How many thesis committees is too many?

Nov 29 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Agreeing to be on someone's thesis committee is easy. One day someone drops by your office with either a written or oral summary of the project and an approximate time line. If the work sounds vaguely interesting or you owe the PI for serving on your student's committee you agree and move on. There is an occasional meeting obligation here and there, but overall it's not a big deal. Until the end.

I've actually made a concerted effort to try and space out the potential end dates of the students whose committees I have agreed to, but somehow it always seems that I go through stretches where I will have 2-4 defenses all within a week or two. Obviously, these dates are constrained around the semester deadlines for the grad school, but one person runs a semester or two long, another goes shorter than planned and they all cluster together.

Given that defenses appear to be attracted to small calendar windows like moths to flame, I think I need to rethink the number of committees I agree to. I've honestly lost count of the total I am on, but I believe it is somewhere around 10 (though three defenses in the last two weeks have thinned the herd). So how many is ideal? What is the balance between MS and PhD committees? I can't tell whether I'm over committee committed or just suffering through a concentrated stretch of obligations.

10 responses so far

  • pyrope says:

    How do you go about refusing to be on a thesis committee? Maybe it's just my department's culture, but it hasn't really occurred to me that turning a student down is a viable option.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Simply by saying that you are currently over-committed. I've done it twice when the students' time lines had them finishing during periods when I would not have been available.

  • Just_a_WIS says:

    I agree this is an important issue, but in fairness, I think the reason that defenses usually fall within a certain window is often due to the requirements and restrictions of the committee members, not the students. I had to delay my defense by several months, because my committee members' teaching schedules did not allow for us all to meet for long enough during the semester. So there I was, at the end of the semester, like a whole bunch of other people. I am not sure it's fair for a professor to deny a worthy* student his/her guidance because he/she might have too many defenses because of his/her own restrictions.

    *But this is really only an issue for a "worthy" student, meaning one who would benefit from a particular professor's guidance and mentoring over another faculty member. If one can think of someone else who would be just as good, then I say that professor is welcome to pass. But there is more to being on a committee than reading a thesis at the end of the student's graduate career. One of the major purposes of a committee is so that the student is not completely at the mercy of his/her adviser. A committee functions as a set of voices from different perspectives: academically, personally and pedagogically. I selected each member of my committee for a unique reason, as a scientific or mentoring supplement to my adviser. Only one of those committee members even read my thesis in the end, but I am thankful to all of them for husbanding me through a process that really takes more than just two people (student and adviser) to do right.

  • I look at it in the same way that I do journal reviews. I have 3 students, each student has 5 (PhD) or 3 (MS) committee members, so that is what I shoot for - about 12-15. This is a lot.

    At my grad institution we had 5 members for quals and 3 for dissertation, this seemed like a better system. The odds that all 5 members read and comment on the entire diss is pretty low in my experience.

  • aaaa says:

    In all PhD Committee meetings I have ever been on, the committee members' only roles have been to sit through the dissertation/thesis proposal talk and sign the forms, and perhaps pretend to read the thesis. Noone raises any questions other than clarification questions, and the advisors tend to get defensive if you ask more than a couple of hard questions. I don't know how common this is, but it's usually a gigantic waste of faculty time.

  • I think I was on 18 student committees at my height of insanity. Not something I recommend. I'm down to 10 right now (not including my own students of course), and this seems more manageable.

    Like the frugal ecologist, however, my institution requires 5 members for the PhD committee and this creates a lot of 'payback' when you have a decent sized lab. In my experience, the 5 members is overkill. It's frankly difficult here to find 5 faculty that are all relevant to a student's project. My grad institute had 3 for quals and 4 for diss, and this seemed to work really well. But perhaps we always like the system we grew up with!

  • becca says:

    Wait, you're in town during the obvious thesis-scheduling week? There's your first mistake.

    On how to refuse: I once had a committee member say she refused to be the sole female faculty member on a committee. This had the impact of 1) making the committees she did serve on more enjoyable on average and 2) turning away some students without rejecting them personally.

  • I've done it twice when the students' time lines had them finishing during periods when I would not have been available.

    I am having trouble imagining how you can possibly even come close to predicting when a student is likely to defend a PhD thesis at the time you are asked to serve on the committee, which is at least several years prior.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I am having trouble imagining how you can possibly even come close to predicting when a student is likely to defend a PhD thesis at the time you are asked to serve on the committee, which is at least several years prior.

    In this case it was just as a member of the exam portion of the committee. We have a 3 person core committee and then two extra are added for the comps and defense. Usually they are the same and carry through, but sometimes people switch. If you're one of those two people and added on for the defense, you are typically asked within striking distance of the defense.

  • Ten does sound like too many, especially if you're actually doing any real mentoring or work for the student.

    A few years ago a friend made a conscious decision to stop serving on so many PhD committees -- she's the type who does read the person's chapters, who does comment constructively, and who even goes so far as to mentor graduate students. To do the job right is time-consuming, especially when you're serving with colleagues who, as aaaa accurately remarks, "pretend" to read the thesis.

    She uses the fact that she's about to go up for full as her current excuse: has to husband her time to work on the monograph, the anthology, and the several articles currently in preparation for publication. Between that and the fact that she spends her time bouncing from conference to conference, where she's in high demand as a speaker, one can always find a reason to turn down requests.

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