This blog post is part of a series I’m writing along the road to my dissertation. These posts represent my personal experiences centered around getting a PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and all views expressed within are my own. This is my story.
So, there’s a really important part of getting a PhD that I haven’t talked about yet, and that is the thesis committee. I just had what will probably be my final thesis committee meeting before I defend my dissertation, so I thought this would be a good time to talk about what a thesis committee is, what they do, and why we meet with them all the time.
A thesis committee is a group of usually 3-6 professors whose task it is to evaluate your readiness for being a Doctor of Philosophy in your field. They approve your dissertation, listen to your defense talk, and ask you many many questions to evaluate the breadth and depth of your knowledge on your thesis topic. Their goal is to see if you work and think and act like an expert in what you claim to be an expert in.
…that’s a weirdly accurate description
Many people think of the thesis committee like the gatekeepers of academia. Like…the Keeper of the Bridge of Death from Monty Python. “Who would pass the Doctoral Defense must answer me these questions three, ere the other side she see.”
But in reality there’s a lot more to a thesis committee than just a group of test examiners. Your thesis committee should be comprised of people who know you and the work you’ve done during your graduate career. They are your advocates, your support group, your guidance, and your allies. They monitor your progress from the time you start seriously working on things you’ll put in your thesis, make sure you’re making good academic progress, check that you’re developing skills needed to later go into the workforce. They suggest collaborators, ideas and points of views you haven’t thought of, directions for your work or connections you could make.
They ensure that you’re applying for the right jobs, that when you graduate you’ll move on to something you’re qualified for. And they make sure you’re qualified for what you want to do. They provide a realistic view of your accomplishments in grad school and how they will be viewed outside your little academic bubble. They know because they’ve been there and they have the perspective that you as a graduate student don’t have from the trenches.
And if they don’t do those things, they shouldn’t be on your committee. Period.
To do all of these things, your committee needs to meet about once every 6 months to a year during the titular “thesis committee meetings.” These are organized by me, the grad student. During committee meetings, the grad student updates their committee on the research progress they’ve made since the last meeting, any academic achievements gained or milestones passed, career related things…essentially anything the committee members need to know in order to help you advance (aka, their job). This can take anywhere from an hour to three hours (oi vey, that was a loooooong meeting).
And one of the hardest jobs in academia is getting multiple professors in the same room at the same time for longer than an hour. Seriously, it’s like herding cats. And I have six of them to wrangle. Professors, I mean. Not cats. Planning thesis committee meetings is a serious test of your organizational and management skills. That should go on my resume…Anyways. Back on topic.
Your direct academic or research advisor is the head of your committee. They generally know you and your work the best, have seen nearly all of what you’ve worked on during your X many years as a grad student, been the PI on your research projects, etc. They can fill in the blanks if your other committee members have questions you can’t answer. Then, the rest of the committee is generally up to you.
Seriously, will they read it? Who knows!
OK, probably not this. Definitely not this. This is so wrong, so don’t think this is what a thesis committee should be. Your professor shouldn’t be your worst enemy. They are the most realistic about your accomplishments, know what you’ve done and what you still need to do. Your committee shouldn’t have an adversary. Your committee should only have allies. Honest ones, but allies nonetheless.
Maybe people you’ve collaborated with on a project, or who work in a closely related subject, or are a mentor of yours. Someone only peripherally related to your work, but who has a broader background that you can draw on. Someone who remembers what it’s like to be a grad student.
In my opinion, a token “famous” person can be a pretty useless committee member unless they know you and your work. Someone who doesn’t really know you or your work, or care to do so, but who you can brag and say was on your committee. Eh, sure, if you have all the rest of the support network in place, go for it. But someone who isn’t your advocate or doesn’t pull their weight on a committee doesn’t really serve a purpose.
Most (all?) graduate programs require that one of your committee members is someone outside of your department. This is ostensibly to get an objective outside view that your work is PhD quality. Some people go for a random person (like an english literature professor for an astronomy PhD) just to check the box without adding more difficulty. I find that pretty useless unless the outside person can, say, help with career goals or something.
My outside people (I have two of them, by the way) are from the Department of Geosciences. One works in a research area related to astrobiology and so ties in well with extra-solar planet research (also ran our astrobiology field excursion to Italy a few years ago…awesome caving trip!). The other teaches about scientific and science writing from a scientist’s perspective, which is related to both additional work I’ve done for the thesis and my future career goals.
Also, don’t add a “token” female professor or other “token” minority professor just to say that your committee wasn’t completely older white men. That’s just insulting to those professors who aren’t being included for their expertise and therefore aren’t being treated equitably. “Tokenism” is just a bad idea all around, ‘kay?
I’m of the opinion that if a committee can’t challenge you and find the boundaries of your knowledge, they aren’t doing their job. That’s because I want my PhD to mean that I’m good enough to have one, and I want the people who tell me that I’m good enough to know what that means. I don’t want any “gimmes” with this.
So…that’s a thesis committee and why they meet. I have six members on my committee, which is two more than I really need for the defense. Their areas of expertise all align with areas I’ve worked on, I’ve written papers with most them or been a student in their class, I’ve gone to all of them for advice at one point or another. I’ve met with them four times since I started graduate research, and they’ve recently agreed that I can defend my dissertation in May.
So…woohoo! They think I’ll be ready! And…oi vey, I have to be ready…deep breaths. Here we go!
FYI, I use WhenIsGood.net to schedule my committee meetings. I like it more than Doodle.