Do You Wonder Whether You Will Ever Finish Your Thesis?
When you applied to graduate school did you assume that there would be a clear path to finishing your thesis?
I thought that if I completed all my coursework and followed all of my supervisor’s advice, I would be guaranteed to finish my doctoral thesis and graduate on time.
However, in my third year I realized that there was no direct path to my Ph.D. degree.
Unlike in college, there were no clear milestones, no set set schedule, and no structured support system.
In my first two years I was busy with coursework and qualifying exams, but in my third year I started to experience self-doubt:
- How many hours a week should I work to finish my thesis?
- How do I know if I am going in the right direction and making progress?
- Is it even worth finishing my PhD?
I alternated between a few weeks of intense work followed by a few weeks or burnout, and my supervisor was not satisfied with my progress.
I considered dropping out, but I worked hard to get into this PhD program and to pass my exams.
I knew I would feel like a failure if I dropped out.
In my fifth year I had a chat over coffee with one my friends soon after she defended her thesis.
My friend told me that she wasn’t sure she would graduate on time until her final committee meeting.
“My committee had super-high expectations,” she said. “But I negotiated with them until their requirements became reasonable.”
This conversation was an eye-opener for me, because I realized that as the doctoral candidate I had to take leadership of my thesis and the committee meetings.
The thesis requirements were not set in stone.
It was up to me to negotiate reasonable milestones and timelines.
This shift in my mindset helped me to prepare thoroughly for my final committee meeting, and convince my professors that my work was sufficient for a doctoral dissertation.
Don’t leave the outcomes of your committee meetings up to chance or the mod that the professors are in that day.
If you want to finish your thesis on time, you have to take responsibility for your committee meetings.
After all this is your education, your thesis, and the outcome of the meeting will affect your career.
7 Steps to Ace Your Next Committee Meeting
Before Your Thesis Committee Meeting:
Step #1: Make a decision to take charge of your committee meeting.
This may be a major shift in your mindset for you, if you are used to following everything that your supervisors have told you.
It is true that they have more experience than you, but this is your thesis, your education, and it will affect your career.
You are not at the mercy of your thesis committee.
You are in graduate school to learn how to become an independent researcher, and you have the right to speak up for yourself if you disagree with your supervisor or committee members.
Step #2: Draft an agenda and a desired outcome for your meeting
It is not enough to prepare a presentation about your progress, and “hope” that you committee will approve it.
Professors are busy, and it is a rare occasion when you can get all your committee members together.
The best way to make use of this time is to be very clear about your agenda for the meeting.
Before the meeting make a list of all the topics you want to cover, and be clear where you need guidance fro your committee.
What do you need to do to move your thesis forward?
What are the requirements for you to finish your thesis?
The more clarity you get from your committee about their expectations from you, the easier it will be to make progress.
Professors will also appreciate that you took the initiative to go through the details of your work to get their feedback.
Step #3: Share your most important results with your committee members before the meeting.
There should not be any surprises during your committee meeting.
If you show unexpected results or the committee members disagree with each other on major topics, your meeting can turn chaotic.
Ideally, all your committee members should be aware of what to expect, and the purpose of the meeting is to make sure everyone is on the same page, and to discuss details of your research and milestones.
The best way to ensure that your meeting goes smoothly is to meet individually with each committee member to discuss your results.
If you cannot meet with them in person, share your results over email and ask for their feedback.
If there are any disagreements, resolve them before the meeting by speaking with your supervisor or department chair to ensure that the meeting goes smoothly.
During the meeting:
Step#4: Begin by clarifying the agenda including how much time you want to spend on every part
Send out the agenda to your committee members beforehand, but also remind them of the topics you want to cover before you begin the presentation.
If you need to cover several topics or make multiple decisions, you can also indicate approximately how much time you want to spend on each topic.
This will also give you the opportunity to ask your committee if there are any additional topics they would like to cover.
Step #5: Respectfully guide committee members back to the agenda if they go off on tangents
Some professors, especially if they are passionate about their research, may go off the topic.
They might talk about their own research or previous students.
If the topic they bring up is not relevant to your agenda, acknowledge their opinion respectfully (use a phrase such as “Thank you for sharing that, I will keep it mind”) and then gently guide them back to them to your agenda.
You may feel intimidated if you need to interrupt a conversation between two professors, but remember that this is your meeting.
If your committee members realize that they need to discuss something unrelated to your thesis, rest assured that they will find the time to talk about it after your committee meeting.
Your job is to make sure you stay on the agenda and get your questions answered.
Step #6: Wrap up the meeting with an action plan
End your meeting with a summary of what you have discussed, agreements that you have reached, and an action plan for next steps.
Your action plan needs to have “actionable” items, specifically what milestones you will work towards after the meeting, and approximate timelines.
If it’s not your final committee meeting, also set an approximate date for your next meeting.
Professors are so busy that it can take months to find a few hours when they are all available, so planning early is key.
After the meeting:
Step #7: Follow up after the meeting
Send a note to each of your committee members to thank them for their time, and summarize the action items or milestones you agreed to.
This will give your committee members another chance to give you feedback or suggestions.
Most importantly, follow-through on your end of the deal.
Take your timelines seriously, and if you cannot meet them talk to your supervisor about the challenges you face.
In order to build trust between you and your committee members, you need to demonstrate that they can count on you to keep your commitments.
Do you want to talk to your supervisor about your graduation date, but not sure how to bring it up? View my Q&A video before to learn how to have the “talk” with your supervisor. Looking forward to your feedback in the comments section below 😉