MythBusters: The Thesis Committee

To continue (somewhat) a thought I touched upon on my previous blog post on the juggling act that is grad school, I wanted to highlight something that most grad students find annoying at best and terrifying at worst: the thesis committee, and the annual thesis committee meeting. For first year PhD students who have yet to take their qualifying exams, your thesis committee is a group of scientists/faculty who, along with your PI, will mentor you throughout the thesis phase of grad school. Your committee will decide whether, firstly, you pass your oral qualifying exam and become a PhD candidate, and on the other side of the grad school tunnel, whether you pass your thesis defense and receive your degree. Little wonder that the thought of your committee rarely brings comfort. However, my goal today is to attempt to bust several myths about the thesis committee, and hopefully, allow students to see their committee members in a new and positive light.

MYTH:  Annual committee meetings are a waste of time. The annual committee meetings are only a requirement you have to fulfill, but is not necessarily helpful. Your committee doesn’t really know, or care about your thesis.

FACT: Annual (or bi-annual) meetings with your thesis committee is actually extremely helpful in ensuring that your thesis is progressing at a good pace. At the very beginning, when you are just proposing your project aims, your committee can provide valuable feedback and make sure your objectives are sound and you are asking answerable questions. As you work towards completing your project, the committee meetings can be a sort of roadway check-up, to make sure you are on track. And while your thesis adviser is also there to provide guidance, sometimes you and your adviser can be too close to the work that you sometimes forget to see the bigger picture. In addition to this, your committee members can provide you with a fresh perspective on your work.

MYTH: Your committee wants you to fail. Committee meetings are annual “exams” you have to take, and your committee members are examiners with the goal of making sure you fail.

FACT: While it is true that your committee is there to intellectually challenge you and your scientific reasoning, their goal is not to fail you, but instead to sharpen your analytical reasoning, and make sure you are developing into a good scientist. They do ask the hard questions, but these are necessary. Your data needs to be challenged, the rationale behind your experiments need to be questioned. They are not trying to be mean, they are merely honing your skills.

MYTH: You only need to talk to your committee members once a year. The fewer contacts with your committee, the better.

FACT: More frequent discussions with your committee is helpful in ensuring you finish your project in a timely manner. Getting more feedback along the way can improve your thesis as a whole, whether it be a suggested experiment, or an analysis of your data that you have not thought of. Your committee offers their own individual expertise on improving your overall project. While the Rutgers graduate school recommends you set committee meetings twice a year, I think that you should reach out to your committee outside of these meetings. Pick their minds, and utilize this amazing resource available to you. They are there to help and guide you as you learn to become a scientist. And more importantly, they will be your colleagues in the future, and establishing a relationship with them provides you with a valuable foundation of scientific expertise and a start for your professional network.

Think of it this way: while it is true that your PhD thesis is your own individual work, and you are the driver of how and where your study ends up, it is at the same time a mental collaboration between you, your adviser, and your thesis committee. So good luck, and I hope you’re looking forward to that next committee meeting!

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