I want to defend my doctoral dissertation. How do I get a date from my faculty committee? Six Suggestions

Every season during the Dissertation House, we discuss ways to improve communication with your advisor and your dissertation committee. This year, we have several people from the DH, past and present participants, who are planning to defend their dissertations very soon. 2012 will be a big year! One question that seems to be looming is nailing down a dissertation defense date. How does one do that with 4, 5, or 6 committee members? How do you respectfully let them know that you really want to finish this thing and that you need their assistance? Ladies and gentlemen, this is a process of negotiation. Here are some tips that might assist you. Different people have different methods, and this is not an exhaustive list, but here are some things that work:

  1. Find a month where you are flexible. Pick a month where you can say with 98% certainty that you can be available at anytime of the day, Monday – Friday. If your flexibility is limited, you know in advance that you are reducing your probability of finding consensus. (We have had defenses at 8:00 AM on a Friday morning, and the room was packed!)
  2. Map out your committee members’ schedules in advance.  Start with your advisor’s schedule, then work your way through the rest of the committee.  You need to know what their obligations are in advance without imposing your desired dates upon them.  Know and respect their immovable events.  Mark off their teaching days, the entire week before their grant or paper is due, conference days, and more.  Some people have their calendars online, some have their calendars managed by the department’s administrative assistant or their lab manager.
  3. Give email a break, go and visit them in person.  Before you try to work everything out with a bunch of emails, make an appointment with your committee members (individually) and talk about their schedules for the month that you’re interested in. Remember that your faculty members are people too. They are juggling their teaching, research, service, grants, conferences, publications, external committee obligations, and more. Some have families at home, are caring for aging parents, or are taking care of their own health needs.
  4. Let other committee members know about your advisor’s availability first. Don’t try to make the schedule by starting with your outside member. Find your advisor’s availability, then work in the availability of those in the department.  Chances are that there may be some similarities with schedules of those within your department. As you talk with your other committee members, let them know about your advisor’s schedule.  For example, you can say, “Dr. Jamison, my advisor, Dr. Corles, is open on April 3, 5, 10, or 12 after 2PM.” Schedule your external member last. Your advisor may allow your external member to participate by conference call or Skype.
  5. Request that your defense be a “feature” for a standard department event. Perhaps your department always has a lecture on the third Friday or the month at 2PM, or your advisor always has a group meeting on Wednesdays at noon. Perhaps the department’s weekly faculty meeting is on Mondays at 1, and you can ask if you can schedule the defense at 11.
  6. Make plausible suggestions. If teaching schedules are the bottleneck, talk with some of your friends (advanced grad students, postdocs, alumni) and ask if they might consider facilitating a class for your advisor or committee member on your defense day. If the friends agree, bring this up to your advisor or committee member. For example, you can say, “Dr. Jones, I know that you teach Math 202 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays this semester.  I’d like to suggest a possible way to free your schedule on one of those days. One of your former top students, Dr. Maria Harris, is a Senior Analyst at NSA and has agreed to come in on my defense day to cover your class. She said that she can also tell the students about some of the unclassified projects and how the content that they are learning applies to national security.”

These are just a few suggestions, six out of many that have worked for doctoral students over the years.  Yes, everyone is busy; perhaps people are more busy than ever these days. But in this age of technology, remember to invoke the human connection. Do not try to do everything over email. This may work for some people, but it doesn’t always work for the whole group. You may need to schedule a conference call with each person. Solidify things with your advisor first, and let those dates guide you. Good luck and best wishes!


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6 responses to “I want to defend my doctoral dissertation. How do I get a date from my faculty committee? Six Suggestions”

  1. This was so timely! I especially like the “feature” tip. I have 6 committee members and the graduate program chair who must also be present for the defense, so scheduling can really be a nightmare at times. I had a thesis committee meeting just before the winter break, and I began the scheduling process just after the new year for an anticipated defense date from late March to mid April.

    I can usually count on my chair and co-chair to have similar (albeit incredibly busy) schedules because they are in the same division and are PI and co-PI on a study. One of them, however, is both department and division chair, and travels and lectures elsewhere extensively. The other tends not to travel as much in the spring as in the fall and is not teaching this semester, but you just never know.

    To add another layer of complexity, it is strongly encouraged that both my outside member and a now-adjunct faculty member (who recently relocated to another state) be physically present for the defense, so I tried to nail down their spring travel plans early. I’m so glad I checked with my outside member early because I found out that he has to travel to the area in March and April for two scientific meetings, and we might be able to coordinate the defense with his travel schedule. One might have to be on Skype for the defense if it becomes too challenging to get them both here. We shall see!

  2. Good luck Maya! Thanks for commenting, and congratulations on your publication! If anyone else is interested, Maya’s paper is titled:
    “Inflammatory Cytokine Levels and Depressive Symptoms in Older Women in the Year After Hip Fracture: Findings from the Baltimore Hip Studies”
    I see the abstract at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1532-5415.2011.03727.x/full

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What is dissertation house?

The Dissertation House program is an intensive writing retreat designed to help graduate students overcome the barriers that often impede progress on their dissertations. Developed by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the program provides a supportive and structured environment where students can focus on their writing, receive feedback, and learn effective time management and goal-setting strategies. Over several days, students work in groups, participate in workshops, and receive coaching from experienced facilitators. The Dissertation House program has been highly successful in helping students make significant progress on their dissertations. It is widely regarded as a valuable resource for graduate students seeking to complete their degrees.


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