Degree In Sight

Three to five people will decide whether your graduate school career will culminate in a diploma or six years as an underpaid research assistant. Here's some advice for picking a dissertation committee:

When choosing a chair

At most universities, the chair guides you through the dissertation process. This person is the first to read and critique every step of your capstone project, from the proposal to the final product. An ideal dissertation chair is like a friend who points out the toilet paper stuck to your shoe before you step on stage—brutally honest and on your side. Before picking your chair:

  • Interview prospective chairs. Ask fellow students about their experiences with people you have in mind as potential chairs. Then ask the professors themselves about their philosophies on supervision and techniques for moving the dissertation process along, says Guimond. And perhaps most important, feel out whether the candidate truly has time to advise you, she says.

  • Find a believer. The best dissertation chairs understand and are excited by your dissertation proposal, Guimond says. At the same time, a good chair can prepare you for the questions other committee members are likely to ask. But when it's time for your defense, you want someone who will back you up and support the decisions you made together. "A chair should be your toughest critic and your biggest advocate," Guimond says.

When choosing a committee

Dissertation committees typically have two to four members in addition to the chair. Like the chair, committee members' roles vary. Some act as consultants

  • Read the regulations. "First and foremost, students should really research what the departmental rules are," says Sharon Lee Foster, PhD, a professor at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University. Some schools allow psychologists from outside the university to serve on committees, and others don't. Many programs insist that at least one committee member come from outside your department. Talk with your chair and check your departmental handbook to learn the guidelines.

  • Meet the candidates. "Ideally, you will have actually worked with the person or been in one of their classes," says Robert Sternberg, PhD, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. If you haven't worked together, consider grabbing coffee, "or better, a few cups over time," he says. "The chemistry of how you respond to the person and how they respond to you is important."

  • Ask around. How people acted on their last committee is a good indication of how they will act on yours, says Sternberg. Ask recent grads which professors made good suggestions and responded to questions in a timely manner.

  • Find team players. Sometimes, power struggles between faculty members get played out in dissertation committees, and students pay the price. To head off academic infighting, vet a list of potential members with your chair and other faculty members, says Foster. Be honest and say that you're looking for people who are likely to get along.

  • Get the expertise you need. Foster recommends seeking people who understand your research project, your methods and your analytical techniques—be they statistical or qualitative. It's also helpful to nab someone who can speak to the real-world demands of your work, she says. "Suppose you're getting your participants from a community clinic," Foster says. "Maybe the ... director of that clinic might be able to sit on your committee."

  • Embrace a challenge. Foster remembers one student who chose professors with high expectations to serve on her committee. "The other graduate students said to her, ‘Are you nuts?'" Foster recalls. That student is now on the faculty at Stanford University. "She knew that people were going to ask her harder questions, but she also knew she would end up with a better project in the end," says Foster.

By Jessica Gould

Jessica Gould is a writer in Washington, D.C.