practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Some of the most stressful moments of grad school arise around making what feel like career defining decisions.  Choosing which faculty members to work with is one of those moments for many grad students whether it’s picking an advisor or committee members for MA papers, qualifying exams, or the dissertation.  Even though you have to formally assign faculty to individual roles, I recommend thinking about a Dream Team of faculty rather than the 1, 2, 3, or 4 faculty members you will engage with for a specific component of your program. 

Much like a basketball team, you will have a starting line up, including your advisor and committee members, but you should also have some benchwarmers to serve as substitutes.  Why? Because at any point in the process, you might change direction. For example, maybe your MA research was focused on race and economic sociology, but your dissertation moves you towards race and urban sociology.  While the faculty on your MA committee might still fit the bill, they might not and might even suggest other faculty as more appropriate for your new direction. It’s worth noting here that faculty are usually not offended at being replaced when this happens so while the conversation might feel awkward, don’t shy away from making changes when you need to.  

So who is on the Dream Team?  Some members will be substantive experts on your case or the literatures you’re engaging with, while others will be methodological experts in the type of data and analyses you’re working with.  It’s unlikely that any one of your Dream Team members will be experts in all of your substantive areas and methodological approaches, which is why you need a carefully configured team. Your starting line up should cover the substantive and methodological areas as a team.  

In addition, regardless of whether they are relevant or substantive experts, they should all be (a) supportive of your research agenda and (b) a good fit in terms of mentoring style.  In fact, some members of the Dream Team will only be these two things and not provide any substantive or methodological expertise.  To the first point, none of your Dream Team should discourage your research pursuits, insult your intelligence, or generally make you feel less than, even if this means not working with a big name in your subfield or methodology.  Ph.D. programs take too long to subject yourself to years of abuse. It will be hard enough without harassment and abuse.  

While some faculty might be supportive, they might not be a good fit due to mentoring style.  You can adjust some aspects of how you work with supervisors to work with anyone, but there are some mentoring styles that just won’t mesh.  For instance, I worked with someone who is terrible with email, which is my preferred means of communication. I could adjust to go to their office hours when I needed to connect with them.  In contrast, I decide that I couldn’t work with a faculty member who had a more passive style of communication because I had trouble figuring out what they were recommending or even what they thought of my research as I work best with direct communication.  Some aspects of ideal mentorship style will be requirements and others will be suggestions.  

As you think about which Dream Team members will warm the bench and which will be your starting line up (advisor and committee members), consider what you need on a day to day basis.  Think about how often you’d ideally meet with your advisor or committee members, how you prefer to receive feedback, what kind of feedback you need, whether you can meet in person or need the flexibility of meeting by phone or video chat, and the expectations the faculty have for engaging with their grad students.  This last point is best achieved by talking to grad students who have worked with the faculty members you’re interested in working with, but also can be accessed by talking to them directly. Most grad students seem to feel more comfortable doing the former, but only the faculty member can tell you their current policy and expectations for grad students in different stages of the process.  For example, I did a qualifying exam with a professor who had never before used a group model, but chose to the year I did my qualifying exams. Former students wouldn’t have been able to tell me that that was the faculty member’s new policy. Just know that it is okay to ask a faculty member directly, “How do you work with students for qualifying exams?” Some faculty members even have documents outlining their philosophy and approach.  

Finally, there are logistical considerations, namely, what is your timeline and which faculty members from your Dream Team are available on your timeline?  I had 3 faculty members on my Dream Team who would have been a great fit for my MA committee, which required 2 faculty members. But 1 of them was on sabbatical the year I hoped to finish that requirement.  Instead of slowing down my timeline, I continued with the 2 other faculty members and worked with the 3rd for qualifying exams and my dissertation.  

Which faculty members can you approach?  Really anyone in your department is fair game, but you need to put in leg work to build a relationship and feel out rapport, mentoring style, and availability.  You could take a course with someone you’re considering, but not every faculty member teaches a grad level course every year, so your ability to do this will vary by faculty member.  Alternatively, you can use office hours or non-office hour meetings to discuss your research ideas with faculty and learn about their mentoring style. Use some qualitative research skills to collect more information about your potential Dream Team members.  “Interview” other graduate students about their experiences working with those faculty. “Observe” faculty in action in workshops or colloquiums where you can see what kinds of questions they ask and how they ask them. Finally, take potential Dream Team members for a test run by asking for feedback on a short written piece like a draft research proposal for a fellowship application to get exposure to how they deliver feedback.  One of the most helpful things I did to identify my Dream Team was to shop ideas for my MA paper. I wrote a one pager with a short description of 3 potential projects that I took to office hours of 5 faculty members. Among the faculty who ended up on my Dream Team, one focused on what was most exciting, another on what design was most feasible, and the third on the potential contributions. Seeing how they engaged with ideas was helpful insight into how they think and how they critique research.  

Lastly, I want to stress that you can switch in faculty from your bench whenever you need to.  You might need to change who you’re working with because of a change of direction in your research, a personality mismatch among committee members or with you, or changes in your timeline and a committee member’s availability.  Whatever the reason, do what’s best for you and your progress.  It is not uncommon for someone to change their dissertation committee.  Yes it involves a potentially awkward conversation, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.  Don’t think of it as a break up. Think of it as a substitution.  

For other perspectives on this topic see this thread and this response.  

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