Dear prof, you're the only helpful member of my committee. Please leave.
January 9, 2015 7:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm in my mumble year of grad school in a humanities field and will at long last be filing my dissertation this semester. I don't want to stay in academia, so I don't care how good or bad the thesis is; it just needs to be good enough to file. My advisor and two other committee members will probably sign off on anything. The fourth member is the problem. She's helpful, conscientious and would be likely to have lots of good suggestions for improvement. I want her off my committee.

I have the thesis mostly written -- another month or two of revision and I should have a complete draft. No one will ever read it, and I'm not going to be a research academic, so my only goal at this point is to turn in something that my committee will sign. My advisor wants to see me get out the door already and I don't foresee him asking for much in the way of further changes. Two of the other committee members have been totally hands-off and are even less likely to give trouble. Member 4, however -- call her Lisa -- might actually be conscientious enough to make the kinds of revision demands that would be invaluable if I had reason to care about the quality of the finished product, but which as it is would only make for further hoops to jump through (and which I might not have time to implement anyway given that I'm filing in May). How can I tactfully put it to Lisa that I would be better off without her on the committee (unless she's willing to sign off on what she will probably consider a more or less crap thesis)? And if I do drop her, how do I justify it to my advisor?

A relevant point of info is that it's been about two years since I had any dissertation-related communications at all with anyone on my committee other than my advisor. The only thing they've read was a partial chapter draft which has been much revised since. I'm basically asking them to read an entire (albeit as short as I can get away with) new thesis. It wouldn't be fair to Lisa to ask her to do this, then ignore her feedback, and anyway if I did so she might understandably refuse to sign. I doubt she actually particularly wants to be on the committee at this stage anyway. But I can't very well say, "Lisa, would you mind being dropped from the committee because you're likely to care that the thesis is crap and I don't?" -- and to my advisor, "Jim, I asked Lisa to leave the committee because she would have made helpful comments that could have made the thesis a lot better, but I just want to do the bare minimum so I can get my degree."

Any helpful scripts, academic MeFites?
posted by zeri to Education (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If your advisor does want you out the door, then I don't see why he would mind you booting this committee member. I was in a similar situation just a few months ago, and we agreed I should do exactly that. I didn't even have to tell the committee member, just submitted some paperwork to the graduate school. I can see this being more uncomfortable if you do actually have to speak with her to do it. But even so, people change around their committees all the time, for all sorts of reasons. If you needed to explain anything, you could simply say a version of the truth. "I'm just trying to get out quickly and painlessly at this point, and there's no reason to subject you to reading my thesis and giving feedback. Thanks so much for all your contributions thus far!"

Best of luck, enjoy your freedom!
posted by detritivore at 7:24 PM on January 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

Sorry, but really there is no way to say this. Getting the thesis approved isn't just about you because passing you with an unacceptable dissertation damages the credibility of the department and hurts the discipline. A PhD means something more than just skating by. Even if your advisor just "wants you out the door," she still doesn't have to pass you, actually. Do the work that is asked of you to (even marginally) pass by the standards of your whole committee. If you really don't want to turn in a diss you feel is better than what you call "crap," then just be ABD.
posted by third rail at 7:26 PM on January 9, 2015 [50 favorites]

Third Rail is right. Do the work that merits the designation and the recognition of achievement that it represents. Anything less is disrespectful to everyone else who did.
posted by imthebadgerdamnit at 7:43 PM on January 9, 2015 [17 favorites]

IAAP, albeit IANYP. I have known people in exactly your situation, and their dissertation committees still insisted that the dissertation be competently executed, even if, as third rail says, only "marginally" so. A bad dissertation reflects badly on the director (and, for that matter, the department). So, yes, you can get "Lisa" off your committee, but that doesn't mean that you'll be off the hook for revisions &c. or that the other members won't have something to say, even if they haven't read anything you've written in years--in fact, I would suggest getting them back in the loop to prevent unpleasant shocks, because dropping an entirely new thesis on them at one go may not get the result you want.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:05 PM on January 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry, are you going for a Master's degree or a PhD?

In my experience, getting a Master's thesis approved is - depending on the school and the people involved - usually trivial. In fact, you'll be lucky if Lisa actually bothers to read it.

A PhD is typically held to a higher standard. Although again, this can vary.

(as can the terminology "thesis" vs "dissertation", and whether it is reviewed by a committee or an individual, etc. It's been awhile since I've been in school, but it seems like every school does it their own way).
posted by doctor tough love at 8:36 PM on January 9, 2015

If it had been two years since I'd heard from you, it would take significant groveling to get you back on my calendar. You might want to be sure who still considers themselves part of your committee before you get around to turfing Lisa. If Lisa is an engaged, thoughtful person who would devote the time to help you improve your thesis she's also likely the kind of person who will cut loose students who don't correspond with her in two years.

Look, I finished a doctorate without any intention of going on to a career in academia, but this is something to be proud of. I'd consider taking a bit of time away to reassess and determine if you can invest wholly in the enterprise of writing a good dissertation that you'll be proud to have created for years to come, not something you can cram in the corner of your bookshelf to balance it.

If you want to get her off your committee after all this - just find a new committee member and do the paperwork. She probably hasn't thought of you in many months. But you might want to be sure you have other committee members at the same time.
posted by arnicae at 8:40 PM on January 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: doctor tough love: PhD, not MA.

Just to clarify some points and prevent a derail: although my thesis could be made a lot better, it's not going to be an embarrassment to anyone involved. (I've seen finished ones in my department that were worse.) Not finishing or taking more time is not an option. I don't need to replace Lisa with another member (three is all I need); I formally only need my advisor's approval to change my committee, but I wouldn't be comfortable dropping Lisa without talking to her at all. What would be helpful to me are scripts addressed to either or both a la detritivore's answer. Thanks.
posted by zeri at 8:54 PM on January 9, 2015

Has the subject or angle of your thesis changed significantly since you got Lisa on the committee in the first place? If so, maybe it's not as relevant to her area of expertise anymore and that could be your stated reason for dropping her.

Or maybe just "Lisa, thanks for being willing to serve on my committee. But since I'm planning on filing in May, I'm trying to streamline the review/revision/approval process as much as possible, so I'm paring down to a smaller committee."
posted by aka burlap at 9:03 PM on January 9, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds like you expect her to be offended, whereas I'm sure she'll appreciate a lighter workload. You're doing her a favor! Building on the above:

"Lisa, thanks for being willing to serve on my committee. I'm sorry to have been out of touch -- my [important other thing] really took up much more time than expected, but I'm now planning on filing in May. Since I'm trying to streamline the review process as much as possible, as well as minimize the number of people impacted by my short timeline, I'm paring down to a smaller committee. Because you are so busy with your new Y, [or because the focus changed?] advisor and I thought we'd let you off the hook." Then add a paragraph thanking her so much for her contributions so far and offering to take her out to lunch to thank her. Good luck!
posted by salvia at 10:05 PM on January 9, 2015 [13 favorites]

I had a longer thing, but basically agree with salvia. I'd only add that you should mention that you are not entering academia and that you and your advisor have agreed that it's only sensible for you to assemble a minimally-acceptable dissertation (assuming you've had that conversation) before a minimum-sized committee.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:29 PM on January 9, 2015

I agree with all the others that this decision should be made with your advisor. I'd advise you to do it face to face and keep it simple. First, have some discussion of the work (leading you both to consider how much needs to happen between now and May), then ask, "given the pace at which I'm going to need to move, I am wondering if it'd make sense to consider streamlining the process by reducing the size of the committee."
posted by salvia at 11:19 PM on January 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Although I sympathize, and don't necessarily disagree with your strategy, could you please also think a bit about what you're creating as a potentially useful artifact? In other words, this is maybe not just about you and your career. I imagine you'd say that your research couldn't possibly be of use to anyone else, and maybe that's true now, but you never know. If there are one or two small occasions when you can choose to do just a tiny bit more (not a debilitating amount) to help future academics, please don't imagine that it's truly of no consequence.
posted by amtho at 5:50 AM on January 10, 2015

In my experience (not humanities but a social science), it should be possible to defend/pass your work with conscientious people on your committee without it slowing you down too much unless there are huge gaping problems that make it unethical for the committee to sign off on your thesis. I defended/passed what I considered a not so great thesis, and I had great committee members whose work I really respect, they made wonderful suggestions but didn't expect me to change very much in the end (so I passed with minor revisions, which in my area means they would take less than two weeks to complete, it took me a few days). Your advisor is the gatekeeper unless there's something political between your #4 and your professor (which it doesn't sound like). So my takeaway is that you may be overestimating how much this #4 member will try to stop you from graduating by making you do tons of revisions. If your professor thinks you're done you're likely done and can finish within a reasonable timeframe.

Also if you are going to do this, I know it sucks, but if you've made it this far, it's really not much farther to do a good job that you can look back on proudly. Future employers will want to know a little bit about your thesis and you want to be able to say "I left academia, but I did excellent work", not "I hated it so much that I gave up and put as little effort as possible into it".

As a first step I would express your concerns (about your date to completion, not about committee member 4) to your advisor and ask if you're being reasonable to think you can finish in your desired timeframe. If you have a job/move date/something lined up your committee will be much more reasonable about not slowing you down, again this is up to your supervisor to convey to your committee.
posted by lafemma at 6:20 AM on January 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I agree with salvia, and I think all those people who are trying to shame you into making this a world-class dissertation should have thought twice before posting, because they are not answering the question, which is perfectly sensible as stated.
posted by languagehat at 12:33 PM on January 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

You may want to consider that your thesis may well be available online for all the world to see FOREVER.
posted by waving at 10:40 PM on January 10, 2015

I am quite sure the poster has considered that yes, people will be able to read the thesis. The poster has stated clearly that it is not going to be an embarrassment to anyone involved.
posted by languagehat at 9:29 AM on January 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

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