Tips for Forming Your Dissertation Defense Committee

Image Credit: Randall Munroe

For many graduate students the dissertation defense committee is somewhat of a mystery. How many members must you have? Who should you ask to serve on your committee? How far ahead should you be preparing for this? To answer these questions I asked chairs from departments all across campus as well as DU’s Graduate Student Services team. They had some wonderful insights, advice, and explanations that I think will be extremely helpful for you all as you embark on this important task.

Consult Your Advisor

Ok, so you have different options and important components to consider when putting together your dissertation committee. Generally a Defense Committee Chair (non-voting) –> Dissertation Director (voting) –> and a minimum of two additional committee members (voting) comprise the dissertation committee. Dr. Valavanis, profess or in Electrical & Computer Engineering, states normally students typically select all three members from their college (two from the department and one from another unit within their college/school/other units, depending on the topic), and one external member (industry, other university) who is an expert in the area of the dissertation. Deciding on if that’s the path that you’ll go down, it’s important to first seek the advice of your advisor.

Department chair and associate professor in the Higher Education program, Dr. Gildersleeve, recommends that students should “always take their advisor/supervisor’s advice. S/he has done this before, and has a clearer idea of how the process can unfold.” For doctoral students in the Graduate School of Social Work program, Dr. Bender recommends that students in addition to one’s advisor, should also consult the Associate Dean. Dr. Hazel, department chair and associate professor in the Child, Family, and School Psychology program, echos this advice stating “your major advisor will be your primary resource and support. However, no one person will be able to advise you in all things, so considering the complementary skills that other faculty can bring to your committee is important.” When thinking about questions to ask your advisor, Communication Studies chair and associate professor, Dr. Foust, recommends that students ask about the “possible strengths that other committee members might bring to the project–for instance, if your advisor has a strong background in research methods, you might select a committee member who has research or experience relative to the theories or contexts with which you’re working.” It’s also important to consult your advisor before you start cold calling other faculty. Anthropology professor, Dr. Conyers, reminds us that advisees are a direct reflection of their advisor and it’s important that we go over all our dissertation details before moving onto the next step. Dr. Conyers prefers to be the one to recommend committee members and call in favors to find an outside chair, using it also as an opportunity to involve “someone who has not been involved in our department before, in the hope we can show others what we do here, and open up channels for future collaborations.”

Plan Ahead

While you definitely want to make sure you’re prepared before you start soliciting faculty members, you should start making connections with potential individuals in advance. Who knows, your future outside chair could be someone you met at DURAPS! One great way to do this is to take a class from a professor who has work in which you’re interested. Mechanical and Materials Engineering professor, Dr. Yi, states that taking a class from a professor allows them to gain specific knowledge and expertise in a student’s area and specialization, enabling them to reliably judge their performance. Dr. Foust points out that some faculty request that grad students have taken at least 1 class with them before they agree to serve on committees. She states that “this can also be helpful for locating mentorship beyond content-expertise (so students not only find a mentor who is an expert in your research area, but they might also find a second faculty mentor who nurtures them as a teacher, and a third faculty member with whom they talk about methodological concerns, etc.).”

Dr. Foust also points out that “getting to know many faculty members serves graduate students well during sabbaticals–remember that faculty members take time off for their research, so your ideal committee members might not be available at the exact right time.” Emily Kintigh and Dr. Clark, in Media Film in Journalism Studies, also found this to be an important consideration and suggest that students “lay out a realistic work plan with deadlines that take into account thesis committee members’ schedules during breaks, summer, sabbaticals, etc. Dr. Yi states that he is often “reluctant to select a professor from outside the department, who knows very little about engineering, but sometimes has to, especially in the summer time when it is difficult to find a faculty available on campus.

Strike the Perfect Balance

Ok, so you know that you need at least three voting committee members, but how do you choose? Dr. Gildersleeve, provided the following advice “balance your committee with expertise that will serve your project; a content area expert, a methodologist, and a theory expert. This group of experts is dedicated to making your project the best it can be. You want to make the most of the opportunity to have nationally recognized experts (like the DU Faculty) supporting your project.” Kimberly Bender states that for students in her department “the choice of members for the committee should be guided by the candidate’s need for consultation on substantive matters, research methods, and statistical analytic approaches. It is common for a student to form a committee by choosing one person with whom they have an established working relationship, one person who has special substantive knowledge related to the research topic, and one person who has special research methods or statistical knowledge congruent with the proposed dissertation research.” Dr. Davis, professor and chair of the English department, also finds that it’s important to choose an individual with whom a student has a working relationship, especially when selecting a committee director. Dr. Wilcots, former Associate Provost of the Office of Graduate Studies, recommends that any dissertation that draws upon a field of study outside of the discipline in which the degree is being offered have a defense committee that includes a faculty person from every field represented. For example Anthropology faculty are not trained and credentialed to provide a scholarly decision on the quality of a novel, and Higher Ed faculty are not trained and credentialed to provide a scholarly decision on a film.

Dr. Hazel points out that “in some institutions, how the faculty get along is a serious consideration for students in the selection of their committee members. In the Morgridge College of Education, we are fortunate that the faculty hold each other in high regard and I have never seen power struggles in dissertation committees. Therefore, students can and should consider solely the expertise that the faculty can bring to the committee in their selection. I hope this is true across all units, but would advise students to confirm this with their major advisor.”

The Dissertation Director

DU’s Student Services experts state that the dissertation director needs to be a tenured or tenure-track member of the candidate’s graduate program. It is the dissertation director’s responsibility to ensure that the student’s research meets appropriate academic standards for the discipline in which the degree is being conferred. Dr. Cutforth, chair and professor in the Research Methods and Statistics department, outlines the following considerations when selecting one’s director:

  • Consider their expertise, accessibility, quality of feedback, and personality: The dissertation director’s role includes assisting you in developing your topic of interest and ultimately approving it as a researchable topic, approving your committee members in consultation with you and determining their role in the dissertation process; reading every line, section, and chapter of your dissertation, and judging the quality of your dissertation and deciding when you’re ready to successfully defend it in your oral defense.
    • Their expertise: Your director should have expertise and interest in your topic area so that they can direct you to relevant literature sources, foresee challenges that you may encounter as you proceed with your study, guide your choice of data collection and analysis procedures, and be thoroughly invested in your work.
    • Their accessibility: Your director should be able to give you the time you need to complete your project. Factors to consider include whether their own research or speaking engagements take them off campus for large periods of time, whether they are likely to be on sabbatical or family leave during your dissertation process, whether they are on numerous other dissertation projects, and whether they are available during the summer. All these factors influence the amount of time they will be able to provide to you.
    • Their quality of feedback: Your director provides quality control for your dissertation and decides when you can send chapters to your committee and when you’re ready for the final oral defense. Find out from other students whether s/he is respected for reading, critiquing, and returning drafts promptly (i.e., within 2 weeks except during busy periods like grading, vacation, and other deadlines). A director who provides specific and detailed feedback rather than vague comments will ensure that you are well prepared for your proposal and final oral defense.
    • Their personality: You will be working closely with your dissertation director so you should choose someone with whom you get on well. Do you want a director who closely monitors each phase of your work and tells you exactly what has to be done at each step, or would you rather have a director who lets you progress on your own and to finish a complete draft of the project before turning it in? Most directors fall somewhere between these two extremes. They also differ in the manner in which they provide feedback. Ideally you want someone who is direct and kind in critiquing your work but who ultimately will ensure that your study meets your department’s, college’s, and university’s standards.

Outside Chair(s)

The outside chair is a tenured member of the DU faculty from outside of the student’s department or discipline whose role is to provide a non-specialist’s perspective on the quality of the dissertation.

Dr. Gildersleeve encourages grad students not to be afraid to reach out to faculty members, even if you don’t know them very well or at all yet. “Make an appointment and share your ideas/project with us. If it fits within our scholarly agendas, we will be just as excited about supporting your project as you are.” Dr. Hazel discusses her experience stating that she’s “worked with outside chairs that have content expertise in the dissertation study and those that are from disciplines that had no relationship to the dissertation. In all cases, I have found the outside chairs to be engaged and thoughtful in their leadership of the dissertation defense. In other words, if you don’t know a faculty member outside your unit with expertise in your study, worry not! You will still have a faculty member who is dedicated to the process, who has read your dissertation and will ask thoughtful questions, and who will make sure that your defense proceeds in compliance with University policies.” Dr. Davis advises that outside chairs ideally should come from a discipline that is related to the project, but that students can also ask their committee members to suggest people they think might be interested in the topic. Often times, one’s dissertation director assists with choosing an outside chair. Dr. Cutforth states that  dissertation directors “will likely know faculty whose research is connected to your dissertation and/or those who enjoy being outside chair of dissertations in your college.”

So there you have it. The DU Defense Committee in a nutshell. As you begin on this process I recommend that you also read this article from Inside Higher Ed “Dealing With the Committee” for more logistical advice. If you have any comments/thoughts feel free to add them in the comments. Good luck with creating your dissertation defense committee in the coming months!

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