In the spring issue of IMMpress, an anonymous author submitted an article entitled “The Contradiction of Committee Meetings“. As the graduate coordinator for our Department, I wanted to provide a response to explain the new forms that have been introduced for committee meetings, and to address concerns regarding the utility of the committee meeting in general.

Image courtesy of Getty Images.
Image courtesy of Getty Images.

First of all, a word about student advisory meetings in general: they are designed to be just that – advisory. Students present work in progress, including both problems and successes, and receive frank feedback from the committee. These meetings provide a forum for critical discussion of the project, allowing the student to develop their presentation and critical thinking skills in the spirit of helping the student and the project mature. In addition, the added value of round table discussions as opposed to one on one meetings can be tremendous: discussions among faculty members that include the student can lead to the type of brainstorming that leads to creative and effective solutions that would not emerge from one-on-one meetings.

The new forms, which were pre-vetted and beta-tested by students and faculty prior to their introduction, are designed to allow a student and the committee to see how they are progressing through the system, providing areas for improvement and making time to completion more predictable. Specifically, the new forms aim to address the following concerns that were identified as part of a broadly consultative strategic planning exercise:

(a) A need to celebrate student excellence and progress: We often forget to document abstracts, presentations, publications and other forms of career advancement that have been achieved by the student. It is important to be reminded of how things are going well, even when faced with experimental roadblocks, to put things into perspective.

(b) A need to better clarify areas for attention and improvement: The metrics introduced into the forms are intended to assist the student and supervisor to identify areas that need greater focus over the next 6-9 months. In addition, these metrics emulate the quarterly evaluations used by funding agencies, private sector and public sector organizations to determine future resources (granting agencies) and employee’s eligibility for increased compensation, promotions and other recognitions. The graduate committee meeting is also a chance for students to acclimate to the accountability and reviews that will be essential to their future working lives.

(c) A requirement to put in a date for the next meeting: People are busy – booking your next committee meeting even a year in advance provides a guarantee it will happen.

(d) A mechanism for follow-up: The graduate coordinator now signs off on these forms. This is intended as mechanism for arms-length evaluation to make sure that student’s committees are functioning well.

This last point brings me to the other theme of the article: specifically the view that the selection process for the committee was flawed and “a major burden to success”. The author states that the committee is either “filled with the friends and collaborators of a supervisor [so that] it becomes difficult to receive unbiased advice on a project” or is picked from “an ensemble of the few approachable or generally kind faculty members, who may or may not have expertise in the graduate student’s field of study”. A student can request the introduction or replacement of a new committee member at any point during their degree if expertise is lacking. If a committee is filled with the supervisor’s “friends” and the student is concerned that the group lacks objectivity, the student should bring this concern to the attention of their supervisor and/or the graduate coordinator. If a faculty member is obstructive to the success of a student, the graduate coordinator and/or graduate committee will assist in finding a remedy for the situation.

Pertinent to this last issue, we are in the process of updating the content of the website vis-a-vis the graduate program, and presenting a clear path for dealing with conflicts between students and their committee members and/or supervisors. In addition, we have beta-tested and are now implementing (September, 2014) a “time-to-completion” form that will be added to the committee meeting 2 years after the completion of the transfer exam (although students are welcome to introduce this form sooner if they wish). The goal of this additional form will be to provide a clear and agreed-upon path for graduation for both the student and the supervisor. These measures will provide more clarity and transparency in the student/committee relationship.

Lastly, the author described committee meetings as an “often avoided part of graduate training” and that such meetings are “often a source of anxiety or, in later years, ambivalence”. The student’s preparation for the committee meetings are an opportunity to consolidate the work done over the past year, identify successes, difficulties and opportunities. In return, the student gets the attention of 2 or more faculty members who focus on the student’s project for 1.5 or more hours – an excellent opportunity to get skilled, experienced “eyes” and brains onto their work. From this perspective, committee meetings become an excellent opportunity to work through experimental issues and roadblocks. In my experience, many students acknowledge that they are re-energized by committee meetings with respect to their project and have a clearer vision with respect to their path to graduation.

I have participated (either in the past or currently) on 48 student advisory committees and I continue to correspond with many of these students post-graduation. This is one of my most enjoyable forms of academic service and I consider it a privilege. Likewise, as a student in this Department, I formed lasting relationships with my committee members that persist to this day, and I was a better student for their input. The anonymous author can and should take advantage of this tremendous resource for their success as a scientist, and if it is not working for them, take steps to ensure that it does. Come to think of it, I think I would benefit from committee meetings to provide frank feedback on my science. I would choose the most knowledgeable, critical faculty members I could find. Their tough love can prevent the much tougher rejection from journal and grant reviewers!

Thanks to Drs. Tania Watts, Michele Anderson, Jayne Danska and Shannon Dunn, who all contributed input to this article.

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Jennifer Gommerman

Dr. Jennifer Gommerman is an Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto.
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One thought on “Letter to the Editor – Response to “The Contradiction of Committee Meetings”

  1. I have to say that I strongly agree with the major points of this rebuttal. It is ultimately the STUDENT’S responsibility to ensure that their committee is comprised of individuals who will provide useful feedback, and to shape how and when meetings with said individuals occur. Defending a new idea or direction to a faculty member can be intimidating, but taking charge of the project is a key part of the learning process as a graduate student. As for the structure of meetings, it is difficult to strike a balance between evaluation and open discussion, and I think the new forms do what they are meant to in that regard – provide a guide to streamline the process.

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