What is the Role of the Doctoral Advisory Committee?

Who is on my DAC?

The DAC is comprised of:

  • one supervisor, and two or three committee members OR
  • two co-supervisors, and one or two committee members

Should I have one supervisor or two co-supervisors?

The decision to opt for co-supervision (taking “one supervisor with primary responsibility” to be the default) should be based on the nature of the student’s dissertation project. A student engaged in interdisciplinary work that cuts across one or more disciplinary boundaries, and who intends to privilege two (or possibly more) disciplines equally rather than working primarily in one well-defined field, will often be well served by a co-supervision arrangement if two appropriate co-supervisors can be found. One of the two must be in the student’s home department; the other need not be.

The two co-supervisors must feel that they will be able to establish an equitable working relationship where they will both contribute to the student’s needs equally, though in different domains. A sense of hierarchy or dominance, with one co-supervisor playing a larger role, is not ideal for co-supervision. In a good co-supervision, discussion of the student’s research goals, course selection, research design and ethics issues, data collection, analysis and reporting of results (chapter by chapter, including revisions) is always shared, timelines are mutually agreed upon, and all discussion is three-way.

If your supervisor retires from DISE/McGill, that person may continue to be on the DAC as a co-supervisor with another co-supervisor from DISE.

How should I choose supervisor(s) and committee members?

Regardless of whether the members of the DAC are in a supervisory or a committee member role, it is essential that they complement each another’s expertise. The student should, with guidance of course, think carefully about the three or four areas of academic expertise that the dissertation will draw upon. These might include a specific methodological focus that makes the inclusion of a committee member specialized in that kind of study highly desirable and perhaps essential.

Generally speaking, the primary supervisor or the two co-supervisors will probably be in the specialized fields that are most central/ relevant/closest to the student’s dissertation project, and the committee members, while contributing essential expertise will play more peripheral roles because the fields they represent are not as central to the project. A guiding question about complementary expertise could be: Do the committee members publish in different journals, contribute to edited volumes with different topics, present at different conferences?

The supervisor or one co-supervisor must be from DISE. The other co-supervisor can be from DISE, McGill or another university. Normally, all DAC members should hold a PhD degree. Normally, no more than half the DAC members should be from outside McGill.

What is the role of committee members in contrast to the role of supervisor?

Despite their less central roles, the committee members should be involved with the student’s research throughout the entire research and writing process.

At the start of the program:

The supervisor should meet with the student to discuss potential candidates for committee membership. The supervisor needs to approve, and the student should contact potential members. At least a provisional committee should be formed by the end of the first semester. The supervisor and student both need to notify the Graduate Program Coordinator about DAC members, and each member must confirm membership to the GPC as well.

When the committee is formed, all the members should have a chance to meet (or “e-meet”) one another. If personalities or paradigms clash, the committee will not work effectively; any such danger should be identified at the outset, and alternative members found.

Required coursework

Establishing which courses the student will take is a decision that, while it is usually handled by the supervisor(s) and student, may also usefully draw on the expertise of committee members. It may be desirable for the student to undertake an independent study course with a committee member in the first or second year to build up essential knowledge in the specialization that that person is bringing to the DAC.

Candidacy Papers

The wording of questions, reading of the final papers, participation in the oral presentation, and awarding of a pass or fail grade for the Candidacy Papers is the responsibility of all the members of the DAC and all their signatures on the form (DISE Graduate Student webpage) are required for a passing grade. This process is expected to be complete before the beginning of the student’s third year in the program (see note below). During the student’s second year in the program, the supervisor(s) will be more involved in the stages along the way (drafting of questions, reading draft versions of papers and providing feedback and suggestions for revisions, approval of revisions). But the final papers must be read and approved by the entire DAC.

Note: Most PhD students enter the program with a MA degree in hand, and are thus considered to be “PhD 2” – with a six-year time limit, they will have until the end of PhD 7. PhD students entering without an MA degree enter as PhD 1, and have until the end of PhD 7, i.e. 7 years. Most students, beginning in PhD 2, have two years to complete the Candidacy Papers, i.e. the end of PhD 3. Students beginning in PhD 1 have three years to complete the Candidacy Papers and should finish them by the end of PhD 3.


As the student starts to write dissertation chapters, committee members should be asked for feedback according to their availability and their preference. A common model, though by no means the only one, is for the supervisor(s) to provide feedback chapter-by-chapter, with several feedback rounds on each chapter/section being common and expected, while committee members read through the entire completed dissertation once and provide feedback once (after the student and supervisor(s) have gone through a couple of feedback rounds, and before a final pre-submission supervisory feedback round). Another model is for at least one committee member to read each chapter as drafts are done – this is particularly true for specialized areas such as methodology.

Thesis Oral Defence

One committee member (not the supervisor or co-supervisor) who is from DISE or another department at McGill will be asked to be the internal examiner for the thesis. This entails writing an evaluative report after the initial official thesis submission, and being present as a member of the student’s oral dissertation defence committee. This person should have a thorough knowledge of the dissertation, reflecting closeness to and knowledge of the student and the student’s process second only to that of the supervisor(s).

What if one committee member becomes more important than the supervisor?

If you find that you are going to see one of your committee members far more often than you go to see your supervisor(s); asking that person for advice about courses, readings, research design, and/or other important concerns in preference to your supervisor; and if you find that you are becoming increasingly reliant on that person as an academic mentor and guide, then perhaps that person should be your supervisor and your current supervisor should be a committee member…