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Selecting members of one's PhD committee is an important part of a PhD student's academic development. Committee members can have considerable influence on a student's PhD program, such as determining what topics are on the student's prelims exams. However, sound advice on this process can be hard to find.

What are some guidelines to keep in mind when selecting members of one's PhD committee?

(This should be a generalized question useful for many different student-selected committee systems)

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There are some general guidelines for choosing members of a PhD committee:

  • They should have some enthusiasm for the work that you do. If they're not invested in seeing you succeed, you won't get as much utility out of that committee member as someone else who might not be as knowledgeable, but is more committed.

  • They should have the time to be on your committee. If they're extremely busy, then it doesn't help to have them on a committee, because it will be difficult for them to attend the meetings—or it will make scheduling the meetings a nightmare.

  • They should not have conflicts with either you or your advisor. A thesis committee is already a somewhat political body. There's no need to add extra politics to the situation by having interpersonal or professional conflicts before the committee even begins to meet!

  • Collectively, there should not be a power "imbalance." If your advisor is a new assistant professor, don't overload the committee with a bunch of full professors holding named chairs, and vice versa.

When they will set preliminary exams, there's the additional qualification of:

  • The committee members should be familiar enough with your area that they know what it might make sense to test you on, but not so familiar with your work that they turn it into a "gotcha" game.
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aeismail's post is very good, and just to add another few:

  • How difficult of a committee member are they? Some people will ask you to do far more work than others, and they typically have a reputation as such. It's worth trying to find that out and saving yourself the headache.
  • Many universities allow one or two committee members from outside the university. If there is a particular subject matter expert you would like to consult, feel free to ask them to serve on your committee... it can help you build a relationship with them and get their feedback on your research.

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