Academic Advice Column

Dear Gabe,
Many months ago, my adviser recommended I add a particular faculty member to my committee: call him Dr. X. I had misgivings about adding Dr. X because I’ve never known him to have any students and I’d heard other graduate students disparage him for various reasons. Nevertheless, I added him to my committee. Fast forward to my prelims.  Two months before my prelim exams, I sent my entire committee a copy of my prelim document. I heard nothing from any of them. Two weeks before the exam, I sent the document again, asking for comments. My adviser signed off on the paper, but again– I heard from nobody on any specifics.

The day of my exam came and– in the very first slide, Dr. X challenged some of the setup to my presentation. This wasn’t a major issue, it wasn’t even something that was controversial. In fact, I was claiming something as basic as “the grand unified theory is a major problem for physics.” But as the presentation went on, Dr. X kept challenging every point I made and asking me to provide evidence for ridiculous things. On deliberation, the rest of my committee wanted to pass me, but Dr. X refused to sign off on me. So they told me that I had ‘conditionally passed.’ Only– it turns out there is no such thing! So I failed. Not only that, but in my department, prelims aren’t supposed to be such a big deal. The going assumption is that if your committee lets you get to the prelim exam, the actual examination is a mere formality. Obviously it wasn’t in this case.

My committee agreed on the changes I needed to make for my document and so I spent three months working on those changes. I recently sent it out for comments. I corrected all of Dr. X’s original concerns and added that I wanted to address any further concerns before my next exam. My adviser signed off on this document as well. I just now received an e-mail from Dr. X in which he added SUBSTANTIAL comments to my document in red. To fix his concerns, I would have to spend another three months. But recently I heard that there was bad blood between Dr. X and my adviser. I am at a loss. I have spent over a year on this stage of my career and am nowhere closer than I was a year ago. What do I do?

–Jake in Biology

Dear Jake,

If you’ve taken seppuku off the table, you should consider it again. Listen: you are out of options. You were right in giving your committee two months to review your document, but you should also have talked to them in person. Academics have a peculiar relationship with e-mail: they have any and all personality disorders imaginable via e-mail. And they will avoid any and all e-mails that assign them work.

That said, he should not have sabotaged you like that. He may have some bad blood with your adviser, but that’s not your issue to diagnose. If you truly want this man on your committee, you will have to talk to him in person extensively about these issues and convince him that– though you disagree– your position is respectable and you deserve to move on. Personal contact will make it harder for him to sabotage you in the future. It sounds, however, that you want him out. So you should kick him out. Most universities have policies that allow for a change of committee well into the process. Talk to your adviser and tell him that you will be going in a different direction with some of your committee members. If you frame it as a professional shift rather than a personal beef, they will understand. As it is, you need to move on to the next stage and this man is not helping. Thank him for his time, let your committee know you’ve addressed his issues, pick an amicable and competent replacement, and go on.

Dr. X will not resent you for this: he’ll barely remember you, likely. And you’ll be gone before he knows it. Which would not be the case if you left him on your committee.

-Gabe the Beaver

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