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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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


I am in a loosely similar situation, except that mine is actually far worse. My dissertation topic is in a scientific field of research that is relatively new. My issue is mainly with one member of a five-member dissertation committee. However, this member effectively has two votes on the committee, because he insisted I put one of his friends on my committee (cleverly knowing ahead of time) that his friend would always vote in lockstep with him. As such he now has an effective veto over my academic progress, and to break his hold over me, I would need to remove not just him, but his friend as well from my committee. To compound the matter, he is the most well-known expert in this field of science in the university, so he is not easily replaced as a subject matter expert. Furthermore, the underlying data I am using for my research comes for the medical records of his patients, and so even though I did all the work in building the many years-long clinical database I need for my dissertation project, I fear that if I try to remove him (and his friend too) from my committee, he may insist the underlying data in the database I have built is his intellectual property because the patients were his, and thus stop me from using even the datasets I created. Also, even though he is not the Chair of my committee and has never been, he is my direct supervisor in my ongoing job as a graduate student researcher. I work in labs that he supervises, and as such he is a de facto (even if not a de jure) committee Chair. Indeed, he has so much power over me that I think the power has gone to his head, such that he is now acting as if I am his intellectual slave, and he has every right to determine what I study, when I study, when I advance to candidacy, when I would schedule a date for my final oral defense, which peer-review journals I submit my research findings/manuscripts to for a review, and/or when I would graduate from the program, etc. What would any one of you, who may have read this brief summary of my truly awful situation, advise me to do to extricate myself from this quite abusive, psychologically stressful, mentally debilitating, and intellectually exploitative academic relationship? Thanks in advance for your kind responses!


@Boni: this thread is over a year old so you may not get many eyeballs on it. (I only saw it because your comment showed up in the "recent comments" sidebar.) If you want to amplify your reach I suggest putting the comment in the most recent "how can we help you?" thread.

It's impossible to give a specific answer to your question (it sounds like you are maybe a scientist, since you work in a lab? At the very least this is unusual for philosophers, so I'm not sure which of our professional norms apply in your situation) and of course institutional culture can vary widely between countries, universities, and departments.

That being said, I think some general advice makes sense. First, do you have a DGS or other departmental advocate (perhaps the chair? or even a graduate school dean or assistant dean?) you can talk to about your situation? Is there a reason you cannot talk to your committee chair about these problems? If you don't feel that you can talk to ANYONE in the university, at the very least I think it makes sense to seek help from counseling/psychological services so you can get strategies for managing the mental stress of the situation.

Do you have evidence that this person truly intends to keep you from graduating? How far along are you in the program? Would it make sense to change projects or even apply to transfer to a different program (even if this option sets you back a year or two)? Does it make more sense to grind through and finish? Or would it be possible to take a break for a year and come back to these questions? What employment options are open to you if you quit?

You may feel helpless (and it is OK, and probably reasonable, to feel this way!) but remember that your fate is still in your hands. You have three options: you can try to change something, you can keep the course and try to finish ASAP, or you can quit. The bad news is that there is no secret fourth option. The good news is that there are no wrong choices. But only you can figure out what is right for your career. Talk it through with someone you trust, and good luck!


@Boni, You are not alone. I run into the same issue as you have now. 1) famous professor in the sub-medical field; 2) powerful in the scientific community; 3) the research data I am using come from that person; 4) that person insisted me adding one of his friends into my committee at the beginning; 5) too much controlling over everything I do. Yes, think me as his intellectual slave; 6) I am also his research assistant.

He is my dissertation committee member and act as the de facto chair, although I have my own academic advisor and chair. I feel this is a trap for me, and working with him causes me a lot of mental stress and anxiety.I have to go to see mental therapist and psychologist after every meeting with him. I used to have a lot of passion in research; however, not any more after I start to work with him. It became so complicated because things are intertwined together. I know I could not make everyone happy under this circumstances; The only thing I could do is 1) find a new topic/direction 2) reconstitute committee, as I know I will have to quit the program if I let this situation continues.

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