But what about today’s overscheduled professors? If we have absolutely no ‘free’ time to think and muse and contemplate and play pretend games, will we lose our ability to be creative and independent? That’s actually not what I want to talk about today. I am a graduate student at the stage of writing my thesis and planning my defense. Right now I am having a very difficult time scheduling my thesis defense. Some of my committee members have additional responsibilities at other universities or significant administrative duties. I know that faculty have a lot of other responsibilities and often find serving on thesis committees to be burdensome and a low priority. However, I am only asking for at most 2-3 hours of their time, and this will be the last time I need to do so. How can I politely convey to my committee that while I understand the difficulties they face in attending/Skyping my defense, I really do need to schedule a date as soon as possible? Also, what policies do you think universities could adopt to make this process simpler and less burdensome for both faculty and students?

Personally, I wonder if limiting the number of committees (possibly all committee not just thesis ones) a single faculty member could be on would help lower the burden. Also, perhaps it would be worthwhile for the university calender to build in meeting/defense times — i.e. no departmental seminars/meetings/classes/etc during 1-2 weeks each semester to allow for committee meetings, qualifying exams, and defenses? What are your thoughts? My thoughts involve sympathy for your situation. My own PhD completion was delayed by months, resulting in my degree having the next year’s date on it, because one professor was unable to find time to read my thesis, much less agree to a defense date. I also appreciate that you realize professors are very busy. However, it isn’t necessarily the case that the inability of some professors to find time for your defense means that you are a low priority or a burden. 3 free hours during the work day is simply not possible.

I can also sometimes squeeze in an exam or defense by canceling (rescheduling) an office hour, research group meeting, or committee meeting. If that’s the only option, I am willing to rearrange my schedule. Only once in my career has a grad student scheduled an exam first and then told me when he expected me to show up for the event. He checked in advance with the other (male) professors, but not with me. He was also on record as having stated that he didn’t think women should be Scientists, so I quit his committee, as I didn’t think I could be objective in the face of his lack of respect. He didn’t want me on his committee anyway, so if his strategy to get me off his committee was to be rude, this strategy worked. If you are trying to finish before an urgent deadline, you can mention that, but only if you have left plenty of time between your scheduling attempts and the proposed exam date.

Otherwise, if you suddenly have a crisis and need to finish soon and you ask your committee to rearrange their schedules for you, some of the crankier committee members might get a bit hissy. There is probably a magic time in advance when scheduling is optimal. If you ask me in October about a May defense, I cannot commit to a day/time. If you ask me 2 weeks in advance, my schedule will likely be totally full. I can, however, figure out something 1, maybe 2, months in advance. There may be some graduate program policy on how far in advance an exam must be scheduled, but I have found that any such policy is routinely ignored owing to the wide availability of waivers and exceptions. I have not found the advent of Skype etc. to help much with exam/defense scheduling. If I don’t have three hours to spare, I don’t have three hours to Skype either.

I like the idea of having some designated days when there are no classes or other meetings; I can’t imagine that a week or two would be possible, but 2-3 days might be doable. If those times also coincided with a time when I had no proposals due, no conferences, and no other major deadlines, I wouldn’t mind a few concentrated days of examining, with maybe 2 exams/day. Another way that universities could help would be to extend the possible time in which a student can defend and still get their degree in that academic term or year. That won’t help some people who need to leave and start a new job right away, but it might help some. Maybe being over-committed on committees is a problem for some faculty, but I don’t think that problem can be solved with a new rule limiting committee participation. A committee-max policy might actually create more complications — what if everyone you wanted/needed on your committee was at their committee limit? And I don’t think overscheduled professors are overscheduled because of student committees. It’s all the other stuff that fills the days completely. Somehow everyone gets their exams scheduled, even if it takes a while to accomplish and even if the process is highly non-linear.

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