Thesis committees

Apr 07 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

It's an innocent enough question - "Would you be willing to serve on my thesis committee?" - and an easy thing to say "Yes." to. At the time you commit yourself there is generally no work to be done in response to an affirmative answer and generally the students who ask this are those whose work you are interested in, on some level. Sure, it'll be great to help this student along and provide advice on their work as it is coming together!

On top of the desire to help the student, there is an unspoken understanding between PIs that service on one of their student's committees means that they will return this favor down the road. Depending on the project, finding committee members for some students can be a pain in the ass, so having this "debt" in your pocket is not a bad thing.

Before you know it, you've said yes to three or four people, without much thought for the consequences of this action. Then comes the end of the semester or summer and everyone thinks "OMG, I have to propose/qualify/graduate before the end/start of the semester! We need meetings! Here's 45 pages to read by next week, and can you have comments back to me?"

I have a busy travel schedule lining up for this summer where I will be gone for 4-24 day chunks, several times. It ain't pretty, but between conferences and collaborations, it is what it is. My colleagues have similar schedules, so getting three to five of us together at the same time is damn near impossible. This means that on the rare instances that several people on related thesis committees are around, those days are booked solid with committee-related activities.

The moral of the story is to remember that on the flip side of agreeing to be part of a thesis committee is a solid time commitment down the road, likely to be scheduled at a very inconvenient time. I am learning this the hard way.

11 responses so far

  • sciedgrrl says:

    I have a committee member who also has a crazy travel schedule...she may even be attending my defense via Skype.One of the conditions for having her on my committee was that I proactively schedule my committee meetings so they did not fall at the same time as all of the other graduate students. My yearly meetings don't require document editing, but my dissertation will be going to my committee a week before it's required deadline in order to accommodate travel schedules of multiple people. If you are a fabulous committee member and in high demand, the students should have at least the additional responsibility of proactive scheduling in order to have you as a committee member. I have even heard rumors of faculty who have students agree to a contract of responsibilities before agreeing to be a committee member.

  • balanced instability says:

    This is interesting. I was just talking to one of my new colleagues at BigU. He got on the tt here a few years ahead of me and has been really helpful so far as I am transitioning over here. He was telling me that he ALWAYS agrees to sit on committees because "they aren't that much work" and it is a good way to get in the good graces of folks in your dept. and the wider University community. He is already on at least 15! Maybe he has a different attitude at the end of the quarter.

  • Arlenna says:

    I was gonna post about this same thing: committee meeting season gets to be ridiculous, and of course none of the students f'ing sorts out their schedules very far in advance so they all have these panicky deadlines where there's no way in hell they can coordinate everybody on the same day without MAJORLY inconveniencing all of us.

  • tideliar says:

    I knew a PI who was having trouble getting funding and was told by his Chair that serving on committees would get him some credit, at least with his fellow Dept. members. He ended up totally fucked for time during the summer LMAO

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Outside of my own students, I'm on three committees on my campus, one on another campus of my university and two more at other institutions. It doesn't sound like that many until they all need you to do something at the same time. They aren't that much work... until they are.

  • Arlenna says:

    God, I lost count of how many I am on--like 12? 15? And I was away on maternity leave, and sent them all an email explaining my need for huge advance notice. Only one student did that, and she wasn't even my own student.

  • whyme? says:

    I figure that since each student I have needs three faculty members for their own committee, I should be on at least 3xN committees, where N=number of current post-candidacy graduate students in my lab. I generally aim for 3xN+1 so I can feel good about doing more than my share! In the past I've tried to spread them out over several student cohorts to reduce the possibility that multiple students will need to finish up in the same semester, but that doesn't work at all.If you want people to stop asking, flunk someone at their candidacy -- news gets around fast!

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    But the three committee members includes you, so shouldn't you be looking at it as 2xN?

  • Odyssey says:

    Although serving on these committees is very important for a bunch of reasons, they can be a time suck. IMO, fifteen is far too many for an assistant professor (at least it is in the biomedical sciences). It can be a lot for a tenured prof.The single most important skill you can learn on the TT is when to say no. Being in your senior colleagues good graces is all well and fine, but not if you cripple yourself in the effort.

  • whyme? says:

    Actually, our steering committees have the major professor and three other faculty, so 3N is correct here...And for the actual thesis defense you need to bring in yet another, unconnected faculty member to judge whether the final exam is fair and rigorous. I've occasionally though that students should get a PhD just by demonstrating the ability to schedule five faculty and an available room before the deadline date!

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Ah, we have three for a MSc committee and a core of three for a PhD committee, with two more required for candidacy and the defense, so we normally only need to tap 2 others per student.

Leave a Reply