The Courtship Ritual of Asking Faculty to be on Your Committee

Grad Student: "Um, so, I was wondering ..."

Faculty Member: "Yes, what were you wondering?"

Grad Student: "Well, uh, I'm putting together my committee, and given the fact that I've taken a couple of classes with you, and also given the ways my interests line up with much of your work ..."

In this way or ways similar, grad students across the land pop The Question to faculty in their departments. Will you be on my committee? Of course, on the faculty side of things, we wait for this magic moment, look for hints, gossip amongst ourselves, and make sure to respond accordingly. In lieu of a ring exchange, files are made up and forms sent to the proper office.

It makes me wonder, though, if things oughtn't work the other way around with faculty asking students if we can work with them? Or at least offering? I remember hearing a story about Dale Bauer, who I was blogging about last week, asking a grad student if she could work with him. It was really quite simple: Dale was new to UIUC, she'd heard about this guy's work, so sent him an email.

We could at least consider developing a parallel practice, based on Dale's offer, to let grad students know we think their work is groovy and cool and we wanna work with them. This wouldn't need to eclipse the current proposal system, merely complement it. I say this because there is something nice about having committee configuration entirely in the hands of the students.

One last thought: felicity conditions seem to mandate that popping the question happen in person; is this true? Have people "asked" or "been asked" over email? the phone? IM?


  1. I've "offered my services" (as it were) to grad students in the past -- and will probably do so again in the future. I think that the major thing to be cautious about in doing so is to not frame the offer in such a way that the student feels s/he can't possibly say No. If I'm even remotely worried that the student will read such an offer as pressure (e.g., "work with me or I'll sink your career"), I keep my mouth shut and wait for them to pop the question.

  2. ah ha! I tried this once--offering to direct someone's dissertation--and for some reason ((perhaps because I knew it's not protocol), I did it over email. IOW, I violated two protocols, as did, in fact, our colleague Dale. Interesting.

    Funny thing was, I got told thank you and then months went by, our status up in the air, until at one point an acceptance became apparent. And now we're co-authoring. :)

  3. Anonymous6:24 PM

    I'm always intrigued when professors say *no* to inquiring grad students, as though it weren't a part of their job description to guide grad students. -pufypalb

  4. I'd second what Gil says--I've done this before, but am always very careful to make sure that the student can say No comfortably.

    I'm almost tempted to argue in the opposite direction, though, that our students would be better served sometimes by the random generation of dissertation committees. Ultimately, they'll be writing for audiences unfamiliar with their specialities anyhow. Also, as helpful as having a history with committee members can be, I wonder if it doesn't hinder just as often.

    Almost. Not quite. But there's something about it that intrigues me...


  5. And pufy, on general principle, I'm with you, but I would say that there are plenty of legitimate reasons for turning a student down, reasons that don't preclude the kind of guidance that (I agree) we're ethically obligated to provide.

    For example, I've encouraged students on occasion to connect with newer faculty, or faculty from other programs, whose interests might better inform their projects, rather than agreeing to serve on their committees myself...


  6. I'd respectfully suggest that there are occasions where fulfilling the part of my job description that obligates me to guide graduate students actually makes it more important for me to say No than to say Yes. For me, taking that obligation seriously means that I should only say Yes in cases where I feel that what I have to offer a student is a good match for what they're trying to do ... and that's not always the case.

    For example, once upon a time (and I'm being deliberately vague here, even with respect to the university where this took place), a student in another department (who'd never taken a course from me) asked if I would serve on his/her committee. S/he sent me a couple of writing samples, including his/her proposal ... and it would have been criminal for me to say Yes. Partially because this student's project was far enough removed from my own areas of expertise that, at best, I was going to be of tangential value -- but mostly because I didn't think the student in question was actually ready to write a dissertation. And so it was clear to me that if I said Yes, my role would have been that of Major Roadblock ... or Mindless Rubber-stamper. Neither of which, in my mind, qualifies as an ethical way to guide students.

  7. Yah, Gil and Collin. and there's also the question of limits. If I were to take on any more advisees at this point, all my other advisees would likely suffer.

  8. metaspencer8:24 AM

    re: saying no to a request: sure it's our job to serve on committees and direct dissertations, but when we're not a good fit, for instance, saying no can be in the student's best interest. well: maybe ... I guess it's still up to the student to make such decisions.

    I'm glad to see the "offering services" model out there (sans pressure) -- since it's surely flattering to be recognized in that way.

  9. Spencer, I guess I'm still wondering how these decisions are "still up to the student" when a faculty member isn't willing to serve on a committee (for whatever reason). Seems to me that the process necessarily involves multiple decision-makers: I don't get to impose myself on a student who doesn't want me on their committee ... and vice versa. But maybe I just need more coffee this morning so that I can imagine a scenario in which a faculty member's No can -- and should -- be trumped by a student's decision to put the nay-sayer on his/her committee anyway.

  10. Maybe my lack of needing a committee or being on one is making me miss something here, but would the following be a flat-out foolish decision:
    But maybe I just need more coffee this morning so that I can imagine a scenario in which a faculty member's No can -- and should -- be trumped by a student's decision to put the nay-sayer on his/her committee anyway.
    I can't help but think of the many and various problems with having someone who does not want to be on your committee being there. Wouldn't you just be asking for trouble as a student?

  11. More coffee is never a foolish decision. :)

    And a full day's worth of coffee (and then some) later, I'm still stuck where tengrrl is: i.e., every scenario I can think of where I would want to say No to being on a student's committee is a case where no one is served well at all by my saying Yes.

    A large percentage of the variations that I can come up with (some of which, unfortunately, are less hypothetical than others) involve students who don't actually need me to be on their committee: they're simply desperately short a committee member and are making the rounds of the friendly faculty who haven't said No to them yet. And a Yes under those conditions is usually a recipe for headaches and strife all around.

  12. At a recent faculty meeting I was reminded about how faculty status, for promotion and tenure (but also as a dept), hinges on documentation of the number of dissertations directed. So on a sort of flip side, the status/success of faculty depends in part on "being asked" by students in this ritual. Said another way, some of us can't afford to say no.

  13. Ugh. That -- if I may be so bold -- is a shitty bit of extra weight to add to the already heavy burden one has to carry successfully in order to get tenure.

    I'd still suggest that you make your Yes/No decisions with some care. There are only so many hours in your day, after all, and the odds are slim that your department (or anyone else involved) will be sympathetic to a tenure file that's long on dissertation advising but short on publication. And if you're routinely saying Yes to students who you would prefer not to work with, you're likely to lose a lot of your own research/writing time to their projects. There's a balance here, to be sure ... but you can get yourself in as much trouble (and maybe even more) by saying Yes to all comers as you can by saying No too many times.

  14. Anonymous11:02 AM

    I had a professor say "no" to being on my committee. She was in English or Women's Studies and my dissertation was in a tiny language dept. on literature and gender in books from some tiny obscure countries. But my committee was already populated by experts on the literature of the tiny obscure countries. I wanted someone who just cared about literature and gender (everything was in English in the dissertation so it's not like she needed to read Obscurese). She would have been a good fit for my committee and we'd worked together well when I took her Lesbian Pornography class (officially called Feminist Studies something-or-other).
    So I'm stumped as to why she said "no." Either she doesn't care about literature or gender things that take place outside the U.S. or she thought I was too straightlaced when I was in her Lesbian Pornography class. It added to my bitterness, though, when she had time to participate in my friends' mockumentary about MLA interviews. She doesn't have time to be on a committee, but she can be in a mockumentary?
    Second only to the bureaucrat in the Office of Dissertation Formatting Approval Withholding, that "no" was the most irritating part of finishing my Ph.D. --TOT

  15. Anonymous11:03 AM

    The handfull of no's I am personally familiar with were not motivated by altruism and a desire for the student to have a "better" adviser; they were motivated by the laziness of tenure. Not to say that's always true, but it's not true that it's always altruistic, either.

    Too often, the decision has less to do with compatible research interests and a desire to help a student grow and more to do with a popularity contest or a perception, right or wrong, that a given graduate student is "worth the effort" or "has potential."

    Sexism plays a role at times, too, as I'm sure do other prejudices. As though that can be foreseen. A good friend of mine is an intellectual heavyweight but has been underestimated for her blond hair and big boobs many, many times.

    There is a personality thing, too: is the graduate student a good personality fit for the professor. That is perhaps a relatively overweighted consideration many times.

    In the end, the inquiring students are powerless in the scenario. No wonder they are so shy and hesitant oftentimes when they ask you to be an adviser.