Committee jitters

May 08 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

Today was the first time I sat on an exam committee. The student is in another department, and although related to what I do, the topic was not exactly my bag. It was only a proposal exam, but I have to say that it made me a bit nervous because I didn't want to either run out of questions to ask the student or have questions that were not open-ended enough, etc. There were five people on the exam committee, leaving the distinct possibility that if I didn't come up with a bunch of questions and ended up being the last person to ask, my questions might have already been asked by others. Since I dedicated maybe about 3 hours of time to reading and thinking about the student's proposal, I walked wondering if I was going to look like an unprepared ass in front of four of my colleagues.

The break-down of the committee was two senior faculty, one just-recent-full-prof, a third year assistant prof and myself. I was the only person from my department, but that turned out to be a good thing. It also worked out that they topic of people's questions strictly correlated with career stage. The senior folks asked either broad philosophical questions or nitty-gritty knowledge-testing details about the sub-sub-topic of the proposal. My guess is that they glanced at the proposal briefly and figured "been there, done that". The recent full prof had clearly read the whole thing and asked question geared at getting the student to synthesize a couple of fields that the proposal cut across, as well as delving into specific methods. The two junior profs spent most of our time pushing the candidate on parts of the proposal we thought were most interesting and try to get the candidate to reach into areas related to the proposal, but closer to our work. I had no problem with question overlap because I do some very different things than the other people who were in the room, which was nice, and my questions generated a decent amount of discussion. As much as I have a lot of confidence in what I am doing, there's always that lingering bit of impostor syndrome that speaks up in situations like that, when I'm not quite sure what to expect or how it will all play out. Now that I've gone through one I'll know what the deal is next time around and not be as concerned about it.

10 responses so far

  • tideliar says:

    Huh! never thought about y'all being nervous being on the committee!

  • Odyssey says:

    I'm almost always nervous about student committee meetings for the reasons you've outlined. Especially dissertation defenses.

  • Incertae says:

    I suppose nervousness would be proportional to the formality of the meeting?

  • Mad Hatter says:

    "Since I dedicated maybe about 3 hours of time to reading and thinking about the student's proposal, I walked wondering if I was going to look like an unprepared ass in front of four of my colleagues."Heh...I'll bet that was at least twice as much time as anyone on my proposal committee spent reading my proposal. Or my qualifying exam committee. Or my thesis committee.

  • Professor in Training says:

    I was a judge at the finals of a national science fair while I was a postdoc (they were clearly desperate) and at the table of judges I was the only female, the only non-American, the only one under 60yo and the only one who wasn't a full professor ... I also thought I was the only one who didn't understand a word these freakishly-smart high school kids were saying but after hearing the dumbfuck questions my more senior judgey peers were asking, I knew I was ok. My standard question was, "Very interesting work. Can you explain what first sparked your interest in [insert something I didn't understand like creating synthetic nanotubes from scrap paper that can then be used to regenerate spinal cords]?" Or something to that effect anyway.

  • caroline says:

    I never thought you people would be nervous either! I wonder if that's why the untenured/new prof didn't even show up to my dissertation meeting... I bet he was just nervous!

  • Odyssey says:

    I wonder if that's why the untenured/new prof didn't even show up to my dissertation meeting... I bet he was just nervous!No, he was a jerk.

  • Arlenna says:

    I'm totally scared for this, too. I have kind of gotten the hang of regular committee meetings, but the examination ones are gonna freak me out for all these same reasons.

  • Anonymous says:

    I have my first one of these next week and bless their hearts they think I'm going to be the stats guru. I think I'll have to blind them with some statistical mumbo jumbo.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I think that now that I have been through one of these, I won't be as nervous for future ones. The odd thing is that as a new person you are constantly being evaluated in little ways by your colleagues (at least that's how it feels). Not in an overt or bad way but people want to know who you are no that you've been hired. From that perspective, these public defenses almost feel a bit like an exam for early PIs. The candidates never know this of course and I really never thought about until I had to do one, but there is pressure to ask "good" questions.

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