Vetting My Outsider Reader Candidates

Feb 22 2013 Published by under Late-stage PhD student

I recently went through the process of choosing an outside reader for my PhD thesis. An outside reader is generally faculty from another institution (or sometimes another department) that is brought in “to keep the "inside" people honest, and make sure wacky things aren't going on.” Keep the funny business to a minimum.

Anyway, this was something I took fairly seriously. Influenced, perhaps, by my recent obsession with The West Wing, I came up with a shortlist of candidates and put them through vetting that would make the selection process of some vice presidential nominees look like child’s play (looking at you, McCain ‘08).
I applied multiple litmus tests to the candidates, such as how hir area of expertise would complement the expertise already present on my thesis advisory committee, hir working relationship with my PI, hir proximity to my institution, and of course, hir h-index (kidding). The process, in fact, wasn’t so dissimilar to picking faculty for my thesis advisory committee.

If you went through this as well, I’d like to hear how you chose your outside reader? What were some of your considerations? Or was it just another box to check off?

8 responses so far

  • Bill Hooker says:

    I chose someone who I thought (a) did good work in the field and (b) disliked my supervisor (as did I; as did all reasonable humans). I had seen funny business in the department and wanted to be sure that I got at least one professional, serious review. After all, I couldn't be expected to grade my own PhD -- and if I only had in-house reviews, I worried that I would never really know whether I'd done a good enough job. I saw a bad case of Imposter Syndrome in my future and wanted to head it off.

    Turns out I was right: both in-school reviews were pathetic rubber stamps, two short paragraphs of nicey-nice and a few typos to fix. The outside reviewer, though, ran to about ten pages iirc, made refs to the literature to support hir arguments, caught a couple of scientific errors that weren't dealbreakers but needed to be fixed -- and just generally made me feel that, having passed that level of scrutiny, I'd actually earned the degree.

    So, I think you're wise to choose with care.

    • AmasianV says:

      In speaking with other PhD's, I guess it's pretty common that the outside reader turns out to be the most thorough reviewer. Although, the outside reader probably isn't burnt out on your project like your committee is by that point.

      WRT to b), are we talking a personal or professional dislike? Were they "competitors?"

      "and just generally made me feel that, having passed that level of scrutiny, I'd actually earned the degree." That's a great point. Hadn't thought of it that way.

  • molliebatmit says:

    I wanted to pick someone who is an expert in my subfield (none of my inside committee members were), and who is a young PI whose work I respect and who I might expect to have outstanding future work -- basically, I wanted to pick someone who might be valuable to have on my side in the long term over the course of my career. Those criteria gave me a short list, and I made my final decision because one of the PIs was particularly collegial and helpful -- he has visited my SfN posters, e.g., and always had useful comments and advice.

  • Bill Hooker says:

    Personal. The guy was an absolute dick. Professionally, he was OK -- solid "worker bee" scientist.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Any future grad students of mine are going to pick from a list of people I want to grab a beer with. Like Nammie or PayPay, maybe. Cause that's what it is all about.

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