Occasionally some committees can be a bit over bearing and a very few even a bit over the top. In those settings how do you get them to at least look at your ideas or to agree with your time line? First you always remain respectful and polite. Under pressure some doctoral students do not realize how rude, arrogant and disrespectful they can be to the committee members. When alone ask your committee chair how you come across in terms of voice tone, posture or eye contact. If you do not ask you may be totally blind to how you are treating others when you are stressed. Get some feedback on this and look for small clues from those you are talking to.
I have debriefed past doctoral students years after they graduated or failed to graduate. Most are fine but some folks had aggressive, angry and disrespectful voice tones while talking to me about their dissertation process. This made me wonder how they came across back when they were under the actual pressure of the degree process. Picture me discussing this with a fellow flyer on a jetliner and trying to get off the topic as he/she slowly winds up and is completely unaware how he/she is coming off to other passengers. How would this person have been when given feedback to by his/her committee? So do not try this question process if you are a person who comes across harsh or demanding.
Once you have a good relationship with your committee then you might try this technique.
When I was in sales I would call potential clients and they would attempt to get me off the phone and I would attempt to keep them on the phone until I hit a hot button and the conversation opened up. People hate cold callers yet we had many successes, how does that happen? Better yet can this work with doctoral committee members?
Each day before cold calling we would sit in a group and the sales manager would say “Ring Ring” and point to someone and that salesperson acted as if they had just called a potential client. The sales manager would give out excuses to cut the conversation short, attack the caller or try to put the marketer in his/her place. We practiced for hours each week and learned the secret that the person asking the last question controls the conversation. So no matter what the potential customer said we had two or three simple questions memorized for every possible thing they might say. We kept asking questions and they kept answering and the conversation drew out.
An angry response might be met with a question about being upset due to their economic situation with a follow up question about wanting to change this? The last person who asks a question controls the conversation and can direct the conversation as it moves on. Yet many doctoral students when meeting with their committee ask few questions. They do not steer any part of the conversation nor do they dig into areas that they are confused about. Many have this idea they should look confident and cool and very intelligent. Asking a question to many doctoral students in this situation they think makes them look weak, unsure and not knowledgeable in front of their committee.
Think about it for a moment, you are in a small meeting with three of the most educated experts in the world and they can answer questions, guide you and send you to the right resources and you do not say anything! These are busy important folks and you make little attempt to dig for direction, answers and resources. Do you ask your committee if they know anyone who can help you find answers in a particular area? Do you engage them and dig for information or do you sit passively while they try to guess the direction you want to go.
Many times past doctoral students complained their committees did not listen to them. When I asked if they took a list of written questions with them to ask, they reported no, they just listened but the committee should have known what they wanted. Many admitted they were so nervous they failed to ask much and simply listened to the feedback. Very few doctoral students ever took written questions to ask nor attempted to push for a particular approach or direction. Most admitted they were terrified when they had a meeting and just wanted it to end quickly. Yet everyone in that meeting had great potential to solve problems for that doctoral student.
Brilliant as your committee members are this is your research and they see it in tiny pieces and do not see the expected results or direction. You use questions to steer them in the direction that you want and to dig for suggestions, resources and ideas from them. If you are wrong, they will steer you away from where you are heading. But at least you try to go where you want and that is the beauty of the process. They guide you but this becomes a crazy process if you do not do your part. You guide them as much as possible (with polite questions) and ask questions to dig out as much help as you can get. The questions help you to find out quickly if you are going in the wrong direction. Listen to what your committee says and if they take you a different direction then go with them. Learn from their experience and knowledge of your field.
Questions do not make you look bad. Write them down before the meeting and as the meeting moves on some you will ask and some you will not. You will learn a lot if you ask and you can perhaps steer things a way that you want. The questions you ask indicate a direction for your committee and give them something to work with. Enjoy this process and these wonderful experts that you are able to work with.
Attend to your goals, no one else will.
Dr. Randy Parker
National Doctoral Students Association