Thesis/Dissertation Writing Series: Selecting a Thesis Committee

Our editors offer tips in selecting your thesis committee

Four members of a thesis committee sit behind a table with microphones and a computer.
Selecting a thesis committee is never
easy. Follow these tips to help you select
the perfect thesis supervisor.

In our Thesis/Dissertation Writing Series, we answered the commonly asked question: "What is a thesis?" We also discussed how to write a thesis or dissertation and offered some advice on the thesis editing process. We will now discuss how to select a thesis committee. The selection of the thesis committee is one of the most important decisions you will make during your career as a dissertation author and PhD student.

What is a thesis committee?

A thesis committee is a group of people, usually professors, who supervise a student's work and work closely with that student to answer questions and provide advice. A thesis committee may also act as the examining committee at a thesis defence. In most departments in North America, it is common for the thesis committee to consist of a principal supervisor and two (possibly three) other experts in your field of study. Typically, one member of the thesis committee must be a professor in a different department from that of the student.

Why do I need a thesis committee?

These individuals will act as mentors who will guide you through the process of defining objectives, conducting research, editing drafts, writing the literature review, and writing the thesis. Choose your committee—and especially your principal supervisor—with care. The relationship between supervisor and PhD student should be mutually beneficial. In the sciences, for example, the PhD student will conduct research and take classes, while the supervisor's time will likely be divided between teaching, administration (procurement of funding/maintenance of a laboratory), writing research articles, and mentoring graduate students.

How should I select my thesis supervisor?

The ideal supervisor would be one who

  • is readily available for consultation and proofreading,
  • is a balanced thinker (i.e., he or she considers both specific and general questions),
  • is respected in his or her field, and
  • has a good track record with respect to graduating previous thesis students.

Of these traits, accessibility is crucial, as the skills involved in academic research and dissertation writing are more easily acquired when a student has an accessible supervisor as a mentor.

Some final thoughts...

Most of the time, you will need to send out email requests to gage the interest of members of your potential thesis committee. Then, you will schedule meetings to discuss your research and find out if you are a good match. You don't want to come off as unprofessional in your email because of grammatical or spelling errors, so send your thesis committee correspondence to our thesis editors for their revision.

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