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

<p class="MsoNormal"> 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. </p>

March 31, 2008, 4:34 PM PDT

By Ann Forsyth


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

Trained in planning and architecture, Ann Forsyth is a professor of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. From 2007-2012 she was a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell.

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