What's the point of grad committee meetings?

Jun 29 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I don't even know how many committee meetings I have been to, either as a student or supervisor. Every place does them slightly differently and there is usually substantial freedom in the format and tone. Some include a formal presentation, written report before hand, or both. Others are a casual conversation.

As fas as I know, however, the point of having a committee meeting is mainly to get some constructive "outside" guidance on the work you are doing and have planned. Lot's of other things can come out of committee meetings, but making sure you don't have your head stuck up your advisor's ass is a key component. In most cases, a committee comes on board once you have a research plan in place and meets once or twice a year.

Based on this, I was surprised to read Algae Girl's post about her first committee meeting happening at the end of her third year. In a follow-up post she mentions she may be defending in December, indicating that her first committee meeting is happening at the 11th hour of her degree. Any input from the committee at this stage would, by necessity, be window dressing.

I have to say that I'm a little surprised a degree program would be set up that way, although it could just be how things fell for her. In my department, the committee needs to be established and a research proposal needs to be submitted to the grad school, no later than the end of year one. The committee has to sign off on the proposal and often has a meeting to discuss, including a presentation by the student. A considerable amount of feedback is given to the student at that time, which hopefully improves the overall research plan.

What do you see as the point of committee meetings, at least as they are intended (I've been to some useless ones)? How early and often are the done at your institution?

22 responses so far

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Our masters' students are supposed to have a committee meeting in their first semester, and annually after that. The goal is to make sure the student is making good progress. We'd had a bad patch where some students were just adrift, so the annual meeting is a way to make sure the wheels are still turning and not seized up.

  • Bashir says:

    It could also be that the program isn't set up in a particular way. At my grad institution the only actual required meeting was the final defense (maybe prelim too). By required I mean a written down university/departmental rule that you could not get out of. Everything else was convention. Most people had frequent meetings and did things the way you describe. Lots of feedback along the way. Some procrastinated, left them to the last minute, or had faculty who were too busy to be involved, etc.

    Basically the point of grad committee meetings was whatever you wanted to be.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Basically the point of grad committee meetings was whatever you wanted to be.

    I would argue strongly that it is poor institutional policy to leave this up to the students.

  • studyzone says:

    In my PhD program, the committee served two purposes: 1) to provide outside perspectives on the student's project (which I found very helpful), and 2) to serve as a safety net to protect against rogue/unreasonable PIs. There was a codified set of rules that committees and students had to satisfy (annual meetings, semi-annual progress reports, etc.) Unfortunately, purpose (2) backfired on several students who allowed their PIs to more or less pick the students' committee members. One student in my cohort had the worst micromanager of a PI who felt that students should not even be allowed to take the oral exam for candidacy until the student had published a paper. This was NOT a program requirement, and the program head tried to intervene on the student's behalf to get the PI to sign off on the student's oral exam, but couldn't mandate anything without the committee signing off on it. Because the PI had hand-picked the committee members, the committee did not intervene, and the student eventually left the program after 5 years with a Masters. Apparently, there are new rules in place to prevent this type of abuse from happening again, but it did make everyone in my program question the value of committees after that.

  • anon says:

    No, she says she's doing a 'oral/proposal defense', i.e., advance to candidacy exam in December, not a final thesis defense.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    No, she says she's doing a 'oral/proposal defense', i.e., advance to candidacy exam in December, not a final thesis defense.

    Ah, I see that now. Nevertheless, three years is a long time.

  • anon says:

    We're required to have annual committee meetings, where this first meeting must be within one year of passing the qualifying exam. Each meeting requires a write-up and a presentation. I'm sure the reasons for these meetings are the usual ones (outside perspective, protection from unreasonable advisors, make sure students are making progress, etc.), but it's a shame that the meetings are not really enforced. In theory, if you haven't had a committee meeting in the past year, you are no longer in "good standing" and lose opportunities for department-funded GA positions (and maybe even TA positions), but I've never heard of that occurring, and it's an idle threat if you have a fellowship or your advisor funds you. I think half of the people who skip their meetings are the people who probably could use it most (the other half are the well-supported, making good progress, too busy with science, and don't find the meetings useful type).

  • Daimia says:

    I'm having my first 'introductory meeting' in a couple of weeks. In the past the first meeting used to be the actual exam which sounds pretty intimidating if it is the first time you come face to face with the members. Now it's different. I (we) get an introductory meeting to get them all in the room and give a short presentation about the project. I hope that it gives me insight into the personalities of the members. Some PIs get labels from fellow students (eg hardass) and others you're not so sure about. My committee had to have people with expertise in my field and with no expertise in my field so I have a couple potential collaborators and a couple of outsiders I think could add valuable input from the 'outside'. I also get the feeling that committee members with 'clout' are a plus since they will probably be writing you recommendations in the future. If your PI isn't a hot shot, it's probably a good idea to get one on there (within reason) off course. After the exam, meetings should be held at least once a year. I would have loved to go observe one before my own but that's kind of impossible. Everyone has different experiences so I can't exactly rely on someone's account to gauge how mine will go. I just hope it goes well and I'm happy that I don't get graded officially on the first go around.

  • Daimia says:

    Committee needs to be in place before the end of the second year (I'm nearing the end of mine) and proposal defense needs to happen before the end of 3rd. The proposal committee remains the same throughout the program and administers the final defense. I know that there are other programs which have different committees for the proposals.

  • Dr. O says:

    For all of the programs I've been involved in, the first committee meeting is during year 3. The first year the students are rotating. The second year, they're taking a few more classes and preparing for qualifying exams - format for these varies extensively, but generally does not involve their own research. Beginning of the third year, candidates start to put together a proposal of their doctoral research, then defend the proposal to their committee. Their first committee meeting may be prior to this defense, or the defense may be the first committee meeting.

    The point of the committee meetings, from my standpoint, is generally what you suggest - to provide an outside perspective of the candidate's project, data, and progress. Given the timeline above, this gives 3-4 years of interaction with the committee, assuming a 5-6 year PhD stint. I prefer formal committee meetings about every 6 months to make sure the student is staying on track. The student is hopefully also presenting their research at departmental seminars, conferences, group meetings, etc, and talking informally to their committee members, to receive additional guidance on their project.

  • icee says:

    The schools I've attended all have the requirement of 1st meeting in the 1st year, and annual meeting/forms filed in each subsequent year. Neither of the schools I have been to enforced that rule, until last year. Because the rule wasn't enforced, lots of students delayed meetings or even appointing a committee for several years. It allows students to flounder, sometimes egregiously.

    I've always had meetings when I was supposed to because they almost always benefit the student - all my meetings have been extremely helpful. New department chair started cracking the whip a year ago on enforcement and there was LOTS of grumbling. The results have been good, though. You may think it's better for you to not be accountable to a committee, but they are there to protect you as much as they are there to hassle you. You might graduate sooner, too, because they will ensure that you're on track.

    I never understood the logic of students trying to get out of committee meetings. If your committee sucks that bad, change it (if you can). If you suck that bad, change you!

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    One of my undergraduate students went into a PhD program in biology at a respectable university. At his first committee meeting, his committee asked him what he wanted to do professionally. He said he wanted to teach. They gave him a really hard time. He dropped out of the program, and got a MS in Junior College Administration. He got a job with the state, and for many years ran the state large mouth bass research program. Eventually, having gone as far up as he could with the state, he got a teaching job at a small Christian university, and was happy to be there. I thought there was a certain amount of irony in his career.

  • lylebot says:

    In my field there are usually just two committee meetings: one for the proposal and one for the defense. And it's not rare that they happen with less than 12 months in between.

    I was on one committee that included a biologist (the student was doing some work related to biology) and that followed that template. The biologist was not too happy about the whole thing, even though she had a major role in the work and had frequent meetings with the student and her advisor.

  • Hermitage says:

    Yup, my dept is similar to lyle's. My committee members are big cheeses, so even trying to pin them down for extraneous meetings would be a feat in and of itself. I guess I'll find out who good/bad that is when I go in for meeting #1, lol.

  • [...] PLS has a post up lamenting the worth of the obligatory committee meetings in graduate school.  From my [...]

  • ponderingfool says:

    My PhD granting department had a qualifying committee at the start of your second year. Assuming you passed quals, you met your thesis committee (advisor plus at least two other faculty members of your choice & their consent) at the end of your second year. Year three & four met once a year in the spring. Years 5 and beyond, met every semester. Most finished between years 5 and 6.

    The committee was to help, keep students on track, protect students from absurd/abusive advisors (well the other two members), force students to think about the big picture, and serve as mentors.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Dr. O said: Given the timeline above, this gives 3-4 years of interaction with the committee, assuming a 5-6 year PhD stint

    Dude, 5-6 years is pushing it. This may be field-specific, but I try and get mine through in a lot less time than that. But we don't seem to have the same early time-line so the students here can dig in quite a bit sooner.

  • newly minted PhD says:

    I recently defended my PhD in a physical sciences department that encouraged interdisciplinary work, so that my advisor was in a biological sciences department. In my home department, only one committee meeting is required, and that meeting takes place during the student's 4th year. (6 years is approximately the "normal" time to degree in my field/institution.) The only other meeting of the committee is at the defense. At least at my institution, this seems to be more the norm in the physical sciences departments, whereas in most of the biosciences departments, committee meetings occur on something closer to an annual basis.

    I totally agree with proflikesubstance that the timing of committee meetings should not be left up to the students, and should occur more frequently and earlier on than happened in my home department. It worked out fine for me in the end, but I have definitely observed cases where students languished a bit and probably would have gotten back on track sooner if they had been required to have more frequent committee meetings. I also think I would have benefited from more frequent interactions with my committee, but since that was not the norm, I felt uncomfortable trying to burden my committee with additional meetings that weren't required. I also felt like it might send some sort of red flag that I thought something was "wrong" if I tried to schedule additional meetings. In fact I had a very good relationship with my advisor, so I didn't need additional meetings from the perspective of shielding me from abuse or anything, but I just think I would have benefited from more frequently getting additional perspectives on my science. My reaction after my defense was pretty much, "that was fun, wish I could've done that more often."

  • anon says:

    this is field dependent; it is completely normal to not have a proposal until your 3rd year in my field, as the national average time to degree is 9-10 years...we do field work for at least a year and have to obtain funding ourselves, most of us at least...

  • Algae Girl says:

    Wow, so I just found this post....My usual MO is to send a blog post into the ether, and then come back in several days and do it again. Between prepping for field work and holiday and usual shenanigans, it's been longer than usual.

    In mine, my advisor's, and dept's defense: Yes, at the end of 3 years is a little late in the process. This was actually a meeting I'd been trying to set up since JANUARY, but people's schedules be crazy.

    And our dept procedure is 1) Prelim meeting 2) Proposal defense 3) Final defense.

    I'm a little late because it's wasn't until last fall that I even HAD a dissertation (I'm slow) and my dept finally has enough faculty that I can have a committee without driving someone insane.

    Long story, I know...sorry

  • proflikesubstance says:

    AG, the post isn't an attack on you, at all. Different departments do things differently and every student is a unique case. That said, many departments try and have hard deadlines for things like committee meetings to make sure no one falls through the cracks. I am often surprised how long different places will let their students go before they need to touch base with anyone but their advisor.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Anon, 9-10 years isn't a grad degree, it's a fucking career. As a general rule, if your grad program is longer than it takes people to get tenure, there is an issue.

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