Whether you’re a PhD candidate, a masters student or a professor, it’s likely that you’ve been on one side or the other of a logistically challenging thesis-writing process.
UNC-Charlotte Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) candidates Denise Wynn and Mike Lee know the struggle to continually organize a thesis committee all too well. That’s why they founded Durham-based Committees, a startup that uses a digitized organizational platform to help students and their advisors focus on the quality of their research rather instead of getting lost in the logistics that surround it.
“The idea for Committees came from the pain that we’re feeling going through our dissertation processes and managing the committee,” Lee said. “We have four committee members that we get a lot of feedback from. We have to update our dissertations based on their feedback, so we’re trying to schedule their calendars, we’re trying to stay in contact—it’s really painful. I’ve almost quit a couple times, just because of the stress associated with managing the process.”
Lee and Wynn are not alone in their administrative struggles, Lee said, and NC IDEA agrees—the support organization recently awarded Committees a $10K MICRO grant.
Across disciplines, schools and education levels, most graduate students are expected to create a long-term project—often called a thesis for masters students and a dissertation for PhD programs—over the course of their studies. This product is reviewed by multiple faculty members at the end of the graduate student’s time of study, but students consult their committee members throughout the research process to receive constant feedback and ensure a well-reviewed final product.
If a student had, for example, one committee chair and three other committee members, that student would have to juggle four different schedules in addition to their own as they looked for common times to meet about the thesis process. Having four or more games of email “tag”, four oft-conflicting calendars and four possibly unresponsive emailers is a lot for one student to handle on top of a research product.
Wynn and Lee knew there had to be a better way for thesis committee organization. So while working full-time and going to doctoral school, the co-founders began throwing around ideas of making their pain point a startup in late 2021. In early 2022, the pair began to turn Committees into a reality at Launchpeer, an accelerator out of Charleston, S.C.
By the end of 2022, Committees has done extensive customer discovery through online ads and has created a workable “one-stop shop” prototype that boasts unique landing pages for students, committee members and committee chairs alike.
“I think this is the opportunity to create a company that will be able to address a very big gap in research,” Lee said. “There’s obviously platforms like Google Docs, and there’s Microsoft 365, and they are capable of doing different things. Nothing is there to be that one-stop shop where you are doing your work and doing your committee’s work, or managing your committees, messaging, with everything in one place for the student.”
The platform allows students to upload drafts of their papers, and for each faculty member to add comments to drafts in one place, eliminating the possibility of drafts being lost in inbox purgatory.
The platform’s AI-generated scheduling tool, which suggests times when the student and their committee members can meet based on availability in each person’s calendar, is another powerful feature. This can help students schedule individual feedback sessions or group events that are usually “almost impossible” to coordinate, like thesis or proposal defenses.
Committees also looks to address a fundamental problem many committee members face: at the same time, they are often on the thesis committees of multiple students. The platform’s notification tab allows members of multiple committees to see changes, messages or uploads from all of their advisees in one place.
“Right now, if you have multiple people on the same path in the same cohort that you are a committee member or a chairperson for, your emails are getting flooded,” Lee said. “You don’t know what the latest version is. If you’re on a call with someone and you need to review something, you have to go back through your emails. With Committees, all that information will be right here. You just click on your student’s name, and you go right to all their information. You don’t have to search through emails.”
By mid-2023, Committees hopes to be fully out of beta, with real graduate students and professors on their platform looking forward to the 2023-24 school year. In the long term, the company looks to transition from B2C to B2B by selling use of its platform to universities instead of individual graduate students.
Though its initial focus will be to address the complicated dissertation process for graduate students, Committees’ platform is versatile, Lee said, and could easily be tweaked to help users in the university environment and beyond to coordinate research papers and collaborative projects.
By providing its platform to a wider audience, Lee said, he hopes Committees will allow for users to focus on quality research instead of managing chaotic committees, creating results that even those outside of academia can enjoy.
“If schools are adopting this as a standard and more people are using this, that to me means that the research process has gotten easier for people to manage,” Lee said. “They can focus more on the writing and the research. That is really, really big.”