Along with Luke Church and Sarah Schwartz, who generously shared their experiences of moving from oral to dissertation committees, Feisal Mohamed and Nancy Silverman offered insight from faculty and program/building admin perspectives in the session we held on Friday, 24 April.  Paralleling the questions organizing the first Constituting Committees session (summary of which is here), this event intended to precipitate broad discussion of what to think about in constituting a dissertation committee, how it might change — and how to navigate changes — from oral to dissertation committee memberships, and what’s especially helpful to know from the faculty and administrative perspectives.  We heard from the mentoring and advising survey in addition to other input that this can be a sticky/sticking point for student progress — the getting to and into the dissertation itself.  Like the session, this post, which collects some key ideas from the discussion, hopes to help move things along!

differences between oral and dissertation committees (and the functions of the latter)

  • oral exam committees help you come to an idea, while the dissertation committee is project-driven. i.e., a member of the oral exam committee might help you develop fluency in a particular body of knowledge, but may not be aligned in terms of fields of address of the dissertation project.
  • dissertation committees help to define the shape and scope of a project
  • lapses of time between oral exam and prospectus are not an indication that there is a problem; rather, sometimes, the additional time for ideas to marinate is necessary and/or unavoidable. Just don’t disappear: let your advisor/committee members know about whatever speed bump(s) you’re facing.
  • sometimes, the dissertation committee will not be fully constituted (by the requisite 3 people), and that’s okay. The measure here is whether you’re able to continue research with fewer members of the committee in place. It’s not uncommon for committee membership to change both between orals and dissertation, and from prospectus to defense. Sometimes, the third member emerges quite proximate to the defense.
  • membership on the orals committee might be thought of as a kind of audition for the dissertation committee: do/did you have productive conversations in oral exam prep? if so, maybe makes sense for dissertation committee.
  • dissertation committees have functionality long after the degree: those committee members are typically letter writers for jobs and fellowship opportunities for at least several years beyond degree.

things to consider in constituting a dissertation committee

  • responsiveness and availability: key factors! consult with peers if you’re uncertain/unfamiliar as to these characteristics in someone you’re considering asking to be a part of your dissertation committee. Do you find you need to chase someone for feedback? Is the feedback you receive substantive and generous?
  • practicalities: who can help you locate your project within a field? this will have an impact not only on the outcomes of the project (i.e., who will read and what kinds of jobs might potentially transpire) but also and relatedly on its intellectual scope and framing. Relatedly, you might consider the familiarity of your prospective committee member with recent scholarship in your field(s) of address. To what extent can they help you situate your work in contemporary critical conversation?
  • what is the relationship among the committee members and to the project? that is, not interpersonal relationship so much as consideration of what they bring to the committee in terms of knowledge bases. These are not democratic committees: advisors bear much of the responsibility. But in what way(s) do the other committee members matter to the evolution of your project?
  • what is the work style of your prospective dissertation director and other committee members? Do they like to check in regularly? Do they ask you to do so? Do they want you to submit polished work, or pages as they’re completed? Are they more directive or suggestive? how well/generative you work with someone is as important a consideration as field alignment.


  • talk to your peers about their experiences with particular committee members, especially if you’re considering asking someone with whom you’ve not worked in other contexts
  • generate a list of expectations: what is it you want from your advisor and other committee members? be as explicit as possible in clarifying expectations with your advisor, especially, but with other committee members, too. (don’t forget to include the expectations of pleasure and intellectual invigoration as part of this list!)
  • when possible, review prospectuses of students who’ve worked with prospective advisors to get a sense of priorities and expectations of various faculty members/prospective directors.
  • if you’ve already got a committee together and find yourself having to chase your advisor, recognize that as a signal that perhaps your committee constitution needs to change.

And just a final note to remember that the dissertation project is *yours* — which is to say, the point (in my view) of a dissertation committee is to help you figure out what you want to say and how to say it in the best possible way you can given the project and its audience(s). Don’t lose sight of the distinctiveness of what you bring to the table — you might need to be deliberate about this not-losing-sight given how overwhelming it can feel to take on a massive project like a dissertation.

2 comments on “Constituting Committees II: Dissertation Committees

  • p.s. I shared this during the discussion — it’s what I send out to the people with whom I’m working post oral exams. Note that all of us have very specific ways in which we do this sort of work, so this isn’t at all to be taken as universal! Just my sense of things, fwiw.

    In nuts & bolts terms: To my mind, a dissertation prospectus needs to identify the principle research question at the heart of the project — what do you want to know?; explain its exigency — why it matters to address that question, and to whom/what audiences or discourses or other objectives — what are the stakes/investments in raising the question?; and offer its methodology — which is simply an explanation as to why you’re examining the particular set of texts with which you will be working and drawing on the specific critical genealogies/theories/approaches you will be using, to address that central research question. In brief: What do you want to know? Why is it important to ask that question/do that research? How will you conduct that research and in what way(s)?

    The prospectus is generally about 10 pages long, including chapter descriptions but excluding a preliminary bibliography. Key to writing the prospectus is keeping in mind that:

    a) it is a launching pad, not the horizon;
    b) you are not executing the arguments/analyses of the dissertation itself but instead arguing the importance of the research question you’re posing and providing the rationale for addressing that question in the ways in which you intend; and,
    c) you are not contractually bound to write each chapter as described in it — it is simply an impossibility to know this far in advance how much your thinking will change as the actual work of writing/learning/thinking ensues, and in fact, if you can predict already what the “answer” to the question is, then it’s probably not a good question (if you already know, why bother to ask?) — not a genuine research question. (I am not hugely invested in chapter descriptions and see them really as markers of the texts that have brought you to this project, rather than necessarily those that will in fact anchor the dissertation.)

    It’s in the formulation of the question that you’ll encounter the most messiness, I think — and I want to encourage you to see that as part of the process and not at all as an indication that you’re not heading anywhere productive. As you start to brainstorm different answers to what you want to know, you’ll start to see some of them cluster — to start to cohere into part of a bigger project — and some will be bracketed for later consideration. There is also a dialectical movement involved — you’ll put out some questions, write through the methodology, then have to go back to reframe the questions as a result of having written through the latter; you’ll share your initial constructs, get feedback, then go back and revise, and so on.

    It can be helpful, at least in initially organizing the prospectus, to be super pedantic in organization: use section titles like “research question”; “critical contexts”; “methodology”; “archive or text selection”; and “chapter description.” In revision, this will become more fluid, but make use of the rigid structure to help orient you as you get started.

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