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The constructive question is, What practices/strategies could help ensure the committee reads the dissertation?

I am wondering if those who already hold a PhD, or advanced graduate students finishing their dissertations have experience where they suspected that their committee (besides their Chair) have not read their dissertation prior to the final defense examination. I would guess this issue is far from unique, as there is a variety of reasons for this. Here are some general reasons:

  1. Gap in Access: Committee members become separated from the department/institution, either completely or to some significant extent. Examples include retirements, where the individual might remain tangentially involved in a part time or 'emeritus' role; leaving for another job at a different institution, etc. (both are often associated with geographic relocation).

This creates additional distance between the student and that individual, making an "office drop-in" unfeasible and communication more lopsided, as the individual may feel less press to respond to emails/calls.

Note: difficulties with communication can be a standalone category, but I thought it was too broad as it applies across the board.

  1. Gap in Motivation: This is essentially a gap between committee member's current priorities/interests and the thesis. Committee members, who have been added to the thesis committee because their area of expertise complements the knowledge capital on the committee, might feel disinterested from the particular dissertation topic selected by the student. Because the topic does not directly tie into their work, there is little incentive for them to spend time carefully reviewing the dissertation.

  2. Lack of time/low priority: Related to the previous reasons, although this issue might surface even if the faculty member is reasonably accessible (on campus etc.) and reasonably interested in the thesis. Despite their 'well meaning' and 'best intentions', the thesis nevertheless keeps slipping to the bottom of their to-do's and they don't get around to reading/commenting for months. The pattern may recur despite regular polite reminders by email from the student and/or the committee chair.

Whatever the underlying reason (or their combinations), the result is the same: the thesis does not receive as thorough review as it technically should. The obvious negative consequences may be summarized as:

  • lower overall quality of the thesis (more eyes on the writing helps spot all sorts of issues that may be visible only from the unique vantage points of highly competent readers);

  • lower quality of the student's learning experience (less feedback = less learning);

  • longer time to complete thesis (since the student has to compensate for lack of feedback by trying to work out all the kinks on his/her own, plus the time it takes to simply wait for committee members to respond to requests for feedback).

  • difficulties during the final examination (thesis defense), since lack of committee's familiarity with the content of the thesis directly impacts their ability to be more "plugged in" to the examination presentation and 'grilling' of the candidate. As a result the candidate might have incorrect assumptions/expectations of the committee's knowledge of what he/she is talking about, and the resulting general confusion (can anyone relate to that one? ;)

What to do. How to reduce the chances of the 'neglected thesis syndrome'?

  • Which country and field? This question sounds interesting to me because the problem is very general, but I don't know what "the committee" is, so I really don't understand the exact situation here. – JiK Mar 24 '15 at 13:51
  • Social sciences in the U.S., but I suppose it could be anywhere. The "committee" in this case refers to a formal faculty group (usually 4-5 individuals including the dissertation Chair/Advisor) which is required by the Graduate School, and is expected to oversee and provide feedback for every doctoral student's dissertation/thesis. – A.S Mar 24 '15 at 16:11
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My department requires two independent reports (usually around 2 pages long) from members of the committee. The other members of the committee can get away with sloppy or non-existent reading of the thesis, but at least the two official "readers" have to study it thoroughly enough to write a respectable report.

The first reader is always the thesis adviser; the second is usually whichever other member of the committee has the most expertise in the particular area of the thesis. Also, our graduate school requires that one member of the committee be from a different department, so this member would not usually be expected to suggest improvements of the thesis.

  • Requiring an independent report from someone other than the adviser is a nice idea. (Requiring someone from another department to be on the committee: not so much, IMO.) – Pete L. Clark Mar 25 '15 at 1:42
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    It's pretty common to require someone from the outside. I think it's a good idea to avoid colleagues from within a single department agreeing to take it easy on your candidate if you take it easy on mine. It keeps the quality up. – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 25 '15 at 2:24
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    @PeteL.Clark: No, no, I really was talking about someone from a different department at the same university. I can't think of ever having been in a defense in a different department to which I could not contribute in any useful way, even though it wasn't my immediate field. I think as an interdisciplinary mathematician, I can contribute to pretty much anything in the engineering field. I'm not sitting on committees in philosophy, however. – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 25 '15 at 11:09
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    @Wolfgang: That makes since in applied math / engineering. It doesn't make much sense to me in many branches of pure mathematics. If the thesis is on, say, the cohomology of Shimura varieties, who are you going to bring in from another department that will contribute to it? – Pete L. Clark Mar 25 '15 at 13:20
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    @PeteL.Clark: That might suggest an unhealthy dissociation between pure math and the rest of the sciences :-) But let's not go there, it's a valid point for which I have no expertise. I will need to ask my pure math colleagues how they handle this requirement. I tend to think that the example you give is an extreme case within what happens in a university. – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 25 '15 at 18:11
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This is a real problem in practice. Basically everyone I know (and this, at times, includes me -- though I make it a point to set aside sufficient time to mark it up throughout and return the comments to the student) reads theses the day before the defense, with all of the consequences you mention. I have had more than one case where a student thought that receiving no comments meant that everyone was ok with the content of the thesis, just to find out that the defense did not go well and the committee wanted to have substantial additional work before they will approve the thesis. Not good.

I think the most common cause is that committee members simply don't have the time. To read and mark up a 150 page thesis thoroughly takes well over a day of full time work. To a committee member, this is unproductive work -- no publications will come of it, no grant funding, very little appreciation by the department. So it slips to the bottom of the todo list until it can't be pushed off any more (the day before the defense).

The second most important cause is that theses never get finished on time. I have received theses from candidates the day before the defense -- that's definitely not enough time and the candidates should have known better. I now ask that they at least send me the draft they have two weeks before the defense, but not always are they in a form that makes it worth reading through.

In the end, there is probably little you can do to affect the underlying problem, which is that committee members have little motivation to give a candidate good feedback. Your best bet is to keep them up to date with regard to what you do: make an appointment to go see them every 6 months and tell them what you have been doing; if you have drafts of individual chapters, send it to your committee members as soon as you have it; invite them to seminar talks you give; etc. Build a relationship. If a committee member is interested and feels engaged, you're more likely to get good feedback at a time when it's useful.

On the other hand, if the only time when you see your committee members is (i) when you enlist them to your committee, (ii) for your proposal defense, (iii) for your final defense, and if you give them the draft of your thesis 3 days before the defense, then don't be surprised if you get negative comments during the defense or in reply to your thesis.

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    Part of the reason for the perpetuation of this issue is probably the lack of oversight or enforcement of the committee members' role beyond the bare-bones formal requirements of the Graduate School. As long as they are alive and show up for the defense, and sign the exam, formally they have fulfilled their obligations...the rest of the relationship is informal. I agree that getting the draft in the committee's hands early helps, but even then chances for quality engagement are not high for the reasons discussed. What remains is relationship building. – A.S Mar 24 '15 at 16:35
  • I don't know what you expect in terms of "oversight or enforcement". It's hard to make professors in general do anything, and it's even harder to make successful and productive professors do anything. Do you expect the department head to show up in the professor's office and tell her that she needs to meet with the students for 15 minutes before the defense to go over open points in the thesis? To write at least a 2-page report? Such enforcement is simply not practical. – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 25 '15 at 2:29
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My committee was pretty uninvolved. My department did not require a proposal, so my advisor and I got them together for a status check with about 18 months to go. I don't recall there being much in the way of useful feedback. Much of the text of my dissertation was written in the last 6 months of my degree, and my advisor and I were the only ones looking at it. I got no feedback to speak of on the draft I gave the the committee before the defense, there were no surprises at the defense, and they signed off on the spot. I don't know if there was any back-channel feedback to my advisor, but given the flow of things, I doubt it. All that being said, they had seen me in classes and giving talks at conferences over the years, so they knew what direction my research was going in and knew that I was making progress.

I don't have any illusions that my thesis was of earth-shattering importance, but we got a couple of decent papers out of it. I have a hard time seeing how having a more involved committee would have changed that much. They were all researchers in related niches of the overall field, but their interests were different enough that most of their involvement would have changed the thesis dramatically (apply their favorite method, switch to their favorite problem, etc).

My perhaps cynical view is that in the US in the fields I know something about (engineering, CS), thesis committees serve as a final check that the department and university isn't going to be embarrassed to have graduated the student. Almost everything else is gravy. In the easy cases, if the work in the thesis has already produced published papers, the committee members do not need to serve as peer reviewers because the bulk of the work has already been reviewed. In the harder cases, where the work is so far unpublished, the committee is presuming that the student and the advisor are the experts, and some level of trust is given that the work is up to the department's standards. Only truly sub-par work will be caught by the process in these cases. Advisors that allow bad work to make it to the defense stage are likely to develop a reputation for having students who have problems and end up with no students to advise, so that helps to keep the system working.

  • +1 for: "If the work in the thesis has already produced published papers... the bulk of the work has already been reviewed" – Alexandros Mar 24 '15 at 15:24
  • Thanks for the honest perspective, which to seems a fairly objective assessment of the situation (at least in some departments/disciplines). This could vary by field, but in my experience the bulk of publication on the specific topic addressed by the thesis comes after the dissertation is done and the degree is granted, as follow-up "spin off" pubs from parts of the full thesis. However the opposite is not unlikely, and is probably advised as a way to put bits of the work through the peer review process. – A.S Mar 24 '15 at 16:30
  • @Aymor, I think the papers first then thesis procedure is about as common as thesis first then papers. It varies so much by field, university, department, and advisor. Mine was actually a mix. – Bill Barth Mar 24 '15 at 16:35

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