Last month, my fellow blog contributor, Zac McFarlane, kicked off this series on writing a master’s thesis with Tip #1: Pick a topic you are interested in. This is excellent advice and should be the first step you take in writing your thesis. With this post, I’ll be exploring the next step in the process, or Tip #2: Select an advisory committee to support your thesis work.
Your advisory committee comprises a group of faculty members who will guide you through your master’s program and thesis. These individuals are vital to your success as a graduate student at Colorado State University. Without their approval, you can’t finish your thesis, complete the program, or earn your degree – so choose your committee wisely.
Know the Graduate School Guidelines
Before assembling your committee, it’s important to understand the policy that governs the advisory system as outlined in Section E.1.1 of the Graduate & Professional Bulletin. I encourage you to read this section closely, but in short, you need at least 3 people on your advisory committee for a master’s thesis: 1) an advisor from your department, 2) another faculty member from your department, and 3) a faculty member from an outside department. That should be easy to obtain, right?
It’s Up to You
As a graduate student, it’s your responsibility to assemble your committee. You must approach faculty members to secure their agreement to serve on your committee, and your committee must be approved by your department head. Following advice given by faculty in my department and echoed in the bulletin, I recommend selecting members based on your interests, your experience with those individuals, and their knowledge and expertise of your topic.
The process is a lot like dating. When courting a potential adviser or committee member, you may be rejected. You may also make the wrong choice and need to break up. If you want to find another adviser for whatever reason, that’s fine, as long as you communicate your needs.
Don’t be shy during the process, just be prepared. Conduct a preliminary literature review on your topic and clearly define the problem you hope to address. Be ready to offer a brief overview of your thesis proposal to potential committee members, especially your future adviser. You want to show initiative, interest, and understanding during the initial phase of thesis development. Faculty members are busy, and you don’t want to come across as someone who needs his or her hand held during the thesis writing process, which can take several semesters to complete.
Selecting Your Adviser
Your adviser is the chairperson of your committee and your chief source of advice as you complete your master’s thesis. Some departments require you to be selected by a faculty member who agrees to advise you before you’re even admitted to a graduate program. At the very least, your department head will select a temporary adviser for you to start your program. You may stick with this person, or you may want to find someone else once you’ve solidified your topic.
When searching for an adviser, I suggest reviewing the curriculum vitae and resumes of faculty members in your department to find someone with common interests, both professionally and academically. If the person has worked in your field, he or she will be better able to ascertain the practical implications of your research and help you network post-graduation. You also want someone with knowledge and expertise in possible theories and methods to inform your study. If you’re fortunate, you may even be asked to assist this person with his or her own research, or possibly co-author a paper.
Other factors to consider include the faculty member’s schedule. If the person has a full course load, research agenda, administrative duties, and advisee list, then he or she may have little time for you. You should also assess the faculty member’s personality to see if you two can work together. According to the Graduate & Professional Bulletin, “A close, cordial, and professional relationship is… of the utmost importance. Both student and adviser should work at achieving mutual understanding and respect.”
Rounding Out the Committee
Once you have your adviser picked, you can consider other members. When looking inside your department, use the same criteria as your search for an adviser. This person may even be designated as a co-adviser.
When looking outside your department, the best person for you will vary greatly. You may know someone personally to serve on your committee, or you may need an expert in a related field. For example, I’m a master’s student in the Department of Journalism & Technical Communication, studying communication in a natural resources context, so I have an outside member from the Warner College of Natural Resources. This person was extremely helpful in pointing me toward studies in her field that relate to my topic.
Both Zac and I are feeling our way through this process, so we appreciate any advice you have for writing a master’s thesis. Please post a comment below, and be sure to read Zac’s post, Writing a Thesis #1: Picking a Topic. For information on advisers and committees, visit the Graduate School’s website.
Good luck selecting your advisory committee!