As a student begins the process of planning his or her dissertation, one of the first tasks he or she needs to complete is choosing and forming a dissertation committee. The choice of members for the dissertation committee is a very important one, as dissertation committee members will be responsible not only for guiding students through the dissertation research and writing process, but also (in many cases) in acting as judges during the student's oral dissertation defense.
The lead member of the student's dissertation committee is the primary advisor. The primary advisor will take the most active role in guiding the student through the dissertation process, from submitting a proposal, to planning the research, and finally to writing the dissertation. The student has the opportunity to invite someone to be his or her primary advisor. The student may have an obvious choice for his or her primary advisor, but it is important to have some alternate choices as well. Serving on a dissertation committee involves a commitment of time, and there is no guarantee that the student's first choice will be available.
In addition to the primary advisor, the dissertation committee consists of two or more additional advisors. All of the members of the dissertation committee should hold PhD's. Most of them will be working in the same field as the student. In many cases, though, it is also a requirement that the student should have at least one advisor from a different department or discipline entirely. This requirement serves the important purpose of adding depth and perspective to the student's dissertation committee.
Whenever possible, the student should invite advisors to the dissertation committee who are compatible with the student both professionally and personally. Choosing a dissertation committee the student is comfortable with will make the dissertation process more comfortable. There are other considerations to bear in mind when choosing a dissertation committee, however. In a smaller university, there may be a limited number of appropriate choices, and the student will need to invite dissertation committee members who are available. Also, the faculty may contain a very prominent member of the student's field, and the student may want the prestige of having this faculty member on the dissertation committee even if they are less than ideally compatible. In all cases, choosing a dissertation committee involves compromises. If it is done with care, the student will have the best chance of succeeding with his or her dissertation.