What’s the optimal composition of a graduate supervisory committee?

What’s the optimal composition of a graduate supervisory committee? I’m not sure. But here are some thoughts, please share yours.

It’s essential that all your committee members be decent, reasonable people who get along with one another and with you. You don’t want to get caught in the crossfire of fights between your committee members. And you don’t want your progress to be made unnecessarily difficult because one of your committee members has unreasonable expectations.

Beyond that, I think the ideal committee has a diversity of expertise and interests, and includes at least one smart generalist who doesn’t necessarily do anything directly relevant to the thesis. Anecdotally, I think students tend to overrate the importance of having committee members with specialized expertise directly relevant to their thesis research, and underrate the value of smart generalists. Your committee’s most important role is not to help you deal with purely technical issues like choosing the right error distribution for your GLM. Your committee’s most important role is to ask you good questions and offer good suggestions that you and your supervisor wouldn’t have thought of on your own and to which you can’t just look up the answer. Your committee members also are a good source of mentoring and career guidance.

For instance, my committee included Bob Holt.* I wanted Bob because he’d written the theoretical model I was planning to test for my thesis. This was a very understandable reason for wanting Bob on my committee. But in retrospect, it wasn’t a good reason. I didn’t need Bob to explain his model to me. But having a smart generalist like Bob suggest that I read Deborah Mayo’s book on philosophy of statistics just because it would be interesting and thought-provoking was hugely valuable to me. Having a smart generalist like Bob write reference letters for me was hugely valuable when it came time to apply for faculty positions. Having a smart generalist like Bob become a friend and mentor remains hugely valuable to me today.  Unfortunately, “put Bob Holt on your committee” is not scalable advice. But “put a smart generalist like Bob Holt on your committee” is at least somewhat scalable advice.

Yes, it’s possible for a committee to be too broad, so that nobody really understands what you’re doing well enough to give you useful advice. And yes, there are circumstances in which it’s essential that a committee include particular technical expertise. For instance, several of my students have worked in systems in which I’ve never worked myself. I always make sure those students have someone on their committee who has expertise in the chosen system, since otherwise there’d be a serious risk of technical mistakes. But typically, I don’t think it’s the best idea to think of your committee as a bunch of technical consultants. You and your supervisor ordinarily will be the technical experts on the committee.

*He was my external committee member. This gets into another topic that’s probably worth a separate post, because the role of the external committee member(s) varies from place to place. Here at Calgary, the external examiner only joins the committee a few weeks in advance of the defense and their only role is to read and evaluate the thesis. I think that’s how things are usually done in Canada (Canadian colleagues: please correct me if I’m wrong on this). I hate this way of doing things and much prefer the US system. I think the Canadian system cheats students out of an important source of advice and mentorship without any compensating benefit. I presume that the Canadian practice is meant to ensure the objectivity of external examiners. But in practice I don’t think US external committee members are any less objective during thesis defenses than Canadian external examiners are.


17 thoughts on “What’s the optimal composition of a graduate supervisory committee?

  1. An external member (different Dept., institution, whatever) can open so many doors that a student would otherwise never even know about. In my own case, my goal was to work for the feds and having someone from the USDA on my committee was invaluable. I was better able to evaluate if working for the govt was really a good idea by working with those folks. And there was the networking which (eventually) ended in employment.

  2. I agree with your assessment Jeremy.

    I always tell students that the criteria for committee members, in order, is:
    1) A good human being (you want people who care about your career, not their ego)
    2) A creative thinker who can get outside of their own little world (you want people who can meet your thesis where it is at and give feedback on the overall quality of the science, not try to drag you into their world or critique citations they think are important)
    3) People who are experts in areas of your dissertation (meh, if you think you need multivariate stats, go learn it – having a committee member who knows multivariate stats isn’t actually going to teach you that much, and they might be useless on giving you feedback on the basic science on your thesis)

    I’ve seen many people flip these criteria in the reverse order (i.e. place 3 first instead of just as icing on the cake), and not a few of them end up regretting it.

    The issue of an external member is a whole other topic, but it is a great idea if rules allow it. And as Ken noted, using it as a way to include somebody outside of academia if that is a career target for you is a really good idea.

    • “I agree with your assessment Jeremy.”

      I would hope so, since much of it was just me shamelessly stealing from our behind-the-scenes emails in which you put things better than I could. 🙂

      I was fortunate when choosing my committee that your #1 didn’t require me to rule out anyone I’d have wanted, and I didn’t face any trade-offs between your #2 and #3.

      I was also fortunate that my supervisor was my department’s stats guru, so I didn’t feel the primal urge many students seem to have to add a stats guru to my committee.

      Here at Calgary, our incumbent stats guru will be retiring soon. I’m curious what our students will do without a universally-agreed goto stats guru. There’s no obvious successor among the remaining faculty, though of course many of us have some statistical expertise.

      • Yeah its when #1 (good person) is in conflict with #2 or #3 that things get really bad. I’ve seen students really get hammered during comps and defense because they ignored #1. And once somebody is on your committee it is hard to fix in the middle of a meeting (although it is easier than people think to drop somebody from your committee as long as its not like the week of your comps or defense – people who find out they failed at #1 should consider this approach more often). Picking #3 over #2 is not the worst thing in the world. It may just mean that you will waste some time during comps and defense answering really detailed questions about a topic that is not central to your research.

      • Question for you Brian (and anyone else who wants to chime in): How much guidance do students typically get from their supervisors in choosing committee members? My students and I always talk it over, and if any of them ever suggested someone whom I thought would be a source of conflict, I’d veto it. And as best I can recall, Peter Morin was the same way back when I was a grad student–he wouldn’t have let me unwittingly name to the committee someone who was going to be a source of conflict. I’d always naively assumed that that’s the way everyone operates. Is that actually atypical? Or is it typical but not universal?

      • I give strong feedback but leave the final decision to the student. Of course some of my war stories are committees for student of other advisors and I’m not sure everybody emphasize #1 as much as we have.

    • Thanks for sharing these thoughts. A great reminder for us graduate students! I agree with your order. But I think some students, at least in my experience, know first what people’s expertise is, and then whether he/she is a creative thinker that gives constructive comments, and finally whether that person cares about you more than his/her ego. The first criteria probably will only be recognized after working with the person for some time. I guess this might be a reason why people flip these criteria.

      I specifically think criteria 1 about ego is important. You cannot have a healthy and fruitful conversation/discussion/debate on academic topics with a committee member who has too much ego. But this is something hard to spot. Maybe the words from other people in the department is a good reference to know. I wish there is an easy mechanism for students to change committee members without causing too much crossfire and splash (although I do caution that this may open the door to just try and form an easy committee).

      • An adviser should be able to steer you away from big ego bad/personality candidates. That should be their job.

        If your adviser is on board it shouldn’t be that hard to change committee members, although regulations do vary from school to school. In some schools the person being replaced has to sign, in others they don’t – worth checking.

  3. For my student’s committees, I’m usually the smart generalist (or at least I like to think I am 😀 ), so I encourage them to bring in people specialized on key aspects of their thesis. But not mainly for their technical expertise; rather, to give a in-depth critical perspective on their hypotheses, rationales, choice of methods, and expected results, in relation to the state of the art in their respective fields. One thing that worries me as a ‘generalist supervisor’ is failing to spot a potential shortcoming that would be obvious to a specialist, until it’s too late to fix it (i.e. after submitting a manuscript).

    My advice for committees is usually along the same lines as yours, and I do let them choose the members, vetoing only when I see a potential issue. But I also give two additional recommendations: first, try to pick people that are not so senior/’famous’ that they will just not be available to you most of the time, especially when trying to schedule exams and defenses. Second, consider “inviting people who you would like to learn more about your work”, as a form of networking. Sure, you can do that in conferences and other opportunities, but having someone as a committee member opens up the chance for a closer and more in-depth relationship with a select group of scientists, and can be a great way for the student to get on people’s radar.

    This latter advice can’t, of course, violate Fox’s and Mc’Gill’s first law of committeeing 8). Not a lot of gain in getting acquainted with unpleasant/unhelpful people, even if they are influential.

  4. I was delighted to strike a nice diversity with only three members. I did my PhD on mouse lemur parasites, so I had one mammalogist, one person who’s worked in Madagascar and one doing modelling on disease ecology and evolution. All three were on different parts of their career and their career paths were pretty different and had experience in different institutions.

    Not sure how US committee differ from Finnish one. In Finland, the committee is mainly interested in that the PhD degree will get finished. There can be a conflict of interest between PhD student and their supervisor: while supervisor get prestige from the quality of the publications, they are not that concerned about the time spent doing PhD (and having productive PhD student can be cheaper than having a post-doc). Thus I was careful to pick people who dared to disagree with my supervisors and who could bring a more… balanced idea of how the PhD process shapes up.

    • While many people focus on the committee members as ones who keep the high standards for the PhD and don’t let the student and adviser get by with low quality, very often it works the other way too.The committee keeps the adviser (or more often the student) focused on not too doing too much.

  5. Jeremy, you can people external to your university on your committee. The external examiner’s role (in Canada) is to provide an expert only for the end product, not to give input along the way.

    I actually don’t like the US system as I experienced it – my external had to be outside my department, not university, and while my particular one was amazing and greatly improved my dissertation, the system didn’t encourage getting an actual outside expert. And also he only contributed at the very end of the process like in Canada.

      • Sorry for the very belated reply. I’m glad you were able to get external folks adjunct status to serve on your supervisory committee, but I’m afraid that’s not possible everywhere. In my dept. at Calgary, it would be difficult-to-impossible to get someone adjunct status solely for purposes of serving on a single student’s supervisory committee. The application for adjunct status requires that adjuncts describe how they plan to contribute to the dept., and proposing to serve on a single student’s supervisory committee wouldn’t be considered enough of a contribution to merit adjunct status.

  6. For once, I will speak highly of the French system, with one particularity that I find very useful. In practice, there is in France (at least in my home university in Lyon) 2 committees: the PhD committee, and the defense committee. This is pretty straightforward: the PhD committee is about the realization of the PhD (to ensure that the student makes it safe and sound till the end); the defense committee is an ad-hoc committee just for the defense. The PhD committee is usually more generalist, with people spanning different expertise and experiences, and often more local (to give better access to them for the student!). On the other hand, the defense committee is generally more in line with your research, with the best experts in your area. The benefit of this is evident knowing that the defense committee is decided just a couple of months before the defense, and not early in the PhD: that allows to select, for instance, for people that you would want to do a postdoc with! The networking aspect of it is thus very very useful: you make sure that the people you want to work with actually read your dissertation! To me, since there is only one committee in the US, forming the defense committee always seem waaaaay too early… At this stage, I need to mention that the defense committee can be the same as the PhD committee, but this is not necessary! That usually allows to have several external members for the defense committee. For instance, I had 4 external members, in addition to my PhD advisor, and only 1 “internal” member from my university! (externals were 3 academics from foreign countries, and 1 from the French wildlife agency)

  7. Pingback: Ask us anything: what if a disgruntled committee member is going behind your back to wreck your career? | Dynamic Ecology

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