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:
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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