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I'm currently developing my dissertation proposal, and am in the process of choosing my committee members. I have heard that one should carefully choose their committee members, since they ultimately judge if and when your PhD work is done. As far as I can tell, a committee member should at least have some expertise in my research topic. I'm sure there's more to it than that, but I want to know what other qualities should I look out for? What qualities in a committee member should I avoid? I imagine these other qualities are subtle and difficult to judge at first. Nonetheless, how do I know if they are a good fit for the success of my PhD?

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First, ask your adviser. He/she likely knows more about most of your department faculty than you do. You don't have to do exactly as you're told. But if you don't, this should be an intentional choice on your part, and you should have a good reason for that choice. Beyond that, I see at least 3 broad areas to consider. You want committee members who will

  1. strengthen your professional network: introduce you to potential collaborators, and possibly help with your search for a postdoc or tenure track position; and/or write a letter of recommendation for you
  2. give valuable feedback on your work: you think they'll actually read your thesis (you might be surprised how uncommon this is), and might have something constructive to say
  3. be easy to work with in the defense process: likely to be flexible on the date of your defense, and likely to sign off on your dissertation without demanding lots of changes (fitting into 4 schedules besides your own can be a nightmare; it's nice to have a few committee members who are easy to work with on this)

Which of these contributions you value most will depend on what you're hoping to do after your PhD. If you're looking to move into industry, many of your professors' contacts may be less valuable to you than if you hope to stay in academia. Do you plan to stay research active? In the field of your dissertation? Practically, you may have limited options. At the very least, you should weigh 1, 2, and 3, and estimate how you think each candidate will contribute in each area.

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    Only one thing I would add to this excellent answer: At least one committee member should take you out of your professional comfort zone. Do not choose committee members only from your subfield, your department, or even your university. Part of defending your research, especially if you are continuing into academia, is being able to explain your work and defend its importance to people outside your narrow academic circles. – JeffE Oct 13 '12 at 16:00
  • @JeffE: One caveat to the suggestion of an external reviewer—try to avoid someone who's geographically far away. Scheduling committee meetings is hard enough as it is; it's exponentially more difficult if you have to organize them around the schedule of someone who needs to fly in for the meetings! – aeismail Sep 11 '14 at 8:08
  • @aeismail: That's what Skype is for. I've been in more than one defense where the committee was spread across multiple continents. – JeffE Sep 11 '14 at 10:59
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This is certainly a very important question. Here is the make up of my committee and its pitfalls. This isn't the best committee but has its advantages. You could easily extrapolate from my experience:

Adviser/Committee member 1:

  1. I have a fantastic adviser who always stands by me and supports my work. He essentially fights for me if things go awry.
  2. He is also the PI of the project I am working on so my successful graduation and publications do interest him.

Co-adviser/Collaborator/Committee member 2/Extradepartmental committee member:

  1. He champions the the ideas behind my research and has done so for the last 20+ years. So there is no problem that I'll get support from him

Committee member 3:

  1. Doesn't have anything invested in my research but since it is generally related to his work, he is on board.
  2. He is sitting on the fence as far as criticism goes.

Committee member 4:

  1. He doesn't like my work since his adviser didn't like this work and its implications.
  2. However, since I have a generally pro-me committee, I should be alright but not without breaking a sweat.
  3. If I convince him of the merit of my work, I'll have no problem in the future convincing any other detractors See comment by JeffE.
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