Dealing With Committee and IRB Issues? You Are Not Alone!

Dissertation Defense

“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” –Napoleon Hill

Admit it—the dissertation process can be challenging.  The challenge is in part exacerbated by the process.  For example, this morning I spoke with a frustrated client about the six weeks to find a chairperson, eight weeks for the IRB process, and the $4,000 a quarter she was paying in the meantime—yikes!  Unfortunately, this is not a unique story—I frequently speak with Ph.D. candidates about their committee, IRB process, and school policies, and how to manage it all.   This article is about managing your feelings, understanding the expectations, gaining the proper perspective, and functional actions like selecting a committee member and social support.

Don’t Express Your Feelings

In most interpersonal relationships, expressing your feelings is good.  But, let’s make the distinction very clear: feelings about school are fine, expressing those feelings to your school now makes you the problem.  It’s very natural to be frustrated when there are differences in your expectations of responsiveness or turnaround time from committee members and IRB and the reality of the situation.   The point is that to manage your feelings you can help yourself by understanding the expectations and gaining the proper perspective.

Understand the Expectations

Whether you are in the beginning stages of the dissertation or in your 3rd year, you might ask yourself the following:

  • What are my expectations from committee members when asking questions, submitting drafts and seeking approval?
  • Do I have a timeline of when I would like to graduate?  Based on past experiences, is this a reasonable expectation?
  • What help will I need if I can’t meet my current timeline?  Will I need to hire a methodologist? A statistician?  Will I need an APA editor?
  • If I choose not to hire help, what will I be giving up?  Time at work, personal life, vacations, or another semester of tuition?  Is this worth it to me?

You need to ask yourself these questions to realize if your expectations are perhaps unrealistic.

Selecting committee members

If you are in the beginning stages of your dissertation development, you may avoid problems down the road by interviewing the potential committee chairperson and committee.  If you are working on choosing a committee, I recommend you ask potential advisors or committee members the following questions:

  • What are your areas of interest in research?  Do you specialize in any particular areas of research?  Are you motivated to explore certain areas of research?
  • How many advisees/committees do you take on at a time?
  • How busy is your schedule?  Are you working on your own projects?  Are you only part-time?  How often are you available for phone conferences?
  • What is your response time on the following: general email questions, feedback on drafts, approval?
  • How many drafts are you willing to review?
  • What dissertations have you approved in the past?  (You should always research dissertations approved by committee members)
  • Do you require mentees to hire statisticians?  Dissertation editors?
  • What are your expectations from your mentee?  What does your ideal timeline look like?

I also recommend that you converse with fellow students about these answers.  Your committee choices are important, as these are the people responsible for the completion of your degree.

Social Support

Seek social support with people who are in a similar situation as you are and are willing to give you time to help you through the process.  Make sure that you have a sense that they are “on your side” and you can confide in them when dealing with issues.  Connect with these people through your school website, using social networking sites such as Facebook (Like us and connect with our clients!) or LinkedIn.  The goal is to have an outlet before you need one.  Identifying people that have completed the process will help you remember the goal is attainable.  They will also help you set realistic goals along the way.


Success will come when you are honest with yourself about your expectations, effectively communicate with those responsible for your success, and you learn to manage anxiety and frustrations.  The process will be smoother and you will be happy, healthy and a Ph.D.!

I wish you all success in this process; I know from my own experiences that the Ph.D. is a challenging road with a final destination—to the extent that the journey is easier—all the better.

Happy learning!

James Lani, Ph.D.
Statistics Solutions

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