Friday, January 20, 2012

On deciding to sit on a thesis committee

Here's an interesting situation:

A PhD student approaches you to be on her committee. It is her final year. Due to having the misfortune of having several committee members leave for other jobs over her tenure at the university, she does not have a full committee this late in the game. In fact, due to said attrition, finding people in the current department who are a good fit with her research interests this late in the game is difficult.

She approaches you to be a committee member. You study the general topic that she is interested in, but your expertise runs in problem A. She is interested in technique B. You think that the best papers are those that use technique B, but also address problem A. This is a commonly, but not universally, held belief. However, up to this point, no one has really talked to her about problem A. Most of the members on her committee, now and in the past have all been interested primarily in technique B.

You learn that she has is doing her PhD in order for her to qualify for a promotion in a job that she will return to next year.  Do you:

1) say you can't be on her committee, because you don't think her dissertation can be fixed to the point of your approval in the time remaining?

2) agree to be on her committee, and ask her to do all the work you would like to see on problem A before passing her?

3) agree to be on her committee and ask her to learn about problem A, and include a "further works" section detailing possible ways of addressing problem A?

4) agree to be on her committee and lower your standards for a good dissertation in light of the fact that she's been screwed over so many times, and  she has a job already?

5)Something else completely?

Not having a lot of experience with dissertation committees, I have no idea what to do, though I lean towards 3. What say you?


  1. I vote 3 as well- I'm a grad student, and that seems reasonable to me (though I've not been screwed over to the extent of this student). But maybe some more senior scientists have good reasons to vote otherwise?

  2. Poor kid has been jerked around enough. I would say 4)

  3. (3) sounds like a good option. Or maybe (4). In any case, I would talk to her advisor before deciding, if her advisor is still around.

  4. I vote 3, as long as the rest of the committee aren't going to get in your way or judge you because of it - and talk to the advisor first. As an advisor myself, I do understand the need to balance 'awareness of key aspects of topic' with 'getting student finished because they've been messed about enough' - in fact I think I've been involved in more of these situations than standard committees now I think about it, yuck! But do make sure you're not creating a problem for yourself with your own colleagues...

  5. I'd vote for 3 or 4 depending on how serious is the problem A issue, leaning on 4. I haven't been to many dissertation committees, but it seems to me that different standards apply depending on what the student plans are. As long as you leave it clear that you won't be writing recommendation letters for academic positions (unless the problem A is solved), I don't see any issue in you passing the dissertation without mention of problem A.

  6. Many many thanks for the feedback. Its good to know that my instincts aren't completely off (at least compared to the sample of my readers).

  7. I agree that it would be hard for people to find a replacement for others when the time was near because all of them doesn’t know or have interest on the thesis topics ideas she prepared for the old set of people in the committee. Anyway, I think it would be good to find a person that has knowledge on the topic.