I come from a long line of people who make or fix stuff. Whether it is construction or surgery – building an airport or medical procedures – we plan and measure carefully. Measure twice, cut once. That’s our motto. Surprisingly enough I found this an important lesson when selecting my dissertation committee.
The following are my thoughts about how to make an informed decision about your committee. Whereas you are the one doing the research – they’ve already written a dissertation and don’t need to do it again - these members serve the essential role of helping you construct a viable study, ensure rigor and guide you through the process.
Get your feet wet. Find out your faculty’s interests by inquiring about their research pursuits, reading publications, and paying attention to research announcements on your campus. Understand their willingness to do qualitative versus quantitative research. Browse dissertations they have served on, ProQuest allows you to search by faculty member, or read theirs. If anything this exercise may make you enormously grateful for word processors. My chair’s was beautifully yet painstakingly typed! Contribute to a research team – collect data, attend meetings, conduct literature searches, etc. If you get involved in this manner you may find a dissertation opportunity or a potential committee member right under your nose.
Ask questions and be prepared. Know what areas of research you are interested in. The golden rule of working with faculty is to make an appointment and come equipped to talk (and listen) about ideas. My experience in selecting a committee chair began by writing a faculty member about possible internship opportunities. After having done my homework about topics I was interested in, where I might want to work, and how I could uniquely contribute, I made an appointment and talked with him. This, along with the gift of good timing, allowed me to find the ideal internship and eventually a chair. Through this experience I was able to explore how my current chair collaborates with students outside of the classroom.
Ask more questions. These are the ones I didn’t ask but, in hindsight, probably should have. When you have a general idea about topics and faculty you might want to work with, inquire about how they work as part of a committee. Ask about past research, how many committees they are or will be serving on, what their expectations of students are and how they would best describe their working style. Inquire about sabbaticals or other plans which would interfere with your dissertation. Don’t be afraid to ask “Do you feel you have any plans which may impact your availability to chair/serve on a committee?” I realize it may be challenging for students to “interview” their faculty members but, as a counselor, you can find a way to sincerely ask these questions.
Stack the deck. Some advice given to me was to find an expert in the field, someone who was well versed in my research methodology and a person close to my program. Whereas it is ideal to have all of these in each committee member, everyone will have different ways in which they want to contribute. Having two experts on your topic, for example, might not be the best way to get the dissertation completed in a timely manner. Also, making sure that your committee members can work together effectively is also worth considering.
Make a decision. My grandmother used to say “If you chase two rabbits both will escape”. An informed decision about a committee will include carefully thinking about the issues presented above and making a decision when the time is right. Remember, you don’t have to ask or figure out everything all at once. Your best bet is practical collaboration with faculty which will allow you to find out if your styles and interests match. So follow your gut, ask questions, gather information, collaborate with faculty and make a decision.
Stephanie Dailey is a counselor, adjunct faculty and doctoral candidate at Argosy University-Washington, D.C.