Five Tips for Making the Most of Your Dissertation Committee

Five Tips for Making the Most of Your Dissertation Committee

I was fortunate to have had Dr. John Creswell as my dissertation advisor. He was instructive on how to form a committee that “works.” By that, he meant that the committee works for the topic, works as a functional and integrated group, and works to aid the doctoral candidate in developing and improving as a scholar/practitioner/leader.

Here are some tips for making the most out of your dissertation committee:

1. Perform a Self-Assessment

Making the most out of your dissertation committee begins with some self-assessment concerning your topic and your personal style of working and relating. What are the expectations you hold for your dissertation chair, your committee, and yourself? Have you discussed these with your chair?  Selecting an advisor requires you to make an honest assessment of your working style. Are you expecting to be micro-managed, but have a Chair and committee that expects self-leadership? Do you work best when given a clear task and left to work on your own and yet have a chair and committee that insist on micromanaging you? No matter the scenario, clear communication with the chair and committee (where expectations have been clearly articulated) is the first step in getting the most out of your committee.  

2. Know Your Committee

If you have a committee that is formed and functional, it’s largely due to their interest in your topic and/or method. The easiest way to keep your committee engaged is by appealing to their interests. How do you do that? By knowing who your committee members are and what they are researching or have researched. Where do their passions lie? What are their pet peeves?

Most doctoral candidates see this as a one-way conduit – “they are there to help me.”  Remember, your committee should be enthusiastic about your dissertation topic. That means while you are doing your research you might just uncover something of interest to one or more of your committee members. The easiest way to engage your committee is to get them discussing what they are passionate about. Which, conveniently, should be what you’re passionate about.

3. Keep the Committee Informed of Your Progress

Don’t let the weeks and months roll by without contacting your committee to inform them of your progress. Instead, become a critically reflective practitioner. Make it a point to periodically update your committee concerning where you are most engaged currently, where you’re struggling and what you’re doing to overcome that, what has surprised you most in your research and/or its development, and what major benchmarks or accomplishments have been achieved.

Always vet any communication to your committee through your chair. The committee chair should be involved with any communications with your committee. The time span is largely up to you, but I recommend monthly.

4. Ask for Focused Help

Knowing your committee and their interest and research allows the doctoral candidate to know the content and methodological resources and knowledge base resting within the committee. It allows the candidate to smartly query the committee for help when it becomes necessary.  This is not manipulation, this is developing a working relationship through taking the time to know their work and interests.

5. Be a Professional

Your committee is likely populated by engaged scholars and practitioners in their field. These are people who are often in high demand, who hold engaged and often aggressive work agendas. Be respectful of their time – honor it! Don’t ignore their advice even if you disagree with it. The easiest way to shut down a committee member is to not value their efforts. If you do not agree then this is the place to support and defend your position. Not by opinion, but through diligent research. I guarantee that, while they may not agree with you or your assertions, they will respect you for the thoughtful effort. Keep in mind that, when you walk across that stage on graduation day, what we are saying to you is, “welcome colleague.” Begin your journey towards becoming my colleague today.


Darcel Gibson's picture Darcel Gibson | September 25, 2015 3:39 pm MST

This article is very informative and I can definitely apply this.

Paula Miller's picture Paula Miller | May 19, 2017 8:37 am MST

Dear Dr. McCaslin,

I enjoyed reading your blog of tips for making the most of the dissertation committee. Your wonderful ideas

should be shared with all students entering the doctoral program dissertation phase. Many students do not

make a self-assessment and therefore believe the dissertation is similar to general classes. I found that

"having  a motivitating topic is important for the student to select and maintain for 4+ years." I felt very proud

when I recently was asked for advice from a professor who had a student who was troubled with the

dissertation process.

Have a wonderful day!

Dr. Paula Miller

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