I proposed my thesis in March of 2016. So, I am now ABD (“all-but-dissertation”) and it’s awesome — I genuinely have no work responsibility apart from Research.
Still, it was nerve-racking getting to this point. I remember clearly being on the other side of the proposal and thinking of it as a wildling thinks of The Wall. Despite any evidence to the contrary, I saw it as a challenge that I may not overcome.
Hindsight, of course, makes it clear that a proposal is not that scary. But, words are cheap, so I thought I’d share a few lessons I learned from the process that I hope can help any aspiring proposers out there. In this post, I’m going to talk about committee selection. In the next two posts of this series, I’ll talk about writing and presenting.
So, selecting and communicating with your committee is probably the most important part of the proposal process. Seriously. Your committee will determine if you pass or fail, what you need to do to graduate and when you can graduate. So, they’re pretty important people and you should pick them carefully.
Still, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for committee selection. In fact, picking your committee turns out to be a strategic decision that could matter for more than just graduation. So, here are a few things you might consider.
Committee members are recommendation letter writers that could affect your job prospects
Your committee typically needs to include your adviser (the committee chair), and two to four “others”. It’s up to you and your adviser who these “others” are, but at least one of the “others” should be an external committee member — that is, someone certainly not from your department and probably not from your university.
In picking your two to four others, it is important to keep in mind that this is a great opportunity to work with and impress people who would typically be out-of-reach . It is also an opportunity to get good recommendation letters for your job hunt.
So, this is where things get tricky. First, you need to have some idea of what you would like to do when you graduate. At this point, you may not know exactly where you want to go. But, you probably know whether or not an academic position is even in the cards.
If an academic position is something you would consider (or, even, only consider), you should pick committee members that meet some or all of the following: (1) they should be known entities in your field; (2) they should either be professors or research scientists in an industry or government lab that publishes; and, (3) they should ideally work at an institution where you, yourself, would like to work. If your adviser is relatively junior, you might also consider selecting someone senior with name recognition .
Having recently served on an academic job search committee as a student representative, I can tell you that recommendation letters can make or break candidates. Take this opportunity to get letter writers who can help you get your dream job.
If an academic position is not something you would consider, then you have a couple of other decisions to make. What would you like to do after you graduate? Ideally, you would get someone on your committee who could help you get a position where you would like to work. If you’d like to work at a specific industry or government research lab, reach out to someone from that lab. If you’d like to work at a company in a non-research position, pick someone who has ties to that company (if possible). If you’d like to spin-off of your own start up, pick someone who has run a successful start-up as an academic.
Remember, committee selection is a great opportunity to meet and work with people with whom you would like to meet or work. Take advantage of it.
Committee members are gatekeepers and will shape your thesis
To be a bit more crass, your committee members are ultimately the people who will determine if and when you graduate. So, they will be at least partially responsible for how easy or difficult your life will be this next year or two.
In my opinion, the first point trumps this one. For example, I do not recommend picking “easy” committee members (or, as my adviser calls them, “warm bodies”) just because they are easy. Again, committee selection is an opportunity you should not waste. Still, if your goal is just to finish your Ph.D. and leave Research, you might consider picking committee members who will not be fussy about the details.
Another thing to consider is that because your committee are your gatekeepers, they will necessarily shape the work you do. An experimentalist will want and notice very different things than a system builder who will not want and notice very different things than a designer. There is some benefit to picking one of each — your work will be more well rounded and better for it. But, doing so will also make your life more difficult.
In my opinion, if your goal is a Research position, you should select a diverse committee. Having a variety of perspectives will broaden your own approach to Research and will generally improve the quality of your work (which will also likely be the brunt of your job talks). If you do not care for a Research position after you graduate, however, consider stacking your committee with people who have jobs that you would want to do yourself. Committee members in non-Research positions will generally understand where you are coming from and probably will not be sticklers for the details.
Committee members have their attention spread thin and will forget about you unless you update them regularly
Professors are scatter-brained. Apart from your adviser, no one else in your committee will think about you or your work for more than the few hours or days right around the time you propose and defend. Unless you force them. You should force them.
You should update your committee regularly for at least two reasons. First, presumably you selected your committee because you wanted to work with those people or impress those people. You won’t be doing the former and probably won’t be doing the latter if you only contact them when it’s time to propose or defend. It takes time to build mutual respect and understanding, and you want each of your committee members to understand who you are and what you do well before it’s time for them to make a decision about whether or not you should pass.
Second, you want to be very well aware of what they think are the strengths and weaknesses of your work by the time of your presentation. The most difficult part of the proposal is fielding questions. If a committee member asks you a question about your (proposed) work that you cannot answer during your proposal, then that can leave a bad impression on both you and your adviser. So, keep them updated on your progress and plans. Ask them specific questions about what they think needs to be improved and the questions they are mulling about your work. Then, prepare yourself for those questions.
Scheduling a date is the hardest part
By the way, you are also completely beholden to all of your committee members’ schedules. Think it’s hard to schedule one meeting with one professor? Try getting three to five in a single room at the same time for an hour and a half, when one of them is in another city or country. It is not easy.
I finished my proposal document in early November of 2015, thinking I would propose in December. I proposed in March of 2016, because that was the only time all four of my committee members were available for an hour and a half.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much advice for you here. I can tell you what I did: I created a doodle with many different potential time blocks and sent it to my whole committee. They had no overlapping times they could agree on so I had to send follow-up e-mails to get them to agree on a time. Then, when I thought I had finally found a time that worked for everyone, it turned out that there were constraints in my department that prevented me from having my proposal at that time. So, I had to restart the process of finding a mutually agreeable time and then hope that there was a room available.
Be prepared to use some coercion tactics. You probably can twist your adviser’s arm a bit to accommodate everyone else’s schedule, but the best advice I can give you is: get all of your committee members to agree on three different time blocks within two months and then pray that there is a room available and no departmental conflicts on your end. Good luck.
This is the first of a three-part series. In the next few posts, I hope to talk about actually writing your proposal document and presenting the proposal to your committee. Hope this post helped a bit, though. Stay tuned!
 In my experience, few people turn down being on a dissertation committee because it is relatively low cost and is viewed as an admirable form of community service. From your committee’s perspective, you are also a potential colleague who would be good for them to know.
 I know the traditional advice for letters is don’t get a lukewarm letter from a famous person when you can get a glowing letter from a non-famous person. I do agree with this advice. But, in the process of proposing and doing your dissertation Research, you have a chance of impression the famous person and convincing them to write you a glowing recommendation letter. That’s the best of both worlds.
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