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School of Natural Sciences

Adviser & Committee

The heart of each graduate program is the completion of a piece of original scientific research. Faculty advisors and dissertation committees mentor and collaborate with students through the research process, including selecting a topic, conducting original research, and writing the dissertation.

Within the first year, students will select a faculty member to serve as their advisor (i.e. principal investigator) and participate in their dissertation committee. The student and advisor will develop a research topic that will lead to the completion of a master’s thesis or Ph.D. dissertation. Selecting the right advisor is critical to success in graduate school, and students should begin their decision process as early as possible. Generally, students are given the opportunity to rotate with multiple faculty to facilitate finding a good match.

Several elements go into selecting an advisor appropriate for a student’s research interests, working style and leadership needs. Gather information by interviewing potential advisors and fellow graduate students who have worked with those faculty members. Questions to consider include:

Shared enthusiasm about your thesis or dissertation topic

  • Is this faculty member an expert on my topic?

Availability of faculty

  • Is this faculty member willing and available to work with me?
  • Does this faculty member have an upcoming sabbatical or other time away from campus that could affect my progress?
  • Where is this faculty member’s lab located and how accessible will they be to help me?

Complementary working styles

  • Does this faculty member’s working style fit with the kind of support I need to excel?
    • What are their expectations for working in their lab?
    • Does the atmosphere of this faculty’s lab fit with my personality?
  • What kind and level of direction and personal support most helps me fulfill my potential?
    • Do I need frequent guidance and feedback from my advisor?
    • Do I prefer the independence to figure out and work on assigned tasks at my own pace?
  • What style of communication maximizes my productivity?
    • Am I willing to ask for help or clarification when I need it?
    • Is this faculty member’s communication style direct or indirect? Do they manage conflict by accommodating, avoiding, compromising, collaborating or competing?

Leadership and collaboration potential

  • Is this faculty member well respected by their peers?
  • Will they be a strong advocate for me?
  • Am I confident with this faculty member being responsible for facilitating my dissertation defense?
  • What is the average time to completion of their advisees?

The committee’s primary goal is to provide each student with the guidance and support necessary to conduct an independent research project of the highest quality and relevancy that will lead to the preparation and defense of a master’s thesis or Ph.D. dissertation.

The faculty advisor, normally in consultation with the student and other program faculty, recommends appointment of faculty members to advise on and supervise each student’s research as part of their examination committees. Questions to guide your consideration of potential committee members include:

Expertise of faculty

  • What specific expertise will the member bring to my committee?
    • Do they have expertise in the subject of my study?
    • Do they have expertise in the methodology I plan to use?

Relationship and availability

  • Have we established a positive, professional relationship showing potential for a constructive working experience?
    • Does this faculty member know the quality of my work?
    • Have my interactions with them indicated I can take direction and advice from them?
  • · Does this faculty member have sufficient time to contribute to my work?
    • Will they be available for the duration of my graduate career?
    • Will they be able to provide timely constructive feedback?

Group dynamics

  • How well will these faculty members work together as a team on my committee?
    • Do these faculty members know each other professionally or personally?
    • What is the history of the relationships between each member?
  • Will my committee chair have a positive, professional relationship with each member?

Once you have selected an advisor and assembled your committee, it is important that you maintain productive working relationships. The quality of these relationships affects the student’s successful progress toward completing the thesis or dissertation.

A few key tips for enhancing the quality of the advisor-advisee relationship are:

Be professional – Show respect for their time by…

  • Arriving on time to meetings and appointments (call ahead of time to reschedule or cancel if you cannot make it).
  • Coming prepared with an agenda, questions, a hard copy of the chapter to be discussed, etc.
  • Taking notes at all meetings and sending a follow-up email confirming items and resolutions discussed.
  • Responding promptly to your advisor’s and committee members’ communications, including providing them with information, drafts, etc. whenever requested.
  • Preparing a cover sheet when you submit your work that outlines the document and indicates the type of feedback you are requesting at that time.
  • Extending patience when your advisor or a committee member is late and/or needs to reschedule meetings, requests drafts frequently, or delays feedback

Communicate – Take responsibility and initiative

  • Ask your advisor about their expectations of you and your work – do not assume.
  • Share what you would like from your advisor and adjust your expectations according to their availability and willingness regarding amount and quality of direction and feedback, personal interaction and psychological support, etc.
  • Recognize that graduate study requires a large degree of independence and self-motivation and can be personally challenging (e.g. loneliness is a common experience). Your advisor’s main commitment is to supervise your research project and has many demands on their time. Reach out to your peers, Graduate Student Program staff and/or other support staff when you need information or help.
  • Work closely with your committee chair to plan annual meetings, submit annual evaluations, review feedback and necessary changes, schedule your dissertation defense, etc.
  • Clarify with your committee chair what their preferred method of soliciting feedback from committee members is: the chair may request that committee members send reviewed work to them, and then they will provide the student feedback for corrections and changes.

Handle conflict constructively

  • Prioritize understanding the faculty member’s position or decision and their underlying rationale and concerns.
  • Consider addressing your rationale and concerns by writing a persuasive argument for their review.
  • When you and your advisor disagree, work toward a resolution that maintains respect and integrity – remember that your advisor will be writing recommendations for you well after you have left the university.
  • Your advisor is also your advocate: when committee members have a conflict or you receive conflicting advice, your advisor is responsible for communicating an agreed-upon resolution to the committee or support you in handing the issue.
  • Seek the counsel of those outside the situation who can offer productive problem-solving ideas.

Students are required to meet with their committee annually to assess their progress. Expectations and practices may vary by graduate group and/or faculty advisor; however, students are typically expected to submit a draft report to the committee at least one month prior to the meeting. After each meeting, the committee chair will provide the student a written summary of instructions and feedback. Once the student makes any necessary changes, they will submit the revised draft to the chair who will forward it to the other committee members.

First Annual Meeting
Before the Fall semester of the second year, hold the first committee meeting with your faculty advisor and at least one other committee member. It is recommended to schedule this meeting by May of the first year. The first meeting can be informal, but should at least cover:

  • Requirements for preparing for the qualifying exam during your second year.
  • Coursework selection.
  • Recommended academic and professional skills development.
  • Student’s self-assessment of progress and performance to-date.

Qualifying Exam and Dissertation Defense
The qualifying exam and defense may count as annual committee meetings.

Common reasons you may need to change your faculty advisor and/or a member of your committee:

  • The faculty member leaves the university
  • Your research interests or your thesis/dissertation topic changes substantially
  • Your relationship with the faculty member becomes strained
  • A committee member’s extended absence from campus makes scheduling meetings and/or exams unreasonably difficult

For more information about changing your faculty advisor and/or committee membership, please contact your graduate student coordinators.