Guest Author - D. Lynn Byrne, Ph.D.
This week’s article is a short commentary on the politics of graduate school. Those of you who are currently working on your thesis or dissertation likely have a very good idea of what I mean when by “politics.” For those who have not yet entered this phase of their graduate career, I’m referring to the process of negotiation one works through in order to push their research paper through from proposal to defense.
I knew the process would be problematic the moment I tried to pull together five not-so-like-minded people together to sit on my committee. It wouldn’t have been so bad, possibly, if my department hadn’t just gone through a massive realignment/attrition process. But since it had, I was now stuck with very few tenured professors to choose from and would be forced to go outside my department for two of the five required members. Fun stuff.
I did try to pull together people I thought I could work with—but the profs I really liked were committed heavily to other research projects and students. My next step was to look for professors I had taken courses with that I could tolerate reasonably, but many of them were not on the tenured faculty list. I was left with sorting through the list to see if there were at least 3 tenured staff in my department that I could remotely work with who might also have some general knowledge of the topic I was researching. Needless to say, my final 3 were nowhere near the kind of people I’d originally envisioned forming a long-term research commitment with. As for the folks outside my department, well, I suppose I lucked out. I found two reasonable people to fill these spots, one of whom I’d known and worked with for some time. The other, well suffice it to say he didn’t even show up for the proposal presentation—just signed off on the requirement.
My committee Chair, who I “thought” was a learned, reasoning man, turned out to have control issues. Though he would never commit to specific requirements or styles, he took great pains to “suggest” that I rework each and every section of my paper to meet his ideals of how the topic should be covered, the research presented and the paper written. Of course, all of this was done under the guise that he wanted the students he worked with to “produce a quality product.” At this point, I still sit in limbo waiting for his final comments on my paper, a paper that he’s had now for over a month and has still yet to read. Joy.
So where is all this rambling going? What is it I really want to share with you? My point, if I have one, is this: pick your committee members carefully, and if the members you really want can’t commit to you now, you may want to consider waiting a semester and asking them again. These folks hold the power to make or break your degree. Yes, if you select members you simply cannot work with, there are probably provisions in place to allow you to make changes in your committee. However, by the time you figure out how bad things really are or could be, it may be too late for you.
As for me, I’m no longer writing “my” paper. Sadly, I’m writing the paper my committee Chair and the members of my committee, except for the absentee member who apparently will sign off on whatever the end product is, want written. Such is life. But at least when this is all said and done I’ll have my degree… maybe this summer… maybe.