Dissertation committee

What to Do When Your Committee Members Disagree About Your Dissertation Work!

By Dani Babb, PhD

In a perfect world (in other words, one in which you are not working on your dissertation!), any feedback you receive from a committee member should be clear and actionable. Your committee member would tell you what to do and how to fix any issues to help you through the remainder of the reviews and university review. However, that isn’t the purpose of doctoral dissertation work, and this can frustrate some students – especially coming from a master’s program where the feedback may be more specific (and not in disagreement with other faculty!)

Further, because all committee members are to be working from the same guidelines, students often think there should be no subjectivity to a review. However, this is often not the case. Just as judges in court can have their own biases, leanings, and personal philosophies that seep into their decisions, so, too, can committee members. Often times this leaves the student confused, not sure which direction to take or who’s path to follow in making revisions.

Something along the lines of the following statement has been made to me by mentees hundreds of times over the years: “I was told by X that this was OK, so why is Y now telling me that it’s not?” Sorry to say, but this sort of inconsistency is inherent to the process. It is part of the scholarly process that, in the end, leads to the best possible study. It is the students job to navigate the opinions of more than one scholar (aka your committee members and/or research reviewers). At the end of the day, committee members are human and, thus, are imperfect. When you throw other factors into the mix such as mood and level of fatigue at the time of the review, then it can feel like a crapshoot to the learner. As long as this reality is understood and accepted, it will greatly ease the process. You will be able to calmly identify when to inquire further, when to ask for advice, or even whether or not to ask for a call with everyone on at the same time to nail down the final recommendations and changes to make. Or of course – when to hire a coach (like us) to help you sort out the different thoughts and opinions.

A key piece of advice that I often provide to my mentees is to not push back on a committee member’s review, no matter how illogical or inconsistent it may appear; just make the requested changes, even if it seems that it contradicts what was previously indicated. Remember, you’re there to reach graduation as quickly as possible, not debate for the next three semesters over a few sentences. Committee members are like guards at toll booths along the journey; if you don’t pay the toll, you’re not allowed to continue on your way.

Some ways you can respond to different or differing committee member feedback:

  1. Accept the changes and move on
  2. Ask your mentor for a call with all parties to iron out the differences in opinion and come to a consensus
  3. Keep a change log! (This is important anyway) which can show your committee that the changes they are requesting now are (perhaps) completely different than in the past (that doesn’t mean he/she will change their minds though)
  4. Ask the committee member for clarity and then ask your chair if he/she agrees with the recommendations

Sometimes, the inconsistencies aren’t within the committee at all, but a research reviewer. As one for universities, I can tell you that 1) not all committee members have fully read the work, 2) many of them are trying to just get you by as quickly as you are trying to get yourself by, 3) a change log helps me identify and compare my last requested changes to your current document as fast as possible and helps me feel comfortable you made the changes and 4) if you are confused, talk to your chair and/or get the reviewer on a call as well – and come into the call with a good attitude. As a reviewer, it is not fun to reject students work and we prefer to help learners move along.

The good news is that we’ve seen it all. We know exactly how to respond to committee member feedback in a way that softens the blow and allows you to quickly move past the current obstacle. Keep in mind that, after you graduate, there will be no more committee members to complicate your studies.

In fact, there will be no one standing in the way of your research but the institution you work for, colleagues and the IRB (for those of you that get the irony, yes! Dissertation work and studies mirror real life post-graduate research, which is exactly the point!). Just maintain focus on all that really matters at this stage of your educational journey, which is to graduate with a terminal degree that will hopefully open all kinds of doors for you.

I would like to end this article by clarifying that the majority of committee members are exceedingly helpful, consistent, and reasonable. I don’t want you to get the idea that this is necessarily what you will experience to a high degree. However, the chances are that there will be at least a couple reviews along the way that are head-scratchers for you. We will make sure you never feel that you’re stuck in the mud with your wheels spinning, but no forward progress is being made.

Back to blog