One of the most challenging parts of writing a dissertation is the need to work—perhaps for the first time—with a committee of scholars who will judge your writing and your preparedness for the degree. It can be difficult to juggle the need to listen to these people and follow their advice with the need to write a dissertation that matches your vision. The work becomes even more challenging when you have a conflict with one or more committee members. This is the time to remember that you are not at the mercy of each person on the committee. Your adviser is your primary connection to the committee, and keeping a good working relationship with him or her is key (we consider what to do when the adviser-advisee relationship sours in another bloglet). Therefore, work as closely as you are able with the adviser when challenges arise with other committee members. But keep an ear open to what they say, too. Their opinions may not be what you want to hear, but often, when we least want to hear something about our ideas or writing, we most need to hear just that!
The idea is to balance the feedback you’re getting against what you’re seeing in your own idea development and writing processes. Try out their ideas. At the same time, know that what they’re saying comes from a particular point of view. Check out that point of view with the individual or committee as a whole: I hear you say XZY. Is that what you mean? How do you think I should put that into action?
Asking questions and seeking clarification can be especially helpful as you decide how to treat conflicting advice. When possible, send a copy of important email communication to your entire committee. Always copy your adviser on communications that involve crucial decisions. Let your adviser go to bat for you when needed.
- Realize that this committee ultimately exists to help you. Let them do that.
- Keep the committee up to date on your progress. Don’t let months go by without connecting with them.
- Tell committee members your timeline and deadlines. They don’t keep that kind of information at their fingertips, so help them plan when to provide you with feedback by giving them key information.
- Avoid the “divide and conquer” approach to managing the committee by treating all of them as esteemed professors who have their own work schedules and who have your best interests at heart.
- Keep your adviser even more closely aware of what is happening so that you can ask for his or her help when a committee member’s advice conflicts with the adviser’s or otherwise is confusing.
- Managing the committee and working well with the adviser are core skills you’ll need in any academic or professional life after the PhD. Take charge, think and act carefully, and enjoy what you can about your future colleagues. They’ll respect you for your efforts.
- If you need help, call a coach who can walk you through the challenges of navigating committee communications and interactions. You don’t have to learn everything by trial and error, and you don’t have to go it alone!