Internet Explorer Detected

The Penn State Graduate School website is best experienced in Firefox or Google Chrome. It is highly recommended that you use an alternative browser.

Guidelines and Best Practices for Doctoral Committees


GCAC-602 Ph.D. Committee Formation, Composition, and Review - Research Doctorate

GCAC-603 Ph.D. Committee Responsibilities - Research Doctorate

GCAC-702 Professional Doctoral Committee Composition - Professional Doctorate

GCAC-703 Professional Doctoral Committee Responsibilities - Professional Doctorate

Guidelines and Best Practices

Committee Appointment

The policies guiding committee appointments are GCAC-602 for the research doctorate and GCAC-702 for professional doctorates. As stated in both policies, doctoral committees should be formed in the best interest of the student.

The graduate program head1 nominates members of the doctoral committee to the Graduate School and is expected to ensure that the committee composition is appropriate. When forming the committee, the student should consult with their adviser to identify committee members who will be able to provide valuable input to the student’s research and represent a diversity of thought and independent opinions. To ensure that committees function appropriately, program heads should take the following into account when evaluating the appointment of proposed committee members.

  • It is in the best interest of the student that their doctoral committee members are able to express their independent evaluation of the research. Additionally, while members should have expertise in the subject area, a diversity of perspectives should also be represented. It is recommended that program heads suggest changes to the proposed doctoral committee composition in instances where these conditions might not be met such as when:
    • All members or a majority of members are current collaborators on a research project.
    • All members have a recent (within 5 years) history of professional collaboration.
    • The chair and/or adviser is a senior faculty member, and all other members are pre-tenured faculty members.
    • Members have personal relationships that might affect committee functioning (e.g. spouses, family members).
  • Each committee member should be available to serve as a resource for the student, independent of the chair and/or the adviser. Every committee member should be able to provide valuable insight and advice to students on their project.
  • The dissertation adviser does not have to be the committee chair. There can be benefits to separating out these two roles. Refer to GCAC-602 and GCAC-702 for descriptions of these roles and their responsibilities.
  • The role of the Outside Unit Member is particularly important to ensure the doctoral committee functions properly. In order to ensure that the Outside Unit Member can fulfill their responsibilities, it is recommended that:
    • The Outside Unit Member be a tenured professor at the rank of associate professor or above.
    • The Outside Unit Member should not have an established budgetary or collaborative relationship with other members of the committee.
  • There should be at most one Special Member on a doctoral committee. The Special Member does not necessarily need to hold a Ph.D. degree and may have other expertise that brings a unique perspective to the committee.

Changes to Committee Membership

According to policies GCAC-602 and GCAC-702, program heads should review committee membership annually to ensure that all members continue to qualify for service in their designated roles. It is recommended that program heads also review committee membership at least 3-6 months prior to benchmark examinations to ensure that any necessary changes can be made to the committee membership in advance. Last minute changes to doctoral committee membership are not in the student’s best interest. Refer to GCAC-602 and GCAC-702 for the procedures to follow when committee members retire or leave the university.

In cases where there are problems involving doctoral committees, program heads have unilateral authority to make changes to the committee to improve committee functioning and in the best interests of the student. Reasons program heads may need to do so include:

  • Personal conflicts among committee members that are not resolvable and that hinder the student’s progress.
  • Scholarly or academic disagreements among the committee members. The committee’s opinion in assessing the student does not need to be unanimous and committee members can disagree. However, the program head should consider replacing committee members if scholarly disagreements within the committee reach a point where they are interfering with the student’s progress.

Committee Responsibilities

The policies guiding committee responsibilities are GCAC-603 for the research doctorate and GCAC-703 for professional doctorates.

Annual meetings with the student and the full doctoral committee to review the student’s progress are strongly encouraged. If that is not possible, each member of the committee is strongly encouraged to meet individually with the student at least once per academic year to review and give the student feedback on their progress. Students should feel free to contact all members of the doctoral committee for advice, guidance, and input.

Note that according to policy, committee members must alert the committee chair at least one week in advance of the final oral examination date if there are concerns about proceeding with the examination. Thus, to avoid problems with the final oral examination, doctoral committee members should review the dissertation or written component of the professional doctoral culminating experience at least one week before the exam will be held to assess whether there are serious concerns with the written document that would preclude continuing with the oral examination. GCAC-607 Dissertation and GCAC-707 Professional Doctoral Culminating Experience - Professional Doctorate outline the Process to follow in these cases.

Conflicts of Interest

Anyone concerned about conflicts of interest in the functioning of a doctoral committee is encouraged to report their concerns to the graduate program head; this includes the student, the adviser, and any doctoral committee member. In cases where the conflict of interest involves the graduate program head, these issues should be reported to the Associate Dean for graduate education in the college.

1If the program head has appointed a Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), then that person is delegated authority to sign on behalf of the program head wherever the program head’s signature is necessary; see GCAC-101 P2 - Graduate Program Roles and Responsibilities.

Revision History

  • Revised by The Graduate School, July 23, 2021. Effective immediately.
    • Added Conflicts of Interest section. Updated references to professional doctorate policies with the new policy numbers and links. Added a reference to GCAC-101 P2 - Graduate Program Roles and Responsibilities.
  • Approved by The Graduate School, June 25, 2020. Effective date: Fall 2021 (08/16/2021).
    • New guidelines.
This page was generated on June 16, 2024 at 6:41 PM local time. This may not be the most recent version of this page. Check the Penn State Graduate School website for updates.