Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Content for PhD Committee Meeting #1: Part II

There is another discussion point I wanted to raise about what the content should be in your first committee meeting, to follow up on my previous post.

What should you NOT include?

In particular, how much experimental data or initial results should you show or not show?

There are two scenarios here: either you don't have any initial results, or you do. Let's take a look:

No initial results: After all, it is just a proposal, you aren't required to have any data. But is this a good thing? SHOULD you have some initial results? I think it's prudent to at least show that your idea is feasible. But is it enough to just point to literature that says it's feasible? Or do you have to have tested the theory yourself?

Do have initial results: If you have done some experiments already, is there any case in which you should you hold them back? I know of one case in particular where a student, now graduated from my office, had nearly his whole thesis done before he had any committee meetings at all. So in order to - I don't know - graduate quickly? or follow protocol? whatever the reason, he intentionally held back results. In his first committee meeting, he proposed what he was going to do. Second committee meeting, which followed fairly quickly after the first, he presented half of the results he already had. (I'm sure he was crossing his fingers, as he was gambling pretty heavily that the committee would not recommend he change direction...) And then, looky there, he had a third committee meeting and presented his final results.

I don't think that level of withholding is ethical, to me that borders on misleading. I think the situation could have been mitigated if he (or his advisor) didn't let him get so far before having a committee meeting. But I can see how you may have results that you don't show, or relegate to the "Backup" section and only pull out if there are questions. For instance, if you have a lot of data on things that DIDN'T work, you may want to mention that you tried, but not go through the details.

In my case, I have just a bare few experimental results. I didn't show them in my committee meeting, I put them in the back of the presentation, and we didn't end up getting to them. I did this for three reasons: one, they are not a significant amount of work, so I don't feel like I'm hiding progress. Two, I think I demonstrated feasibility of my proposed idea without needing further proof. Third, my plan is to have my second committee meeting fairly quickly (August) because one professor is leaving on sabbatical. Because I am working on an aggressive schedule, with a hard deadline, I don't mind having a few things already in my back pocket. Makes less work and less stress for me if I don't make as much progress as I anticipate by August.

But is that bordering on unethical as well? Is there any case where you should NOT include information in your committee meeting?


  1. Your thesis committee meetings seem like a totally different thing from the corresponding "advancement to candidacy" here. Here the thesis proposal is usually 20-50 pages, and usually includes some preliminary results. It comes after coursework has been completed. It is also a big public event, with essentially all the grad students and faculty in the department attending.

    I can't imagine students deliberately making their advancement talks feeble, in order to make subsequent private meetings with their committee strong in comparison.

  2. For my department, you're expected to have a least some preliminary results. On the other hand, we're a straight-to-PhD for most students, with no clearly defined stop at a Masters. We also go with the vast tomes method of proposal. Again, it may be a culture difference between different school/ engineering branches.

    However, because I'm completely changing projects due to a funding shift, I will be leaving large hunks of my previous results out as having nothing to do with my proposed project.