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01/06/2022

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TT

I had 3 people on my committee and only ever worked with my primary advisor. Like the first time the other two members of my committee saw a single completed piece of my dissertation was for the defense, lol. (They were there for the prospectus, too, but that's considerably different.)

I get along perfectly fine with the other two, and they liked my work, but just as a matter of convention I only actually ever showed work to my primary advisor. The defense went fine and I got job letters from everyone else on the committee just fine as well. Even got some outside letters from people that didn't even read the dissertation, just read published work.

Overall, I think Mike is totally correct in saying that this isn't a problem UNLESS there's some reason to think that this other faculty member straight-up doesn't like your work for some reason. So that's what I'd figure out.

Also, in general, I want to add that in general the dissertation and all things surrounding one's dissertation are a Very Not-Big Deal. In my experience, and from what I have observed in I'd say 95% of cases, one's dissertation is a purely functional object. Nobody really cares how good your dissertation is or what your faculty think *of your dissertation*. The dissertation is primarily a tool to (1) get publications and (2) convince people outside of your institution, presumably on the job market, that you are capable of constructing and pursuing a unified research programme. In my view, it kinda misses the point to be so worried about getting feedback *on the dissertation* -- just get feedback on whatever individual chapters/papers you think are best, and try to publish them, and just make sure the rest are at least halfway coherent and you'll be fine.

David O. Brink

The advice offered by Mike Titelbaum and Marcus seems very sensible. Since you don't describe the committee member in question as your chair, I assume that they are not. But then, as Mike and Marcus note, committee culture varies across programs and individuals. It is not uncommon for secondary committee members to participate primarily at the candidacy exam and the defense. Not only is this not abnormal but also it's compatible with them reading your thesis carefully at those times, offering good feedback, and eventually writing a good letter of recommendation. You need to decide if this is likely true of the committee member in question. To do that, you need to have discreet conversations with some faculty or graduate students who are in a position to know and whom you trust. Normally, one tries to figure these things out in advance of constituting a committee. But that doesn't always work out. Presumably, the most important person to consult is your primary supervisor -- this is just the sort of role they are supposed to play in that capacity. Maybe your supervisor can provide reassurance or can intervene with the other committee member to be more responsive. Failing these things, your supervisor might have advice about alternate committee members or about how best to proceed.

I will add that dropping a committee member who has expertise relevant to the thesis after a candidacy exam can be a tricky business. But I have seen it done successfully, I think, where subsequent to the candidacy exam the student worked especially closely with someone else not on the committee with relevant expertise.

Been There

As someone who has changed the constitution of my dissertation committee after it was formed, I can add two points:

1) Your mental health matters! Part of why I changed my committee was that, as it was constituted, it contributed to a great deal of anxiety, depression, and angst. If that committee member doesn't work for you as a human being, that's important!

2) In retrospect, reconstituting my committee was particularly (though not completely) painless because I did with plenty of time left in my program. This was helpful because the awkwardness of the process eventually went away, and after a couple of years, relationships were repaired. In fact, relationships are now much better than they ever were with my prior committee because there was a lot of tension and expectations around the committee itself.

To me, if you've put this much time into changing things up, then you should probably do it! Part of what's amazing about grad school is working with professors you think are awesome, and I don't think it's worthwhile to deny yourself that joy in service of some conception of how things are (or at least we're told) "supposed to be."

been there too

I was in a similar position as a graduate student. This person was someone who worked in my area in my department and suddenly stopped replying to my emails and giving me feedback. As I was approaching the end of my program (and was preparing to be on the market) I requested a letter from them hoping our past interactions would have sufficed despite the lack of communication for a year+. They didn’t reply to that either so with my advisor as a mediator I removed them from my committee.

Several years out of grad school, it was never an issue that this person wasn’t on my committee and didn’t have a letter for me, but I did have letters from other faculty who were able to line them up for me on short notice, and there were many other people working in my area in my department so I guess it didn’t look too odd to not have this one person on it.

Had all that not been the case, though, it would have been a big problem for job applications and probably eventually for completing all of the time sensitive aspects of scheduling the defence and doing the post-defence paperwork. So I guess in my experience, keeping someone like this on your committee can end up being a liability. It also caused me a lot of stress and anxiety to deal with the whole situation, and I felt better not having this person on my committee at all.

My advice if you can’t get rid of them is to make sure you put yourself in a position where you have ample options as far as letter writers go, and make sure other people on your committee will intervene and advocate for you in case things go sour at the defence or this person becomes non-responsive when it’s time to submit paperwork.

anon

Like Been There, I changed the composition of my committee, and it was really good for my mental health. I did it twice actually: once early, once late, but I started with a big committee, so only needed one "replacement".

One of the members who I replaced was merely distant, and the other one was much worse. Maybe they didn't like the fact that I dropped them. I'm not sure, and they never complained about it to my face, anyways. But it was the right decision for me.

About some of the above comments, which advise the OP to be content with distant members who manage to write a good letter anyways. I think it's mostly good advice, as long as the future letter is actually positive, and there's actually no good reason to be concerned about the distant member.

I also think it's sort of disappointing for it to be normal to expect so little of someone who was supposed to be one of your mentors, and that in a better version of our profession, this wouldn't be normal. And I also wish that I'd been told about the current normal back when I started my program, so I could have expected less of some of my committee members, and been less concerned about things.

FC

My experience is similar to that of others above. My committee had four members. My director read everything, and we had many conversations. Another member sent me thorough notes on each chapter draft, while a third sent a few notes on a few chapter drafts. A fourth, my outside reader, asked to see only the final product, which was fine with the rest of us.

All three philosophers on my committee wrote recommendations for me. I had taken many courses with them, had spent time with them committees and in department meetings, and had had my teaching reviewed by them, so they could talk about more than my dissertation.

I also got a recommendation from someone who was not on my committee, and who did not work in my AOS. I claimed an AOC in his AOS, and his letter backed me up (based on coursework and conversations).

Fwiw, in my experience on search committees, it is not unusual for the dissertation director to talk a lot about a candidate's project and for others to talk more about the candidate in other ways (e.g., classwork, committees, teaching, community service, collegiality).

Also fwiw, a grad student colleague of mine disinvited her director from her committee, in a way. She was a year into her project when she and her director had a disagreement so deep that they decided to end it. She started a new dissertation with a different director in a different area.

Newly Dr

I'd just like to add another vote for finding a replacement first. Then you can say "this person fits better with the direction of the thesis", but I'd love to keep discussing work with you when you have time.

I have personal experience with this. One member of my panel I basically never talked to (I think I met them two or three times in my first year, nothing after that). I left them on my panel for years since it didn't seem to do any harm. But then a new faculty member joined our department who was more closely related to my project and so I asked them to replace the other panel member for the last 6 months. In this case the person I was replacing/getting rid of was much much more famous than the new faculty member. But I was concerned about what someone noted above: if someone's name is on your thesis they might get asked about it informally, and then it isn't good if they don't remember who you are/don't like you.

In the end I was pretty sure said famous person didn't even remember they were on my panel, so I just had them replaced with the new person without even informing them.

My partner has also gone through an even more intense version of this: they were really struggling with their primary supervisor/chair for quite a while. But in the end they did the same thing and found someone else to replace their chair with. No one seemed to be offended at all. In fact, we both suspect that the old chair was relieved to be rid of a student they didn't really get along with, and the new chair has been fantastic. This did involve a minor change in direction of the thesis, but not a massive one.

Finally, I will echo again something others have said: you need to look after your mental health. And not because it is more important then your career, but because it is required for your career. I'm almost certain that you'll have an easier time writing your thesis, and therefore be more likely to do well and get great letters, if you aren't worrying about this.

yes, I am a YPAP

I agree with many of the comments above, but just wanted to add an addendum to Mike Titelbaum's point about the people actually on your committee vs. those who are helping you with your work. Here's a bad scenario I've seen many times: famous old man (FOM) who does nothing for a department (no service, shirks grad advising responsibilities, etc.) is asked to be on a committee. Student understandably does not want to kick FOM off of committee. Younger, possibly assistant professor (YPAP), often a woman or BIPOC, works with the student, seriously investing their time and energy into helping the student's work improve. YPAP ends up getting no credit for their work--or ends up listed as 4th or 5th member, with FOM still listed as, say, second reader or even advisor. This adds to the long list of YPAP's "soft service" they don't get credit or recognition for. YPAP has a weaker tenure case, or case for going up for full, than they should on the basis of many small things like this adding up to overworking YPAP without any concrete things to show for it. The profession, department, and university continue to reward FOM, while YPAP's career is potentially in danger. When you're navigating these choices, please try not to do this to YPAP!

Graddo

Thank you all so much for these comments and advice. They have seriously reoriented my thinking on this issue. The distant committee member is not my primary advisor. I suppose that part of the issue is that I am simply angry and resentful that the absentee committee member has the power to influence my future in ways *I* can't influence or even know about. My best course of action may indeed be to leave them on my committee and just make sure I have other letter-writers available, or add a committee member without taking this person off. But I will indeed have to weigh this against my mental health. I do wish someone in my department would have told me whether it is standard or at least common to have such distant committee members; what I don't want to happen is to get crushing feedback from this person that is impossible to address at the last moment. This is based on the assumption that if I got feedback on time, then I could address any problems, thereby raising committee member's view of my work and potentially raising the quality of the endorsement I get. I don't appreciate this not being an option. (And regarding YPAP's comment: the social justice issue is not applicable in my case as you outlined it b/c of the seniority and social identities of my various committee members.) Anyway, THANK YOU.

Karl

Speak with the chair of your department.

Bill Vanderburgh

I would add that Graddo should immediately speak with their supervisor about this. If it comes down to the difficult moment of actually firing the committee member, that's where the director of graduate studies can be a serious help. You shouldn't have to have the conversation with the soon-to-be-ex-member at all.

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