Choosing a Dissertation Committee

I’ve been asked a few times about how I chose my dissertation committee, mostly by friends who are currently going through the process themselves. Personally, forming my committee just seemed to happen. The choices I made felt natural and effortless (in contrast to most things in graduate school, ha). But this is a quick run-down of my decision-making process.

Committee Member 1 (Co-chair):

In my department, there are a number of faculty who do some work related to race and ethnicity (my area), but only one is the go-to race person. So adding this faculty member to my committee was a no-brainer. We’ve worked together in the past, I’ve been mentored by this person, and she was the second reader for my master’s thesis. Beyond the practical details, she’s been a staple in my graduate school experience and I couldn’t imagine having a committee without her.

Committee Member 2 (Co-chair):

I chose my committee member for methods expertise. My dissertation research is a qualitative interview study that brings in arts-based research (ABR). While this faculty member doesn’t do arts-based research herself (for now?), I completed an arts-based research independent study with her last year. The culmination of this independent study was a collaborative visual essay that we submitted to a journal. I view this faculty member as artistically inclined (possibly with experience including sketching as part of ethnographic field notes?) and clearly receptive to ABR. In addition to being a qualitative powerhouse, I wanted to have at least one committee member who was fully on board with my weird art stuff.

These two faculty members are my co-chairs. I decided to go with co-chairs in part because I value different aspects of each person’s expertise. But if I’m being completely honest, I also made this decision out of a fear that I wouldn’t get the support I need from a single person. Both faculty members are incredibly busy and I’ve seen how the time they have to mentor and advise students has changed over time. Both were receptive to taking on a co-chair role and neither ever asked me why I chose this structure, but it’s not uncommon in my department.

Dissertation committees in my department are typically four or five people. I didn’t see a need for five committee members – at what point do you have too many cooks in the kitchen? – so I chose two more members.

Committee Member 3:

The third faculty member on my committee studies education and race with quantitative methods. I have some interest in education, but it isn’t an explicit focus in my dissertation. What convinced me to ask this professor to be on my committee was working with her as first reader on my qualifying exams. Beyond the typical struggles of making it through a quals list, I had a wonderful experience with this faculty member. I clicked very well with her working/mentoring style, to the point where I wish it made sense for her to be my chair. She already had an idea of what my dissertation topic would be based on my quals list and our meetings; it seemed like another no-brainer for her to be a committee member.

Committee Member 4:

The fourth and final member of my committee is a junior faculty member who studies race with qualitative methods, including interviewing. Her research is probably the closest to my own, so I sound biased when I say I love reading her work. I was actually a teaching assistant for this faculty member twice, and she was my assigned mentor in my first year of graduate school. Unlike some mentor-mentee pairs, ours worked out, and I still reach out to her from time to time. We’ve informally discussed my dissertation topic over the past couple years, so again, this committee member choice just made sense.


All of the faculty members on my committee have worked with me in some capacity before. But more importantly, I like and respect them, both as people and researchers. In this area, I feel extremely fortunate. In sum, a simplified rationale for choosing my committee looks like this:

  1. Co-chair: substantive area expertise, good relationship
  2. Co-chair: methods expertise, good relationship
  3. Member: substantive area expertise, good relationship
  4. Member: substantive area expertise, methods expertise, good relationship

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