Managing Up: Your Thesis or Project Committee as a Trial Run for the World of Work in Planning

Ann Forsyth's picture

Completing any type of academic exit project in planning school requires more than writing a proposal and executing it. It also involves assembling and then managing a committee. "Managing up" involves working with your committee to achieve what is important to you while also doing what they see as essential. It is a vital part of the exit project and terrific preparation for later life. Those who don't learn to manage up are doomed to frustration. They likely will spend extra time making revisions that could have been avoided. Even those who are skipping the thesis in favor of a group capstone workshop or studio will need some skills in managing faculty advisors.

The following tips will help you manage faculty advisors in graduate school.

Understand the dynamics on your committee and change it if the fit isn't right. Typically, the committee chair is the most important member. Most "minor" members defer major decisions to the chair. It is important to get to know your chair well. While the content of the chair's expertise is important, so is their approach to work. You can have a content expert as a minor member but make sure your chair shares your values. Change your chair if you don't share his or her basic values about such issues as keeping on schedule, citing sources, or the number of face-to-face meetings you'll need to complete your project.

Listen to committee members so you understand their priorities. Some faculty members prepare written contracts with clear statements about their expectations of students and what they will do in return. Other faculty members may suggest one or two books that provide key guidance on research and writing practices (like The Craft of Research or A Manual for Writers suggested in earlier blogs). Overall, it is crucial to have a clear understanding of what is expected. And take note. If timeliness matters to your committee members-be on time. If members want high quality writing and that's not your strength-go visit the writing center on campus for help. Do what you can to show you are considering their priorities-they are then far more likely to consider yours in return.

Make their job easier by being considerate. Hand things in when you agreed to do so. Supply the work in the format they prefer. For later drafts I typically ask students to hand in the previous version complete with my mark-ups so I can focus on areas that have changed. If students don't do that it adds hours to my schedule and, conversely, I may well ask them to change something they've already edited, taking hours of their time as well. Generally, help committee members see you as a considerate partner. By saving them time on these small but important items you'll make them more able to help when you really need it.

Use good research practices. Understand what plagiarism is and avoid doing it. Cite sources correctly. Analyze data carefully. Allow your committee members to focus on the content of your work, not these basic corrections.

Be honest when you make a mistake or break a promise. Lateness, forgetting to make changes, or delivering the wrong copy to the committee member or even the client are quite common occurrences. If you do make a mistake or break a promise, apologize and propose how to remedy the situation. Apologies are an important way for you to indicate that you do know the correct process and are taking responsibility for errors. Apologies also indicate that you understand that such actions can cause problems for others. Typically, if you take responsibility, faculty members will be more than willing to help strategize how to repair the situation.

Pick your battles. I like using split infinitives. However, when I had an academic advisor who disliked them, I removed them all. Don't waste time resisting issues that don't alter the substance of your work. Save the battles for things that are really important to your project.

In the long term, learning to manage up is a crucial skill not only for graduate school but the world of work. Of course in the world of work there are some additional skills such as using time efficiently, pitching in with dull and difficult tasks, and being prepared to help in a crunch. However, your exit project can help you understand the importance of aligning values about basic work processes so you can spend your time on the big picture of making a contribution and improving the world.

Thanks to Joanna Winter and Sara O'Neill-Kohl, both masters students at Cornell. One or the other has commented on each my blogs over the last six months. Both have asked important questions that improved the entries. This blog benefited from Sara's very helpful comments and suggestions.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.


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