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Selecting Your Study and Thesis/Dissertation Committees

How should you go about identifying members of your thesis or dissertation defense committee? And why does the chair of your committee have to be a Graduate Faculty member from outside your own department? These questions are often raised as students begin to develop their thesis or dissertation projects. The requirements and selection of committee members stems from the roles that they are expected to play. Let us explain:

Your thesis/dissertation advisor is typically your scholarly mentor — a faculty member in your program who works most closely with you as you proceed through all phases of your research. Your advisor usually has specific expertise in the field of your scholarship and offers guidance in the structure, content and methodology of the work. The advisor also assures that you are aware of current standards for the actual thesis or dissertation manuscript, it's organization and format. The additional members of your thesis/dissertation defense committee are typically selected based upon specific types of expertise they hold as well. For example, you may identify a faculty member who has worked extensively with a certain type of experimental design that you are using, or perhaps the individual's scholarship has adopted a different but complementary theoretical perspective. In any case, the committee member might help you consider alternative, or more in-depth ways of thinking about certain aspects of your scholarly project.

What about the Chair of your defense committee? The Chair serves quite a different role. First and foremost, the Chair is responsible for assuring that the procedures and standards of UVM's Graduate College and its faculty are met, as you complete and defend your thesis/dissertation. This helps to ensure that the UVM degree you earn reflects some common standard of accomplishment across the University. The Chair is the objective "outsider" (vis-a-vis your program) capable of ascertaining that the thesis and defense are meeting university-wide standards and guidelines and not merely those that are idiosyncratic to your department or program. At the same time, the Chair is there to assure that you, the student, are receiving full and fair attention from the committee--the sort of opportunity and treatment that is due each and every student in UVM's Graduate College. So, the Chair is at once a student advocate and a bearer of standards for the College as a whole.

Often a student tries to identify a Chair who also has scholarly expertise closely related to the thesis/dissertation. This can be quite helpful but it is not necessary. In fact, very interesting, and important contributions can be made by a Chair who has considerable distance from the field of inquiry. Approaching the issues from a different discipline, an individual can ask insightful questions and offer innovative perspectives that may be overlooked by those who have long been immersed in the traditions.

Our advice is to be thoughtful and creative as you work to assemble a thesis/dissertation committee. Consider your own background - its strengths and its gaps - as well as those of your advisor; ask yourself what sorts of support you would find helpful (scholarly, motivational, practical, psychological, etc.) and try to identify committee members who can contribute accordingly. Then relax and take advantage of the different skills and insights your committee members can bring to bear on your work. The system is designed to support the development of first-rate scholarship on your part.