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Life hack: How to choose a graduate committee in the field of ecology

By Xoco Shinbrot

No matches found. My throat tightened and stomach turned as I stared at the words on the screen, willing them to change. Instead, the search term just stared right back “How to Select a Graduate Committee in the Field of Ecology”, in quotes. Was this some cruel allegory for my search for the perfect committee? Futile. Pointless. No matches found.

This is how my search started at nearly 2 in the morning, when I make my most important decisions; in the middle of the night, curled up in bed long after even the most tenacious grad students have long given up on finishing the latest season of (fill in the blank) on Netflix.

I started my search over, without quotations this time, which opened up a whole trove of information – see this, this and this for more. After hours of searching (and by hours I mean days), I came up with a laundry list of qualities you should have in a committee, and I was still no closer to understanding what were the most important qualities for a successful one. Sure, I needed to choose someone with expertise in my field and someone outside my department—those were given. But since no potential member is a perfect human being with all the qualities in my list, how do students in the field of ecology weigh in on which qualities are more important than others?

Why was I so obsessed? To start, my cousin Sandra* had just graduated with her PhD in Archaeology, with almost eight years of grad school under her belt. Eight YEARS! Sandra, I should add, is no slouch. She graduated undergrad from Cornell University the top of her class, Suma Cum Laude. She was the real deal. How then, did she spend 8 years in school? Two reasons: her thesis and her committee. She is a perfectionist, and she would spend months working on the wording of a few paragraphs. So you would think her committee would sign off on her thesis without a hitch once it passed their desk right? You would be right for all but one: It sat on the desk of one committee member for over a year. When nag notes turned to anger, came to pleading, were all met with silence, Sandra asked the department to remove the committee member and requested another. All in this gave her an extra two years.

Needless to say, Sandra’s story terrified me – which brings me to why I was curled up in bed at 2am reading about how to choose a committee member and deciding to do a poll of how graduate students in the Natural Resource Ecology Lab (NREL) chose their committee members.

Interestingly the poll showed that the students preferred committee members with expertise first (marked by every single student), provided intellectual challenge second and were easy to work with third (see Graph 1). However, the written responses showed a much different picture. The most important factor that came up most frequently in written responses was the level of responsiveness in communication. “[H]aving committee members being available and able to give feedback in a timely way is really important. Otherwise, you spin your wheels…” I can see how that would be frustrating – but I didn’t expect more than 30 percent of responses to name this. Then again, when I started looking at the other categories of importance it quickly became clear why: most students (25%) want continuous guidance and support throughout all stages of their research.Shinbrot1

Sure, professional credential and expertise is important, but if your committee isn’t even responding to you what good are credentials? I thought back to Sandra.

Students also considered the attitudes and behaviors of committee members. Over thirty percent of students thought it was important to find committee members who were easy to work with and who got along well with other committee members. In other words, can they play nice? “For me, the most important factor had to do with my co-advisors and their ability to work together “

Interestingly, networking also came up in 10% of the responses as an important role your advisor can play: “[choosing] someone who will introduce you to people at professional meetings.”

Surprisingly, the students voiced the importance of having a committee that pushes you to do your best, is excited in your research, and provides you the potential for funding. Heads up for any committee members reading this now: as long as you can talk to us, give us guidance, play nice with committee members and get us through the whole experience of grad school unscathed you’re alright by us.

That said 25% of the students also valued a diversity of expertise: “I wanted each committee member to bring something different to the table.” And a range professional levels: “Some of my favorite advisors have retired, new hires may benefit more from participating on a committee, good to have a mix of stages.”

Shinbrot2On diversity of gender, many students noted that they were conflicted about its importance in choosing a committee. For the majority of students, a gender balance on their committee occurred by happenstance -47.1% of students at two women on their committee (see Graph 2). Few noted whether or not it was helpful or desirable, although two noted the lack of availability of women in the field, “There are not enough women faculty in quantitative methods, but I prefer to work with women when I can.” True enough, looking at the faculty roster 31.3% percent of research associates, senior research associates, and faculty in NREL are women, and that does not include faculty from other colleges.

As for diversity of race, the students were also conflicted, voicing a lack of availability: “Race is a concern,” “I’m conflicted because race is important but so is experience.” Lack of available diversity in the field of ecology is clearly a major problem. More than 56% of students had no racial diversity on their committee, and only one respondent had two minority members (see Graph 3). (For more I encourage you to read a previous post, Why Diversity Matters.)Shinbrot3

Clearly experience is important, but so too is guidance, support, level of expertise, diversity of experience and diversity period. So say the graduate students of NREL.

As for me, I have the honor of having two women, two men, and one minority member on my committee. Three are associate or assistant faculty members (early in their career), and one senior faculty member. All have expertise in my area of research. Although balancing gender, diversity, and seniority level certainly played a role in my selection, I was driven to find was committee members who I respected, that provided mentorship and guidance, and who I felt had my best interests in mind. I haven’t yet tested the waters (my first committee meeting is in two weeks!) but I feel confident that I have made the right decision for myself, because ultimately, no matter what the stats say, committee selection is also a question of personal preference.

Thank you to all who made this post possible. Please feel free to add any additional comments and words of wisdom to this post.

*Name changed.