Dissertations - Written by on Saturday, January 15, 2011 6:04 - 0 Comments

The Role of the Dissertation Committee

For some doctoral students, the dissertation process is more a lesson in frustration than a learning instrument that helps transform the individual from a student to an independent scholar. Whereas the chair is often the center of the dissertation process, the dissertation committee usually occupies a position at the periphery. Nevertheless, the committee plays important roles that often benefit the university more than the student.

Although every program is different, the dissertation committee plays four roles in the dissertation process. Committee members run the gamut from highly involved players to figureheads simply occupying a seat. Both have their advantages but understanding the role the committee is supposed to play can help the doctoral student understand what to expect from its members.

Checks and Balances

Few universities allow a sole professor to confer a doctoral degree on a student. The remainder require that multiple people play a role in the development and eventual graduation of a doctoral student. The purposes for this are to ensure that certain standards and guidelines are adhered to and to protect the university from giving too much power to an individual professor. The committee, therefore, provides a checks and balances service to the university.

Of course, some committees do not get directly involved in the dissertation process. Many get involved only at the final reading and signing of the student’s dissertation. Others are too involved, pulling the student in multiple directions simultaneously. This is why choosing a dissertation chair who is a good advocate is essential.

Multiple Sources of Support

Those committee members who get actively involved in the dissertation process can be a source of support, preventing the dissertation chair from shouldering the entire responsibility. Getting advice from multiple sources is invaluable to the student providing committee members do not place conflicting demands on the student.

When committee members get too involved and start taking on responsibilities normally reserved for the chair, the student may find that he/she has no one to turn to for protection. In some cases, the student must find a way to simultaneously satisfy multiple bosses even when requirements are not congruent. The result can be frustration, unnecessarily extended programs, or even failure to finish a program altogether.

Multiple Sources of Expertise

A type of support, expertise is worth drawing out since it is a valuable component to any doctoral student’s dissertation process. An individual does not conduct science and research; they are the result of multiple researchers contributing to a body of knowledge. Similarly, committees provide multiple sources of expertise for the student to ensure that no one researcher’s weaknesses as a researcher dominate the dissertation.

Whereas one committee member’s expertise includes research design and statistics, another’s may be writing or theory development. With multiple expertises from which to draw, the doctoral student is more likely to find the help that is needed when it is needed. Again, this relieves the chair from shouldering all of the responsibility and ensures that his/her weaknesses as a researcher do not influence what the student can do with the dissertation.

Accountability

Mentioned above, the committee plays an important (if not more important) role for the university in addition to the student. It is no secret that some professors are only interested in carving out their own territory within a university or department. This type of chair makes a poor leader because his/her own interests – rather than the student’s – form the motivations for action. With multiple eyes watching what is going on, the university is less likely to suffer from the effects of a selfish chair.

Committee members create accountability by having a say in what paths the student should take and what direction the student needs to follow to increase the chances of graduation. The dissertation stage is the one where most students fail to complete the program. With accountability, it is more likely that the student will success or fail based on merit and not because of politics or egos.



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John GargerJohn Garger is a copy editor, proofreader, dissertation coach, researcher, writer, and entrepreneur living in upstate New York, USA.
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