Choosing Your Team: How to Select a Chair and Academic Committee in Graduate School

To receive graduate degrees, students will likely be required to write dissertations or theses under the direction of faculty chairs or advisors and to present that work to an academic committee who decide whether or not the students pass examination and qualify for graduation. Typically, graduate students are allowed to choose their own chairs and committee members. Committee members and chairs play an important role in the success of graduate students. Academic committee members and chairs can determine (a) how quickly students progress through their degrees, (b) how successful students are in their research, (c) how successful students are in networking with others in their fields, and (d) how successful students will be in either academia or the professional world after graduation. Therefore, graduate students must carefully and thoughtfully choose which faculty will act as their committee members and chairs.

Qualities to Look for in Committee Members and Faculty Chairs
When deciding whom they would like to act as their committees and chairs, students should consider (a) if faculty have compatible personalities with similar research interests; (b) if faculty are experienced in and enthusiastic about directing, advising, helping, and working with students; and (c) what kind of teaching and research reputations the faculty have. Graduate students should definitely consider all three of these characteristics for both committee members and faculty chairs, but students should especially consider the first two characteristics in their choices of faculty chairs. Graduate students work more closely with faculty chairs than they do with academic committee members, so it is important that students can get along with their faculty chairs.

Differences in Mentorship Styles
Being a member of a graduate student’s committee or acting as a chair for a graduate student is a form of faculty mentorship, and most faculty approach mentorship with different styles depending on where faculty are in their own academic careers. For example, a newly hired professor hoping to gain credibility with his or her department might be more involved in a student’s research than would a professor with a well-established academic career. Neither style (hands on or hands off) is inherently good or bad, but both styles have pros and cons. For example, a hands-on chair may provide a student with lots of direction and guidance but may subsume the student’s original research goals into his or her own research. On the other hand, a hands-off chair may provide a graduate student with a wealth of knowledge about research and other industry information but may have less time to spend with the student because he or she is too involved in his or her own work. Before choosing their academic committee members and faculty chairs, graduate students should understand differences in mentorship styles and should identify the mentorship styles of potential committee members and faculty chairs to determine if their mentorship styles will provide them as graduate students with the support that they will need to succeed in graduate school.