How To Ask Someone To Be On Your Dissertation Committee

Since Kerim is doing professionalization-related posts, here are some quick tips for the awkward ritual of asking someone to be on your dissertation committee:

Make sure they will say yes: Ask your advisor if they think the prof would be a good fit on your committee. A lot of the time professors will talk to each other first before you meet, so the new addition to your committee may already know you are coming and has already basically agreed to serve. A lot happens behind the scenes in academe, so even though it is ‘your’ committee, its very important to work with your advisor so that they can shepherd the whole thing along.

Pop the question early: There’s nothing weirder than having a graduate student come to your office and spend five minutes explaining why they have the same intellectual interests as you, seemingly for no reason. Perhaps they are planning to do this for your entire office hour…? It’s far better to just sit down, be business like, and say “the reason that I’m here to see you today is to ask you to serve on my dissertation committee. Uh… will you?” Remember: the goal is to have this already taken care of ahead of time, which means your probably next step will be to:

Accept acceptance gracefully: If someone agrees to be on your committee then… say thank you! They may want to talk more (for which, see below) but they may also be very busy and consider this whole embarrassing ritual a waste of time. Take your cue from the prof — this meeting could be really short.

Accept rejection gracefully: If someone says no, don’t ‘personalize’ — people decide not to serve on committees for all sorts of reasons, not because you are a total fraud who doesn’t really belong in graduate school. Sometimes people are just too busy, sometimes they have personal issues with other committee members, etc. etc. There are lots of reasons people say no. Its ok to push people a little bit: are you sure? Do you mind if I ask why? But don’t push too hard. Those who say no will still end up evaluating your work in the future. There’s no point upsetting someone when you could have a perfectly collegial relationship.

Prepare for ‘the Probe’: The problem is a long, metal instrument professors keep in their office to… no just kidding. Often before deciding to be on your committee professors will ask a couple of probing questions to see who you are and what you are doing. Much of the time they know they are going to say yes, but they still want a sense of who you are and what they are getting into. This kind of thing may also happen immediately after they agree to serve if they want to move on to the nuts and bolts of the advising relationship.

Basically, you should be able to say why you want to work with someone — how their interests overlap with yours, what you might read together in the future and so forth. I’d advise reading the acknowledgements and introduction to their dissertation to get a sense of their genealogy, as well as their latest article or two so you can understand what they’ve been working on lately.

You don’t have to knock the ball out of the park on this one — I think a lot of professors just want some very basic sense that you know what you are doing, and where they will fit into it.

Discuss expectations: No one registers for their wedding after the first date, but it does help in this initial meeting to give your committee member some sense of how much of their attention you’ll be needing. Some people want assurances that you are not going to show up on their doorstep too often, while others are not going to take you on unless they know you are ready to put in some serious time with them. Giving a committee member a sense of what you want from them is helpful, as if making sure you learn what they are willing to contribute to your committee.

But above all, professors are crazy people and office hours are an extremely strange institution. You have to learn to roll with the punches. If someone wants to talk about baseball for five minutes before you get started, let them. If they are super busy and want to shoo you out of the office after they “yes yes, I’ve talked to professor Jones about this, I’ll be on your committee” then get out from underfoot. And above all, if the vibe seems seriously off, don’t ask someone to be on your committee who you don’t think should be there.

This is such a small thing, but like a lot of things in academia someone its something that we never really talk about. So maybe this will help provide some transparency on this small academic ritual.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “How To Ask Someone To Be On Your Dissertation Committee

  1. Good post! As a current grad student, I really appreciate this sort of practical advice on getting through grad school. I recently wrote a post about my decision-making process on selecting committee members: http://marginalia84.blogspot.com/2011/09/chair-choosing.html. I ended up asking my second-choice person to be my chair after my first-choice said no, but I’m very happy with second-choice and think that s/he may actually work out better than first-choice would have in the long run. Here’s hoping, anyway.

  2. This practical post is much appreciated (I love Savage Minds!). I also wondered about protocols and procedures for asking extra-departmental faculty to be on a committee? I know it’s not too uncommon for professors to serve on a committee (not a chair but just “another reader” of the dissertation) for a student from a separate school?

  3. Some very basic advice: try to take classes with people before asking them to be on your committee, if at all possible. It’ll give you an idea of what it’s like to work with them, how they edit papers, and how well your way of working fits with their way of working. This probably goes without saying, but I said it anyway…

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