Dissertation committee participation

The research advisor has the job of ensuring that the committee members participate throughout the THESIS AND DISSERTATION process. The committee is selected for the expertise of each individual, and the student has a right to that expertise. Furthermore, if the members have been taking an active part throughout, there should be no surprises at the final defense.

THESIS AND DISSERTATION students queried by Meloy (2002) repeatedly told of being hampered by absence of or delay in response from their committee members. That, plus a seeming lack of interest in their views on the part of committee members, sapped students’ confidence in themselves and in their supposed mentors.

The amount of guidance and time to be expected of committee members falls into proper perspective if it is understood that the research advisor has the primary responsibility for guiding the work of the student. The advisor keeps the committee informed of progress and ensures that the student sees the committee members-or attempts to see them-periodically to keep them informed and seek advice. The advisor and student share responsibility to see that committee expertise is used and that committee members are kept involved. Specific ways to seek creative suggestions of members and to follow through on them are spelled out in Chapters 5 and 6.

If the advisor and student sincerely try to involve the committee, the response is usually quite good. At the very least, individual committee members will read the proposal, critique it, be available for consultation when the student asks for consultation, read the document and critique it before a final defense, and attend scheduled overview and defense meetings. Anything more is to be desired and encouraged.

Coordinating Committee Communications:

Some faculty want all communication between the student and other committee members to come through the advisor; others think the student should feel completely free to spend as much time and take as much direction as wanted from committee members. These are probably the two extremes; most research advisors fall between them. It is more important that the advisor and the student talk out and agree on the ground rules than to argue about which procedure is best. Probably any reasonable procedure will work if the rules are agreed on and if the student understands the consequences of alternative kinds of behavior.

Special attention is advisable with foreign students since cultural differences often mean that the nature and frequency of written communication can create difficulties. A discussion can lead to understandings that forestall such problems.

Faculty experience has indicated certain procedures that are important responsibilities of the advisors. These are more in the nature of good commonsense advice than of laws or dictums. The advisor has the responsibility of negotiating with the committee-all of itthose things that a student cannot negotiate with the committee, such as problems that come up concerning necessary changes in the research during its conduct or personal difficulties of the student. The advisor has to see that the committee is kept informed. Sometimes, the advisor does it; other times, it is appropriate to make sure that the student sees or at least communicates with every committee member. When committee suggestions are sought on a draft, they must be thoroughly discussed by the student and the advisor, and the student should discuss and understand the risks and positive aspects of whatever action is taken. The advisor has responsibility to draw a consensus from the committee so that the student does not suffer from faculty disagreements and so that the individual committee members can continue to serve without feeling that their scholarly reputations are in jeopardy.

The only guiding principle that merits support is for the advisor to relate to all committee members with integrity and academic respect. Good communication by the advisor gives all the committee members the information they need to be helpful and to use their expertise in assisting the candidate to successful completion of the T/ D. Technology such as E-mail has made advisor and student written communication easier. The same message can be sent simultaneously to the student and to committee members. Messages can be sent frequently and accurately, with the knowledge that all are getting the same information at the same time.

Administrative Arrangements : The advisor also calls committee meetings for the overview, for the final defense, and for other purposes. Another obligation is to see that the student produces the THESIS AND DISSERTATION document in required form and has it in the committee’s hands several weeks before the meeting. The chairperson is also responsible for working with the candidate to ensure that all school and university requirements that call for committee action are met in a timely fashion.

Responsibilities to the Institution

Higher education institutions flourish largely because of the integrity of the individuals who make them up-students, faculty, administration, and staff. Not many other major societal units are so free of externally imposed laws and requirements. And few, if any, organizations are so self-governing. Individual integrity of consistently high order on the part of the members of the university community is an essential quality that has fostered that state of affairs and that must be present if university-based academic and professional preparation and research are to continue.

Maintenance of Standards : The first responsibility of the advisor to the institution is the maintenance of high standards of quality in all THESIS AND DISSERTATION and related activities. What constitutes quality is a value judgment, of course, but the judgment is not without guidelines. No other single person in the university has that responsibility or could ever discharge it if it were possessed-not the student, not the committee members individually, not the dean, not the program chairperson-no one but the research advisor.

Prevention of Fraud : Deceit, breach of confidence, gain from unfair or dishonest practices or from pretense-all of these fall under the head-ing of fraud. In the academic and professional community, fraud also includes fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, and other lapses in integrity or trustworthiness. It also means altering data, misrepresentation of results, and publication of another’s intellectual property as though it were one’s own. It probably is true that fraud in various forms in research reports is as old as the recorded history of discovery and creativity.

There are several guidelines for preventing fraud that should be discussed between advisor and student. We advocate making the same guidelines a part of what every faculty member accepts as a credo in working with students and colleagues in a sincere effort to prevent fraud and the temptation to perpetrate fraud in research.

Faculty are responsible for monitoring and vigorously enforcing standards of scientific integrity, and faculty should help establish procedures for resolving conflicts and professional disagreements promptly. It is the university’s responsibility to educate faculty and students about what constitutes scientific misconduct (Mishkin, 1993; Ruark, 2002; Smallwood, 2002).

We make a simple and direct charge to the advisor. Expect the whole THESIS AND DISSERTATION committee to exercise keen surveillance on all aspects of the project. To the student, we say, “Never cheat or tolerate cheating.” Nothing helps so much as full disclosure every inch of the way. Relevance of the Student Research : The advisor has the responsibility to ensure the relevance of THESIS AND DISSERTATION work. It is not a frivolous document. It should relate clearly to the program or department in which the student is doing graduate work or the question of where the dissertation and the student belong may be raised. If the proposed investigation has an evident and close relation to the expertise of the committee members, one aspect of the question of relevance is well answered. But, perhaps the most important aspect of relevance is the advisor’s responsibility to ensure the relevance of the topic to the student. Does the student see the topic as related to his or her own long-term interests? Does the student have the background to work on the chosen topic? Has the student articulated well the reasons for the choice of topic?

These and other aspects of relevance are detailed in Chapter 3, but two need to be named here: useful contributions to the field and usefulness to the growth of the student. Both are essential criteria in weighing the relevance of a topic. Without a rigorous examination of relevance, THESIS AND DISSERTATIONs can descend to the level of trivia. Highly relevant, well-conceived, well-executed, and significant THESIS AND DISSERTATIONs indicate top-qual-ity professional and academic programs. The THESIS AND DISSERTATION is the one product that represents the best of the student, the advisor, the committee, and the quality of prior preparation. It must be carefully reproduced, bound, microfilmed, or otherwise preserved for posterity as the culminating work of long and demanding training. Whatever the student’s subsequent career, the signed, bound copy of a relevant and scholarly THESIS AND DISSERTATION stands forever in testimony to the relevance and scholarship of the student, the advisor, and the university.

Academic Interests : Advisor responsibility to the institution includes academic and personal integrity, and integrity finds its severest testing in THESIS AND DISSERTATION work, the highest levels of independent study. The predominantly solitary or one-to-one THESIS AND DISSERTATION work leaves both the student and faculty member largely to their own resources. Individual student behavior cannot be melded into that of the rest of the class. There is no set course outline and no standard textbook with manual and tests to be interposed between the faculty member and the student. There are no specified number and schedule of class meetings. Colleagues or assistants cannot substitute for the faculty member. The student cannot

find help in another student’s notes. Instead, independent study leading to the THESIS AND DISSERTATION is a type of student-faculty member adventure into the academic unknown. The personal and academic integrity of each becomes a major ingredient in the enterprise.

Perhaps the best way to deal with possible role conflict related to integrity is always to keep in mind the question, “What is the best course to follow in terms of the integrity of the process, the university, and the student?” This question will not necessarily yield easy answers, but keeping the question foremost in one’s thoughts is more likely to yield worthwhile answers than bending with whatever wind blows hardest at any given time.

When there are no local institutional guidelines, the matter should not be bypassed. Instead, personal and academic integrity should be discussed in terms of local custom and practice, even though unwritten, and in terms of more general ethical codes of professional associations. We believe personal and academic integrity are not exactly the same, although we discuss them together. For example, keeping or not keeping an appointment by a student or faculty member is a matter of personal integrity, as is either person inventing a falsehood to explain not completing a task agreed on. On the other hand, consciously failing to give credit to someone else for a previously stated concept or idea is a matter of academic integrity, as is failure to acknowledge a quotation or disguising it by reproducing it with minor alterations and without citation.

Differences in Responsibilities at Thesis and Dissertation Levels

The thesis, as indicated, is a work of more limited proportions than a dissertation . While an end in itself for some students, it readies others for more comprehensive and complex investigations.

The thesis advisor works with the honors or graduate student (usually during the fourth or fifth year of university study) to produce a useful, well-written work, supported by evidence. Assessment practices differ, but preferred practice includes the overview of a committee. The work should be circulated in the department and published by the university or at least catalogued in the university library and made available for publication or microfilming for a wide audience.

The principles of advisor-advisee relationships that apply to the thesis process are the same as those applicable to the dissertation as described in the preceding pages.

The responsibilities of the dissertation advisor contrast mainly in quantitative ways with the responsibilities of the thesis advisor. Aca-demic endeavor, the attributes of scholarliness, use of reputable and replicable investigative procedures and methodology, and a clear and readable manuscript are equally applicable. With respect to THESIS AND DISSERTATION products other than manuscripts (i.e., musical compositions, works of art, constructions, and the like), applicable similar principles should prevail. There is no reason to sacrifice those attributes because the work level may not be as advanced or the nature of the work may be somewhat different.


In the search for an advisor, it is best for the student to be armed with some understanding of how advisors operate. In turn, to determine what sort of advisor the student is most likely to need calls for considerable self-knowledge and the inclination to be objective about one’s assets and liabilities as a student.

The essential element we encourage the student to look for in the advisor is the special quality of thinking like a teacher . This is a skilled, articulate, rational, abstract thought process that sorts out the academic and professionally relevant facts of the student’s situation, ignoring the merely interesting and distracting incidentals. Its aim is to guide the student-advisor relationship toward the most promising topics and toward the most fruitful procedures for attacking the topics.

The student should not be put off because a potential advisor’s special way of thinking like a teacher does not manifest itself in a warm and reassuring approach to problems. Sometimes, aspiring THESIS AND DISSERTATION students are distressed by what they perceive as detachment from their personal trials. These students may truly need reassurance in that part of their lives. Some advisors may indeed be persons who tend to supply that reassurance to students. But, the student needs to keep in mind the professional objective of the whole process: to obtain the best, most competent, most astute research advice and guidance.

The advisor may turn out to be, incidentally, a good family counselor, financial advisor, and warm friend, but that is not the advi-sor’s job. In making decisions about the selection of an advisor, decisions that involve both immediate and long-range educational and personal objectives, it is helpful to keep that distinction firmly in mind.

Criteria for Selection of the Research Advisor

The single best criterion the student may use in seeking out an advisor for the dissertation is the track record of the faculty member. Traditionally, research advisors do not advertise. Thus, it is necessary for the student to seek these kinds of relevant data about potential advisors:

  1. How do other students who are working with this advisor react to the situation?
  2. Is the faculty member one who is or has been productive in theory and research of the kind that interests you?
  3. Do students who work with this advisor progress with reasonable dispatch in their investigations?
  4. Does the faculty member appear to be regarded highly by colleagues and by others you respect?
  5. What has happened to the last four or five students who initiated their work under this research advisor?
  6. Does there seem to be a strong element of trust between your potential advisor and his or her students?
  7. Has the advisor worked well with foreign students on THESIS AND DISSERTATION committees?
  8. Is the advisor current with respect to modern technology used in research and scholarly production?

University libraries have copies of student dissertations. Read them and look for the names of advisors, committee members, and the academic area of the dissertation . As to faculty academic background and field of expertise, universities usually publish such information, either in print or on line.

These and related inquiries about past performances can supply data on which to base decisions. In all cases, a personal interview

with the potential advisor is a good idea once the student has some idea of the area of investigation.

A not uncommon situation is the assigning of advisors to students on their acceptance to the program. The student has nothing to say about the initial assignment. This system may work reasonably well, particularly if it is easy to change advisors without fear of reprisal. However, the choice of a research advisor should be regarded as a decision separate from the academic advisor assignment. That is, the research advisor choice should be regarded by all as a conscious decision that the program expects the student to make, and the student should be completely free to choose to stay with the academic advisor or to go to some other faculty person for research guidance. There ought to be no stigma, difficulty, or discomfort attached to the choice for the skills one looks for in a research advisor may be quite different from those possessed by an academic advisor, not better or lesser skills. Every academic advisor has the responsibility of telling students that they should carefully seek a research advisor, even to the point of suggesting one or two names if appropriate, and that they should not feel that they need to stay with their own academic advisor. This point is particularly important for advisors of foreign students for such students may understandably become dependent on the initial advisor or may profit especially from exposure to the methods of more than one scholar in the field. This is a subject that should be brought up by the faculty member for it may be awkward for the student to raise it. In a number of cases, the academic advisor may well prove to be the most suitable research advisor.

Support from the Department Chairperson

What we have already said about the responsibilities of the academic advisor ought to be supported in important ways by the department (or program) chairperson. The chairperson needs to support the freedom of the student in this regard and to protect that important part of academic freedom from the excesses and possessive abuses that occasionally creep into faculty-student relationships. The chairperson should feel free to suggest research advisors for reasons of appropriateness, time availability, and fields of interest. Of course, such suggestions can in themselves become abused if the students and faculty do not feel free to reject them.

The Graduate Faculty’s Role

As a collective body, the graduate faculty is responsible for the quality of graduate work, including the quality of advisement and the quality of the student research that emanate from their domain. It is the responsibility of the graduate faculty to regulate the process to ensure high quality. When the graduate faculty fails to do so, there is no other mechanism for quality control, and the quality issue has no appropriate resolution.

Individual honors or graduate faculty members also have something to say about the choice of advisor. An acceptable arrangement is made only when the student and the faculty member agree to enter into it. It is appropriate for the faculty member to decline to be the student’s research advisor when, for example, the research area proposed is outside the field of interest or competence of the faculty member or when the faculty member is already burdened to such an extent that careful advisement is not possible.

Changes in Research Advisor

A change in research advisor is often a more sensitive matter than the original choice of one. It sometimes does imply a breakdown of relationships or understanding somewhere along the line, and it can be a sticky matter. Fairness to both faculty and students would indicate that the proposal for a change might come from either and for a variety of legitimate reasons. The faculty member may not have the time that was originally contemplated, or the research may have taken a direction that the faculty member does not welcome. Alternatively, perhaps the new direction involves not so much disagreement as a reevaluation of faculty interest and competence. Either student or faculty may feel that the progress is too slow and come to the understanding that another advisor would be preferable.

In any case, either party should be able to initiate a request for a change, and that request, with reasons, should go to the department chairperson so that an appropriate replacement can be found. In fact, it would be best if a replacement could be found by the student and advisor before they agree to part. This would help to make all persons feel they had discharged their responsibility professionally.

The more informal and low key these procedures can be, the better they are for the student and the faculty, assuming of course that the rights of the individual are respected and that the correct university procedures are followed. It is the primary responsibility of the department chairperson to ensure that the transition goes smoothly, and that the most vulnerable person in the situation-the student-is fairly treated.


This chapter concentrates on the responsibilities of the research advisor as they are commonly seen in professional schools or academic departments in institutions of higher education. Responsibilities to students, other THESIS AND DISSERTATION committee members, and the institution are explored. Some suggestions of particular relevance to foreign students are made. From the student point of view, suggestions are given with regard to the important process of the selection of the research advisor and possible changes in such selection.

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