I am part of a masters student's thesis committee for the first time in my career, and am unsure what I should be doing be during the question session following the public presentation. I have read the whole document and have made comments about edits and corrections I would like the student to make, and have prepared a list of questions I could ask the student. However, I am unclear on a few things:

  1. What criteria should I use to evaluate the student's work? What is necessary to consider their work good enough to pass?

  2. If there is a disagreement among committee members, how does that typically get resolved?

  3. What should my goal be with the questions I ask? I am already familiar with the theory and experimental design of the student's project, and could easily find myself digging into details or trying to test the student's overall knowledge of the field, but I'm not sure these would be useful ways to spend time. As the most junior person on the committee I expect I will be last, and unsure how much I'm expected to contribute to the examination.

For background, the student is at a different institution than I am, and my department does not have graduate students. We're both in the same city in the United States. I have talked to the student's advisor about the project itself, but I haven't gotten a clear sense of what I should be doing in the exam. The student's institution only lists administrative requirements for scheduling and submitting documents on their website, and doesn't seem to provide guidance for the contents of the thesis.

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    Do you know anyone else from their institution? – user90948 Apr 6 '18 at 16:26
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    What country is this? The nature of a defense varies enormously between countries. – Thomas Apr 6 '18 at 16:36
  • @user90948 I don't know anyone else from the institution, unfortunately. – Adam Bosen Apr 6 '18 at 16:42
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    @Thomas we're in the US, which I added to the question. – Adam Bosen Apr 6 '18 at 16:43
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    Can you ask the person who invited you? Or ask this person to bring you in contact with a senior committee member? From my very limited perspective, such examinations differ not only between countries, but also between institutes, and possibly departments. – Mark Apr 6 '18 at 17:33

Internally within the committee, asking the committee chair is the best option. The chair should be able to fill you in with the procedure and what kind of angles the questions usually take. Be aware that the chair may still insist that you should decide what kind of questions to ask. And from my experience serving in committees, they did mean it.

Externally, since your institute is in the same city with the host, why not go attend a public defense there? That way you can also get the tone right. Do know that, however, tone/attitude can still vary greatly within an institute.

As for what to ask... first, I'd say don't ask any structural questions that would destroy the student's work. Those should be cleared up before the committee signed off the student to present. Second, unless it's for clarifying some question in the results or data, use open-ended questions. From my experience, I usually ask 1-2 clarifying question (e.g. on a limitation they suggested, etc.) and 1-2 "what if's" (e.g. what would you have changed if you can redo this work?) or "how should this work be carried forward", etc. That's just my style, I like to start by making it feel like the candidate is a student answering questions to end with treating the candidate as a new expert who can make recommendations and broad takeaway.

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    +1 for the notion that the thesis defense should not be held if there are significant technical issues. – aeismail Apr 6 '18 at 19:33
  • Great answer. You may want to add something about open vs. closed question sessions, e.g. asking the chair whether there are both public and closed times for questions, and what kinds of questions might be appropriate in each. – cactus_pardner Apr 6 '18 at 20:09
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    I second the assertion that the session is still educational. Making the successful candidate feel good and feel like he's grown up a bit is part of our duty. – B. Goddard Apr 6 '18 at 20:21

I don't have a complete answer to your question, but I have a story that applies. I had a friend who was asked to be the "external" panel member on a dissertation committee. He read the dissertation and then took time off work, flew to the other city, and sat through the defense. One of the "internal" panel members sucker punched the Ph.D. candidate. She had correctly identified a serious flaw in the dissertation. She waited until the formal defense and then pounced. The candidate failed his defense (a year later he passed.) It cost my friend a certain amount of time and money and trouble that could have been avoided, had the internal not been such a drama queen.

But everyone, absolutely everyone, thought the internal lady was way out of line, even though she was right. She'd had copies of the dissertation throughout the previous months and at any time could have gone to either the student or the advisor with her issues. But she waited until the juiciest moment so she could revel in the student's public humiliation and her own exaltation. Everyone now knows her true character and she's paid the price for that.

So my advice is: Treat your duties as, mostly, a formality. If you have problems or objections, see if you can take care of them privately, like a sensible adult would. And I say mostly a formality. It's a formality in that the standards for work vary by school and the internal people will know best whether the student's work measures up. Your job as external is to make sure things aren't insane. I wouldn't speak up unless I thought the problem was way out of bounds. I would ask some questions, maybe along the lines of "What would be different if...?" or "What comes next?"

If there are disagreements on the committee and you know the right side, chose that side. If you don't know the right side, side with the advisor or abstain.

Let's see....Oh yeah. Another story. It's sadly the case that many committee members just sign off on whatever whenever meh. The don't read the paper even once. I know of a case where a young lady had submitted her thesis and the committee was ready to sign off. A member of the department NOT on the committee read the paper, which rang a bell in his memory. He was able to find the paper she had plagiarized. He showed it to the advisor and that was it for her.

(When confronted, she broke down and confessed that she had always cheated. She said she'd learned virtually no math, (yet had a B.S. and nearly, but for the above, had an M.S. in math.) She was a skilled cheater who had methods for getting exams taken for her, etc. Bizarre.)

Anyway, it would be your job to do a thorough plagiarism check, in my opinion. If you find something, then, as I said above, don't wait until the day of the defense to spring it on the players.

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  • Wow. This "internal lady" must have a truly awful character. – user90948 Apr 6 '18 at 18:07
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    However, I wouldn't agree that you have to do a plagiarism check anymore than you would do when referring a journal paper. (Of course, if you find something by chance, do tell as soon as possible!) – user90948 Apr 6 '18 at 18:09

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