No matter how brilliant you are, finishing your thesis will require interaction with faculty members. One of the first things you will have to do when it’s time to start working on your thesis is put together a thesis committee to guide you and get you through the process. If it sounds like an onerous task, it is. But you can do a lot to make sure that you have a committee that has your best interests at heart. After all, it is in their interests that you succeed. Think about how Google CEO Larry Page’s doctoral committee members feel knowing they launched one of the world’s most influential people.
If you’ve already had several graduate courses, especially if you are continuing your studies at the same school where you earned your bachelor’s degree, you probably have some idea of who you would like on your committee. Keep these names in mind, but be flexible and open to other suggestions.
Start by talking to your academic advisor. Set up a meeting and ask, “How do graduate students go about putting together a committee?” Your school may have a “typical” process you can emulate. Understand up front that even in the most laid-back schools and departments, you can’t escape some degree of politics. If you envision your advisor heading your thesis committee, it may not be a good idea to propose working with another staff member that you know your advisor does not work well with. It’s not ideal, but it may be the reality you have to deal with.
Get input from other students, too. Talk to former students as well as current students who are in the thick of writing their own theses. They will tell you things that faculty members may not. For instance, your advisor probably won’t tell you that Professor X will forget about meetings unless you remind her several times, including on the day of the meeting. A student, on the other hand, is more likely to present you with information like this. Another example: Your advisor probably won’t admit to being extremely picky about wording or following a particular thesis design, but a former student could tell you all about it.
To some degree, you will have to trust your gut instinct as well. If Professor Y is considered to be a really good professor, but you can’t stand him because he wouldn’t budge on that “C” he gave you in vector calculus, then you may not be able to move past your personal feelings in order to have a good working relationship. Know whose style you can adapt to and work with, and whose you probably can’t.
Finally, choose committee members with whom you can communicate, because regular communication is the key to keeping your thesis on track. You don’t need to be emailing or phoning them daily, but you need to know that you can get in touch when you need to. If a professor is planning on retiring within the year, be sure he or she will be around and engaged enough to make their place on your committee worthwhile to both of you. Put some thought and behind-the-scenes research into who you want on your thesis committee and you will have taken the first step toward completing a thesis that you can be proud of.
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