Building your Dissertation Committee

Photo:  iStock

Photo: iStock


I grew up playing sports. And even though I'm in grad school, I still find myself returning to football principles to help me navigate academia. For example, as a head football coach, you aim to build a team of individuals who have different, but complimentary, skill sets. You want to have a quarterback who is able to accurately throw the football, linemen who are able to protect the quarterback from defenders, and wide receivers who are able to catch the football. Though they each have different positions, everyone on a football team must execute their role in order to propel the team toward its larger goal—winning the football game. Believe it or not, this same logic applies to grad school.


As a PhD student, you will eventually have to assemble a group (a "team") of scholars to help you achieve your larger goal—successfully defending your dissertation. This group is commonly referred to as your "committee." And since they are the people who are going to help you get across the finish line, it's important that you choose them carefully. (We tryna' graduate, remember?) Choose wisely, Coach!


Choose your Quarterback (Your Primary Advisor).

Pictured:  Lamar Jackson (Louisville QB),  Photo:   Sun Sentinel

Pictured: Lamar Jackson (Louisville QB), Photo: Sun Sentinel

The QB is the leader of the football team. They are often celebrated when things go well, and blamed when things don't. Either way, they go out and do what they can to carry the team to success.


In terms of your dissertation committee, your primary advisor is your QB. You want someone who is supportive and willing to fight for you. Since you'll likely be spending a lot of time with this individual, it's best that you choose someone who aligns with your personality. So pay attention to who you gravitate to, and think about the work that you'd like to do as a grad student.


If you already know who you'd like to serve as your primary advisor, but you haven't contacted them yet, register to take one of their classes to get a sense of their personality (and to shine!) or reach out to them to see if they're available to talk during office hours. Another way to go about it is contacting grad students who have worked with the professor previously. Go ahead and ask: "What is it like working with ___? How quickly do they provide feedback? How has ___ supported you so far?" Most grad students are honest about these things, so be prepared. Their answers just might surprise you. But keep in mind that just because someone is a great researcher doesn't mean that they're necessarily a great mentor and advisor to students. So don't be afraid to meet with different professors until you find the right one for you. Like choosing the Quarterback of your football team, it is important that you choose the right primary advisor!


Choose your LEft Tackle (Your defender).

Offensive linemen aren't celebrated the same way that Quarterbacks are celebrated. But in the National Football League, left tackle is usually one of the highest paid positions on a football team. Because most QB's are right handed, and throw looking to the right, the left tackle's primary job is to watch the QB's back. They protect the QB from the opposing team, even when he's not looking.

Pictured:  Tyron Smith (Dallas Cowboys LT),  Photo:  Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Pictured: Tyron Smith (Dallas Cowboys LT), Photo: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

This should go without saying, but I'm gonna say it anyway. You need someone like this on your dissertation committee! You need someone, in addition to your primary advisor, who is willing to defend you and watch your back. This kind of support may look differently for different people. You might want someone who notifies you about different opportunities in your field (i.e.- potential conferences, publication deadlines, and/or funding opportunities.) But you also might need someone you can go to in confidence and vent about things that frustrate you about the the PhD journey. All of this is important! So it's important that you choose a defender who cares about you, the person. Again, your primary advisor might already be this person for you, but you can never have too many advocates in academia. 


Choose your Wide Receiver (Your Go-to).

Pictured:  Odell Beckham Jr. (New York Giants WR),  Photo:  GETTY IMAGES

Pictured: Odell Beckham Jr. (New York Giants WR), Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Wide receivers compliment the quarterback. The job of a WR is to catch the football, however and wherever it's thrown on the field. But since every wide receiver isn't consistent, QB's typically have one "go-to" receiver—one that has proven that they're reliable.


We all know those professors. The ones who don't provide feedback. The ones who don't respond to emails. The ones who are always "too busy" to meet. Yeah. Well, you don't want any of them on your dissertation committee, regardless of how "great" they are. (We tryna' graduate, remember?)


Instead, you need someone who is reliable and compliments your primary advisor. This person's research should be closely related, because it'll allow you to get another "expert opinion" on your research topic. If your primary advisor is busy, for whatever reason, this is the person that you should turn to for help.


Yes, everyone on your dissertation committee should have research interests and/or research approaches that are similar to yours. But it's important to look beyond that. We aren't just researchers. And finishing a PhD isn't just about "doing the work." You need people in your corner who can (and are willing to) support all of you. When it comes time to choose your dissertation committee, keep in mind that you are at the center. So, in a way, YOU are the "Head Coach." Everyone on your team should be, in some way, pushing you toward your goal of graduating.


Oh yeah. Remember, it's okay to "trade" one key player for another. NFL head coaches do it all of the time, especially when one player displays conduct that is detrimental to the team or detracts from the goal of winning. That's another blog post for another day, though!


About the Author

Bennie is a third-year PhD student at Northwestern University, where he is studying African American Studies. He created Just Tryna' Graduate to help Black students get to & through graduate school. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter.