy works. My PhD in the land far, far away was based on the British system - I had an advisor (you can have more than one) who oversaw my work from day 1, did a proposal about 18mths in with a one-time-only committee and then when my advisor was satisfied that my thesis was ready to be submitted after ~3.5yrs, it was examined by two high-profile external PIs who had had absolutely nothing to do with my studies (they were both based in North America) ... most of my thesis had already been published as individual manuscripts by that time.In a lot of ways, my grad school experience was very similar to the US postdoc except that your manuscripts are combined to produce a thesis at the end of 3-4yrs.I can see pros and cons of both of the grad systems you described and I guess it depends on your personal preference in your current situation.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    PiT - I had an advisor and two additional committee members. My advisor was the person I dealt with on a day-to-day basis and the committee met twice a year to assess progress and bring up any thoughts they might have about the direction of the research. My thesis was also manuscripts with an intro and conclusion slapped on each end and the exam committee was three three above, someone from outside the department but at the Uni plus an external individual who was in my field but not at the Uni. So, the systems are not all that different, but I think if you bother to have an advisory committee in the first place, might as well actually use them to provide some feedback.

  • mew123 says:

    THESIS is a requirement for completion to finish a degree of your course.

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