Today I had a really good meeting with a member of my committee, and so I’ve been thinking again about the importance of choosing one’s committee wisely.
The best thing about this professor is that by the end of our meetings, I feel full of ideas and excitement. I don’t feel this way only because she gives good advice (which she does), but also because she is very engaged with my ideas. It’s such a great feeling to know that I have her full attention.
I was thinking about another person who many people have said was an “obvious” choice to be on my committee. I chose not to ask them, and here’s why: this person had read my first messy attempt at doing what I do in my dissertation. They were critical of it, but it wasn’t the criticism that was the problem. They just didn’t get what I was trying to do, or if they did, they didn’t care about the issues I was wrestling with. I felt conflicted at first about not asking them to be on my committee, but once I found the right people it became very obvious I had made the right decision.
Other qualities I like in a committee member:
- I like someone I can meet socially and have a pleasant, non-academic conversation with.
- I like someone who can give practical advice about the writing process and about university bureaucracy.
- I like someone who has advice about how to deal with other committee members–not necessarily a gossip, just someone who will speak from a professor’s point of view about how they like the committee member / student relationship to work.
- I like someone who listens carefully to what I say and responds thoughtfully.
- I like someone who makes me feel welcome to contact them frequently. It’s very hard to show someone your work if you feel you are imposing on them.
“My boss at the library . . . chided me constantly for my posture, my wardrobe, and my general demeanor, but never seemed to notice that I was almost the only competent person in the department. (One’s attitude and deportment have counted for much more than one’s actual work in any job I’ve ever had, including those in academia.)”
–Shepherd, Reginald. “To Make Me Who I Am.” Poets and Writers, Jan-Feb. 2008.
University politics can be heartbreaking when it comes to being hired/promoted/fired/awarded/passed over. Consistently behaving in a courteous and professional manner may be the only way to deal with the injustices that come with any job.
To give a positive example, my relationship with my dissertation director began long before I had seriously considered working with him, when I was one of his teaching assistants my first year in graduate school. He appreciated the fact that I came on time to his lectures, something not all my colleagues did. I earned his good opinion based on something unrelated to my dissertation, but it surely paved the way for a healthy working relationship.
At a Dissertation Roundtable given at The University of Texas at Austin’s English Department on Wednesday, several faculty members gave advice to graduate students.
Doctor Frank Whigham told us that faculty often complain about graduate students who suddenly contact them every six months to ask a huge favor (comments on a long draft, letter of recommendation) and then do not thank them. While we all know faculty members with zero social skills, I thought it was a good reminder 1) to not sink to the level of rudeness you perceive from faculty members–partly because they are in a position to help you, and partially so you don’t turn into a socially incompetent doctor yourself. And 2) promoting good will among colleagues is always a good thing, even if you perceive that you aren’t a major priority in their lives.
Yet some professors feel just the opposite of Doctor Whigham–they feel too busy, and only want to communicate over important work to be done. They don’t want to socialize. As Doctor Trish Roberts-Miller explained, that’s exactly why you do want to get to know your advisors as much as possible, and why you want to ask them direct questions about how often / under what circumstances they prefer to be contacted. Some advisors like to have weekly check-in meetings, others could go for months without contact without feeling slighted. Some advisors will hug you when they see you, others will get instantly uncomfortable if you ask them about their families.
I’m not suggesting that you work to anticipate your advisor’s every whim, but it never hurts to cultivate one’s social sensitivity.