Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

How To Assemble Your Dissertation Committee


Graduate school is full of complicated assignments and difficult decisions, and most graduate students have developed a process they follow when faced with a daunting task. Since choosing your dissertation committee is one of your most consequential scholarly decisions, you might want to try something besides your standard operating procedure. If it's time to select your dissertation committee but you don't even know where to start, follow the following seven tips to select a stellar dissertation committee.

What is a dissertation committee?

A dissertation committee is a carefully selected group of people who will provide feedback and guidance as you research and compose your dissertation. It is important to pick a balanced group of people for your committee, because these people will help shape your research and ultimately, they will determine whether your dissertation is complete enough to earn you the coveted Ph.D. title.

What does a dissertation committee do?

Dissertation committee members will read sections of your dissertation and provide extensive feedback at various points in your process. They will identify weak arguments and challenge your assertions, with the understanding that you will use their feedback to craft a strong dissertation backed with exceptional research. Make sure to choose people capable of providing constructive feedback, because committee members will expect you to resolve their previous concerns by the next time they review your work.

Many graduate students cringe at the thought of asking faculty members to serve on their dissertation committees, because they erroneously think they're asking potential members for a favor. While serving on your dissertation committee will require members to invest time and effort, it is actually one of their professional responsibilities as faculty members. Keep this in mind as you create your list of possible committee members.

Now that you have a better understanding of the purpose of your dissertation committee, follow these seven essential steps to choose an effective dissertation committee.

1. Review your department's requirements

Consult your departments guidelines to determine how many people you need to select for your dissertation committee and identify any necessary qualifications for committee members. Requirements vary based on your department: Some departments and universities require faculty members to make up a certain portion of the committee while others might require a percentage of the committee to come from external institutions or from your specific industry.

2. Ask for recommendations

  • Ask your advisor if he or she has any recommendations that you should consider for your committee. Your advisor is most likely already invested in you and your research topic, and aside from you, probably has the best understanding of your dissertation topic and your ultimate goals. Your advisor will hopefully have established strong relationships with other faculty members in your department, so he or she should have valuable suggestions for you to consider. Your advisor will probably also serve on your committee (and might even serve as the committee chair), so it will be worthwhile to consider people that you know will work well with your advisor.
  • Ask your fellow graduate students if they can recommend any potential candidates for your dissertation committee. If you have friends who have already selected their dissertation committee, try to learn from their experiences. Ask how they selected their committee members and if they encountered anyone that might be a good fit for you. Friends can also give you tips if a favorite faculty member is going on sabbatical soon or is too busy to serve on any additional committees.

3. Make a list of your ideal committee members

  • Professors and teachers you respect and value
  • Faculty members who have shaped your understanding of your subject matter
  • Industry experts in your field
  • People who will broaden your networking circles: If you plan to seek a career in industry after earning your PhD, select at least one committee member with extensive contacts in your preferred industry (if your department's guidelines allow external members on your committee). Additionally, if you choose well-connected committee members, they might be able to introduce you to future collaborators or suggest research areas you have not yet considered.
  • People with strong communication skills
  • People who will challenge and inspire you

4. Present your list to your advisor and ask for feedback

As you research and write your dissertation, you will seek feedback from your advisor frequently, and you will get some good old-fashioned practice at this during the committee selection process. In Step 2, your advisor recommended a handful of candidates for your committee. Since then, you have added more names to your list, so ask your advisor for feedback on your complete choices. Here are some questions you might want to consider asking:

  • Is there anyone on the list who is difficult to work with and might impede your dissertation progress?
  • Does your list include someone who is already serving on multiple committees and won't be able to give you the time and attention you deserve?
  • Are there any knowledge gaps in your list? In other words, have you included two or three people from the same specialty, which means you probably overlooked including a candidate from another important sector?
  • Does your advisor possess personal or professional information that might lead you to exclude any candidates? Don't be nosy here—you don't need to know the reason, just trust your advisor if he or she tells you that someone you should probably remove someone from your list.

5. Ask your top candidates for a meeting

Email your preferred candidates a brief summary of your research topic and ask if you can schedule an appointment to discuss the possibility of them serving on your dissertation committee. If candidates don't reply to your email within a reasonable time frame, assume that they are too busy to serve on a dissertation committee and remove them from your candidate list. Similarly, if a candidate does not have any availability to meet with you during your selected time frame, that candidate is likely overbooked. You might want to take this as a sign and scratch this person off your list.

6. Meet with your top candidates

If a candidate responded promptly, agreed on a time to meet, and followed through on the meeting, chances are high that he or she is reliable and will be able to fit you into a busy schedule. Remember, you are interviewing this person for to serve on the committee that will have the final say in whether you complete your dissertation and earn your Ph.D. Approach the meeting as if you are interviewing them for a position on your payroll.

Create a list of questions to gauge candidates' knowledge about your topic and to get an idea of their communication styles. Asking the same questions in every meeting will highlight the candidates' similarities and differences, and you can use this information to assemble a compatible group of experts. Ideally, each member of your committee will contribute a different type of knowledge or expertise, so treat these meetings as if you are interviewing to fill a specific role on your team.

After each meeting, take a moment to write down your assessments of the candidate and anything that stands out from the meeting. If a candidate stimulated your mind and offered valuable suggestions during an initial meeting, write that down and make a mark to signify that you definitely want that person on your committee.

In contrast, if you feel an abundance of negativity while meeting with a candidate, it's probably best to eliminate that person from your list of potentials. Choosing who serves on your dissertation committee is one of the most important decisions of your academic career, and you have a better chance of success if you assemble a group of people who challenge and inspire you in positive ways.

7. Ask candidates to join your committee

After you've met with all of your possible candidates, use your post-meeting notes to evaluate your options and create a compatible team. Send a separate email to each potential member and highlight a few reasons that you think he or she will be an ideal choice for your dissertation committee. Explain that you are currently in the process of gathering your dissertation committee and ask candidates to give you an answer by a (reasonable) deadline.

If you decided after a meeting that a candidate was not a good fit for your committee, send a follow up email and thank the person for meeting with you. After expressing your appreciation, state that you have filled all positions on your dissertation committee at this time. If applicable, you might consider asking if you can consult him or her if you have questions while working on your dissertation.

Follow the seven steps above if you want to assemble a dissertation committee composed of experts who will guide you towards a successful dissertation. You're already off to a great start.

Header photo by Luckybusiness.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.