It seems that there is no requirement for professors to serve on even a single dissertation committee. (This is so at least at my US university and I believe is common practice worldwide - please correct me if I'm wrong.)

So why would any of them do it, other than out of the pure goodness of their heart? It seems like purely volunteer work.

(Of course, one can imagine professors being eager to serve on the committee of a John Nash or a Ludwig Wittgenstein, if only so that their names appear as a footnote somewhere in the history of science, but most of us are not Nash or Wittgenstein.)

[Personal anecdote: I am asking this question because I've been having some trouble filling my committee. Many professors simply respond that they have no time, are too busy, etc. I am left feeling like a pathetic beggar grovelling for favors, even though I may be paying hefty tuition fees, which presumably helps pay at least a little for their salaries.]

Addendum: I simply wanted to give a little context for my query, but it was perhaps a mistake for me to add the above personal anecdote.

I'd prefer answers to stick simply to the question itself, which to repeat, is quite simply this: "What incentives do professors have to serve on dissertation committees?"

Perhaps we can leave to avenues other than StackExchange the opinion-based debates about whether the current situation is ideal or whether I personally have a moral defect and should change my "client" mentality.

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    ..."though I may be paying hefty tuition fees". You should really abandon "this client mentality" just because you are paying tuition. Even in countries where public universities are free, they are still paid by taxes (e.g. the students, their family and the rest of the taxpayers).
    – Alexandros
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 15:31
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    @Kenny LJ: I would have assumed that dissertation meant PhD until you mentioned paying $40,000 of tuition. Are you really in a PhD program and paying $40,000 of your own money for tuition? Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 18:46
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    Follow-up: without arguing whether or not people should have, or have a right to have, a "client mentality", for example, in the scenarios in question as in many other human interactions, asking a favor with one tone gets an easy "yes", while in another gets an immediate "no". A questioner can affect the outcome/answer of the question. E.g., if someone asks a favor in a fashion that acknowledges that it is a favor, that's one thing, but if (what I construe as) a favor is asked for as if it were a debt I owed, I might easily decline. Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 20:46
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    It's worth keeping in mind that, to a close approximation, tenured faculty aren't required to do much of anything. In this respect serving on dissertation committees is not that different from another other professorial duty.
    – BrenBarn
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 6:27

6 Answers 6


The professors serving on one committee will also have their own students, who they will want to see graduate (even if you assume pure selfishness they want their recrords to look good). Those students will need to be examined as well so in a sense it's mutual assistance, but time-deferred. Also good relationships between academics are how a lot gets done: this is a fairly easy way for an academic to build relationships with other (perhaps more senior) professors. So while generosity is important in this sort of thing, it's not quite that simple.

As an aside, you might like to ponder the effect on such well-established networks and systems of treating academics and their research groups as business units in a corporate entity.

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    I'd like to add that many collaborations between professors start because they first communicated with each other as part of a PhD student's dissertation committee. Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 21:40

In my experience, in the U.S., faculty are expected to serve on such committees now-and-then, but there is no specific rule, no specific compulsion to serve on any particular committee, and no reward for serving on more rather than fewer. In fact, such committees are time-and-energy consuming, to various degrees, so such service is easily viewed as a net loss in material terms.

That is, yes, it is fundamentally out of a sense of generosity and service, rather than compulsion.

Even for faculty who are generally inclined to agree to serve on such committees, the possibility of declining any particular invitation allows one to avoid situations that have ill portents: no one wants to be on a committee that has to cope with serious problems in a thesis, or serious problems in a student's attitude or capacity.

In particular, scheduling can often be a decisive problem: faculty will not want to cancel classes or meetings with their own PhD students or trips to conferences or vacation-time ... merely to accommodate lack of foresight about scheduling. Peoples' schedules fill up far in advance, and simultaneous scheduling of several faculty is a highly non-trivial matter. A lead time of _at_least_ a few months is wise, and also gives a more civil window for genuine feedback and critique of a dissertation, as opposed to the sort of last-minute railroading-through that I have seen far too often.

And, given that faculty rightly view such service as volunteer work, if a student approaches them with an attitude that implicitly assumes otherwise (e.g., the "client" model), that situation easily falls into the "ill portent" case, and is immediately avoided.

  • At many institutions a full draft of the dissertation must be submitted 1-2 months prior to a thesis defense. However, even at these institutions, this rule may not be followed so strictly. Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 21:38
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    @MHH, indeed, there is supposedly such a rule at my university, too, but far too often I've been presented with a document at the last moment, with "no time for revision", etc. Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 22:11

I have never heard of a department where staff are required to serve on dissertation committees. In some cases committee members are co-authors on the resulting papers, but this is country and field dependent. Similarly in some cases committee members get "credit" during tenure and promotion reviews. As in most things academic, it really is about the "goodness of our hearts" (or our selfish desire to be involved in research).

Constructing a thesis committee should really be a joint venture between you and your supervisor. Making sure students have the thesis committee they need/want is one of the core responsibilities of a thesis supervisor. If they are unable to fulfil this duty, then you may want to reconsider your supervisor. If you are having trouble finding a primary supervisor, that is a very different issue.

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    At the place where I graduated, committees where formed by the Dean of Studies. Of course you could explain that a certain time etc. is really bad for you, but you certainly couldn't always (or even in the majority of cases) say "no".
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 16:47

At some institutions, promotions and salary increases are based on certain categories like "research, teaching, and service". Dissertation committee service might bolster the "service" component. But of course one might serve on other types of committees, or do other types of service, either within the university or outside the university. Refusing one particular type of service (such as dissertation committees) won't hurt you, but refusing all types of service just might.

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    I also think that many professors find that serving on a dissertation committee (learning some new material) is much more interesting than some of the other more political/administrative committees that count as service. Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 21:42
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    Minor quibble: 'Dissertaion' in the second sentence.
    – E.P.
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 11:24
  • corrected dissertation
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 13:53

I am not a faculty member, but a scientist working in industry. Nevertheless, I have served on university dissertation committees a number of times, and I find it quite rewarding for a number of reasons. In particular:

  • I am generally scientifically interested in the work that the student is doing, and get to have a hand in ensuring its quality.
  • Good students frequently go on to become new colleagues and collaborators.
  • Serving on a committee strengthens existing collaborative relationships.
  • It is just plain satisfying to help mentor an enthusiastic young researcher.

Thus, even without the more structured expectations, responsibilities, and quid-pro-quo that comes with a faculty department, I find that there are sufficient reasons to serve on a dissertation committee.


How about to learn and be exposed to new concepts and ideas? Or to get a publication or two with little effort and time? It can also foster new collaborations with other faculty in and out the department. It can create stronger ties within the department, but also sometimes conflicts in committee meetings. (There are some funny stories about these...)

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    "How about to learn and be exposed to new concepts and ideas?" Yes. "Or to get a publication or two with little effort and time?" No! Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 19:30
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    @PeteL.Clark: I personally am not acquainted with such professors, but I certainly have heard of stories of professors who do enter into a bargain where in exchange for being on a committee, they get their names on any future publications. (The bargain is certainly not explicitly written on paper and may not even be an explicit oral agreement, but can be tacit and depends on the power the professor has.)
    – user10885
    Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 19:32
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    @KennyLJ if the committee member did not participate heavily in the research design or manuscript writing, what you describe is certainly an unethical arrangement. If the arrangement is to collaborate and write a paper together that is a different story. Probably both happen, but I sure hope the latter is more common. Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 21:46
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    @Kenny LJ: Bad things happen. But they shouldn't, by definition of "bad". My "no" was meant in the sense of "No, don't do that" rather than "No, that is never done". Commented Jan 11, 2015 at 23:26

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