Tips For Working With Difficult Members Of The Dissertation Committee

Nervous worried man dealing with difficult dissertation committee memberHow to work with difficult members of the dissertation committee

Here are several things to think about when you’re working with difficult committee members.


It is not wrong to give a gentle reminder to members who have not come back to you even after a semester has passed. Most of the time, a visit to their office or a friendly e-mail will suffice. More often than not, a draft of a non-urgent dissertation chapter gets lost during emergencies.

Absolutely No Response

There are times when you are going to get no response even after sending gentle reminders. There are some professors who do not take their responsibility towards students seriously. In fact, it won’t be wrong to say that it happens too often. Therefore, it is important for you to document that you have already given the draft as you were supposed to give and then you need to start working with another person who is going to help you.

There is almost no power in the hands of a graduate student when it comes to make professors do something on their dissertation. If the professor is not helping you, whatever the reasons may be, it won’t change for you. Therefore, you need to start looking elsewhere for help on your research.

Sometimes, professors return the work without any comments at all. This usually indicates that the person is not interested in the work. However, you can avoid complaints at a later date by documenting your submission of the work.

Overall, if your advisor is absent, you just need to document it and assume that things happen in life. You need to move on. You are not going to get anything or go anywhere with complaints.

Hypercritical Advisors

There are times when you may get devastating comments on the dissertation. I prefer to call them magicians with the power of crushing a student’s confidence. There are some people who actually enjoy using this power. However, there are also times when they are just oblivious to the affect of their comments on the student. I am not advising that student errors should not be pointed out by advisors. However, there is a limit to criticism.

There are many nice ways to criticize someone. For instance, the advisor may ask you to try something else and explain something in detail. He or she may also ask you to improve a particular portion of the presentation. However, the sad truth is that there are professors who do not give any thought before writing comments, and it can have a bad effect on the morale of the students. However, it is recommended to suck it up and move on.

Conflicting Advice

This happens a lot. There are some topics where two professors have completely different opinions. If you are facing such a situation, you just need to follow the opinion of the chair. You won’t be facing any problem but you do need to acknowledge both the professors.

Divorce with the Advisor

There are times when an advisor completely abandons you or is so toxic that you are unable to make any progress on your dissertation even after trying seriously. Usually, I would advise students to just take it in stride and move on. However, there are cases when things go extreme and may actually affect the career of a student.

For instance, one can say goodbye to fellowships and jobs without any recommendation letters from the chair. But it won’t be possible to get those recommendations if the chair is not responding. If you are facing such a situation, you need to take some time to reflect on your performance. You need to think deeply if there is absolutely anything that can improve the situation.

Do not assume that you are right. Professors can get annoyed by simple habits of students. It is recommended to also consult with other professors and ask for their help or advice on the matter. However, if you figure that everything is fine with you and you have tried everything that’s possible, you may give the option of advisor divorce a serious thought.

I do not recommend this course of action as you may need to prepare from scratch for a new advisor. It essentially means that you have wasted a lot of time for nothing. However, this option is desirable when the relations have become too toxic to be salvaged.

It happened to a friend of mine who divorced with a hypercritical advisor. He prepared a completely new dissertation for the new advisor in just two semesters. Once again, it is not recommended, but it’s justified in some extreme cases.

 No Response from Outside Readers

When it comes to outside committee members who are not responding or acting like a jerk, you should not refrain from dumping them. It is important to keep your relationship positive with the chair and core members of the committee. Keep in mind that this is extremely important. However, there is no justification for sucking up to the outside readers.

Most of the time, you will just need to send an e-mail to the graduate chair to get rid of such outside readers.

If you are persistent, friendly and open to fair criticism, you will find that it is possible to maintain a good relationship with the committee and make progress towards the degree.

What is your past experience? Do you have some ideas you can share for dealing with difficult committee members?