PhD committee blues.
February 9, 2011 6:29 PM   Subscribe

I had a rough PhD candidacy exam with a provisional pass. I have three months to "make things more specific and do an experiment." Some of my committee comments were constructive, but something seems off.

I have a large committee (5+advisor) with widely varying backgrounds. There may or may not be politics involved above my pay grade. My advisor is extremely busy and has been putting off debriefing. I'm hoping to speak with him by the end of the week. Then, I'm going to set a meeting with each committee member and, in so many words, ask them how they would proceed if they were me. Finally, I may touch base with the graduate chair to get another perspective, to get on his radar, and to be an actual face.

Clearly, I will do my best to swallow my pride, be a student, and integrate my (possibly conflicting) committee member suggestions.

But I want to make sure I cover the political/interpersonal side, too. I'm in a clinically focused engineering program. My committee is half MDs and half engineering/comp sci/stat people. It was the tech people that went apeshit, riled each other up, were not particularly constructive towards me, and intimidated the doctors, at least when I was in the room. My advisor may or may not choose to enlighten me some more. As I said, there may be political/interpersonal stuff going on too.

What are my political/interpersonal options, and what might the consequences be, if I attempt to exercise them? How typical is it to request committee changes? How would I sell that? Should I be saving emails and dating/taking notes of all conversations? (I think I'm even in a state where I can legally, covertly record conversations, but that seems potentially excessive/silly/creepy.)

Basically, in addition to doing the best science I can, how can I protect myself from inexplicable stuff going on above my head? I've got a weird feeling which I've never had before.
posted by anonymous to Education (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You did not fail.

Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, failed his PhD defense. He had to redo it after a year.
posted by jchaw at 6:59 PM on February 9, 2011

I don't know your program but I've seen people in your position in engineering and the sciences. Before you start thinking about interpersonal politics and espionage, do in fact swallow your pride and look closer to home. Accept that the problem might in fact be you. Maybe you do need to rethink your project, make it more specific and do another experiment. That's the problem with a lot of students' work. It's entirely possible that it's the problem with yours' too.

Of course there might be other things going on, but sometimes the simplest answer is the right answer. And having thought through how to make your research question more specific will actually prepare you for your meetings. Ask your advisor whether it is necessary to meet with every committee member, or if there are certain members he recommends you meet with. That will tell you something about the dynamics of the committee and whose opinion matters.

Ultimately, you're not going to get anywhere trying to dig into the politics above your pay grade, all the more so with a distant and busy advisor. Even if you find out there's conflict, there's nothing you can do about it. You're better off not knowing who hates whose guts, frankly. And without knowing your institution, field and department, no one really can say whether you can switch committee members.

So your best bet is to make the changes your advisor and the committee recommend and go from there.

Finally, I strongly advise you against recording conversations or other covert operations. You're going to be working with these people for decades and you don't want to get a reputation for those kind of shenanigans.
posted by vincele at 7:03 PM on February 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Some more thoughts:

If you don't know the pass rate after the three months probation, find out.

You need at least one strong ally and it sounds like you don't have one. So I think you need to have an honest conversation with your advisor about what he sees as your future in his lab.

I don't know how you should initiate this conversation. Hopefully someone with science experience will come along with some advice or shoot down this suggestion entirely.

I also don't think it's the end of the world if the program doesn't work out.
posted by vincele at 7:21 PM on February 9, 2011

If you don't get it through after the 2nd try then you've got a problem. In an interdisciplinary field like yours the politics is tricky because of grey areas around disciplinary boundaries. Unfortunately you're just going to have to be a good student and suck it up.
posted by singingfish at 7:50 PM on February 9, 2011

I'm in the social sciences. When I was in my Ph.D. program heading into one of my comp exams, there were the similar kind of divisions and interpersonal crap. 3 weeks before the exam after studying for 6 months, I panicked about failing and chose not to write the exam, choosing instead to study a brand new comp exam area rather than deal with this crap. My friend wrote the exam and ended up like you. He went on worked hard to find allies in both camps who would support and advise him through the process, and showed them drafts of some of his work prior to re-writing. He passed his exam.

I would find out what the consequences of actually failing are and whether this is an acceptable risk/consequence for you (it wasn't for me). Otherwise, I would make darn sure that you work on the allies etc. to give you positive supports through this. If this seems unlikely (and perhaps in any case), I would go speak to your graduate advisor (if this is appropriate in your university) and the Departmental Chair.

The conversation with the Chair runs along the lines of "I provisionally passed my exam and I'm wondering if you've got any suggestions you might offer me in a successful outcome next time around particularly because this seems to be an area where both of these two camps are important". This should give the Chair the heads up and in the ideal world, your Chair will go find out wtf is going on and if necessary flag that there's an internal politics issue that they will resolve. Having your Chair as your ally getting through would be ideal, if in fact this is a possibility in your department.
posted by kch at 9:28 PM on February 9, 2011

Basically, in addition to doing the best science I can, how can I protect myself from inexplicable stuff going on above my head?

You can't. It's above your head, and if there's some real conflict there, it's not about you.

It's your advisor's job to shelter you from this. Your only real potential dangers are: 1. Your advisor is out of his depth politically and 2. Your advisor has lost faith in you.

You need to do your best to gauge both of these in a candid, but careful, conversation with your advisor.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:16 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

None of the members of my candidacy exam were at my actual defense. There is nothing wrong with replacing members that don't like you or your work. Honestly, as long as you like your work, it's their problem.

If I were you I would figure out the minimum needed to appease them, get through it, and then later dump the ones you don't like and find other ones for your actual thesis committee.

One useful trick with these types of committees, i.e., random people trying to assess your work, is to write out very explicitly what the contributions of the work are. Literally number them in the introduction and write out anything you're doing or intend to do that hasn't been done before or even if it has been done say that you're redoing it to validate the results. I'm sure you can come up with a list of 20 such things if you realize that every little thing counts .. every experiment .. every variation .. every insight .. every algorithm. As long as this list is very clearly in the beginning of the document they can read it, skim the rest, and feel comfortable enough to pass you.
posted by blueyellow at 10:24 PM on February 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

As others have said, it is incredibly important that your advisor is on your side. He should be your advocate with the rest of the committee, and he is (was) responsible for ensuring that you were ready for your candidacy exam.

Assuming that your advisor is on your side, I think your plan to meet with each committee member individually is a good one. And then, you really do just have to bite the bullet, swallow your pride (and possibly your self esteem) and do what they tell you to do to pass.

Yes, there may be politics completely over your head. I'm also in an interdisciplinary program, and stuff like that happens. And as a result of those politics, we sometimes have to jump through more hoops. An option I've seen people take in these situations is transferring out of the program and into a discipline-specific departments (is that an option for you?).

If your advisor is not on your side, going to the chair or director of graduate studies (whoever is the main advocate for grad students) is your only option. You will need to lay out the full situation, and you will need to ask for advice.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:10 AM on February 10, 2011

"make things more specific and do an experiment."

I think this is very important. vincele above has some good advice regarding this.

If you have not done so, find out what they consider to be an experiment and proof. I can't understand from your question what you are really supposed to be doing here - Is it user testing, or something else? If you have an interdisciplinary committee but have focused on the medical side rather than the engineering side, you may have drifted through this without really understanding what the engineering side want.

I would ask the folks who want more proof for some examples of conference papers and articles in the same general area that you are looking at, that contain the sorts of proof that they are looking for. Read those and design an experiment.

Important: If this is an interdisciplinary thesis, your advisor may not be up to speed with this literature. You have to be proactive here.
posted by life moves pretty fast at 5:45 AM on February 10, 2011

I second others that you need to talk to your advisor first and foremost. It should be your advisor's job to deal with this crap and interpret things you may not understand. Also, at many schools committees have to have an "outside" member that are specifically there to observe and protect the process. Do you have an "outside" member (that isn't a part of the problem)?

Finally, I would caution you to not make too much of this right now. You have a provisional pass and all candidates in your shoes are nervous and tend to over-interpret these defenses. It is also, partly, your job to make your committee happy. So if you can make members happy without ticking off others you need to do so. Your advisor should be the one to help you navigate this. I often tell my students to put in things they are being told to put in by certain committee members even if they themselves don't think it is necessary. They can always take it out of their dissertation when it is time to publish.
posted by Tallguy at 7:34 AM on February 10, 2011

I'll agree that you need an ally, although you may need to accept the reality that your advisor has thrown you under the bus. It sounds like he has. (I had a similar experience completing my undergrad honors thesis. My advisor was always too busy to work with me, and during my exam, the committee lashed into me, while he sat at the back of the room and said absolutely nothing.)

Your plan of talking to the committee members individually, as well as to your department chair sounds like a good one. Hopefully, you can deduce what politics are involved. (If you know any other students who were examined by the same committee, it would be a good idea to chat with them too)

If your advisor didn't adequately prepare you for the examination, and then didn't take the time out to debrief you after you didn't pass, I'd be pretty furious. You need to address this with your department chair in no vague terms.
posted by schmod at 9:08 AM on February 10, 2011

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