Advisory Boards

What is an advisory board, and why do you need one?


Eleanor C Sayre

Case studies

An advisory board is a group of humans who have important expertise to guide your research project. While all projects benefit from outside advice, not all projects have (or need) advisory boards. Let’s talk about what the advisory board is for.

What is an advisory board for (and not for)?

The advisory board is a group of humans with expertise to guide your project.

They aren’t involved in the day-to-day running of the project. Instead, their role is to (collectively) give you expert advice on:

Often, advisory boards serve an evaluative role, serving as both formative and summative assessment of your project. It’s right there in the title: their job is to advise you.

The advisory board is not a board of directors. They are not in charge of your project. They’ve got great expertise and you should generally heed their advice, but it’s not their job to set policy, resolve disputes, approve staffing choices, or handle financial details of your project. It’s common for advisory boards to have guidance for you about how projects like yours might handle these issues. Advisory board members might even sit down with you to help you hash out details. However, as the principal investigator, it’s your responsibility to run the project, make decisions, and seek good counsel.

Different boards are different.

Some advisory boards meet together, as a board, to share expertise and feedback with you collectively. Other boards might function more like a collection of individuals that you call on separately for different activities and expertise.

Because there are lots of ways for advisory boards to advise you, it’s important to be clear to yourself and to your advisory board members: why are they here? what are you asking them to do?

Advisory board scope and logistics

As you think about convening a board, you need to think about what expertise you need, how many (and which!) people you’d like to interact with, and how often you’d like their advice. Naturally, the answers to these questions are entangled with each other as well as with the scope of your project!

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Alyssa is a second year PhD student, and she would like to study how introductory courses in biomedical engineering affect undergraduate students’ motivation to continue in the field. Alyssa plans to conduct interviews with students towards the end of their first year, looking for a variety of experiences across different genders and grades.

As part of her dissertation project, Alyssa needs to convene a dissertation committee.

Hassan developed some simulations to help undergraduate biology students visualize ion transport through cell membranes. Students can control physical characteristics of the cell membrane as well as the environments inside and outside the cell. He would like to investigate how these simulations help students think about biochemistry concepts, and improve the simulations. Eventually, he would like to have other faculty use his simulations in their classes.

Hassan wants to build a team to improve his simulations.

What expertise do you need on your project?

As you think across your entire project, what kinds of expertise do you need to ensure success?

In an education research project, you often need expertise in:

  • the needs, trajectories, and idiosyncrasies of the population(s) you’re working with and the setting(s) they work or learn in
  • the particular content area(s) you want them to learn or do
  • how people learn or develop, specifically using the theory or theories you’re using
  • methods of data collection and analysis appropriate to your study
  • evaluating if your project is achieving its goals

If your project involves creating a product, like a concept inventory, simulations, curriculum, or online resource, you also need expertise in:

  • user needs analysis: why does the world want this product?
  • actually creating the product: writing the code, developing the curricular materials, etc
  • usability: does your product meet the needs of your intended users?
  • dissemination and propagation: how will prospective users find it? how will they get it?

Naturally, some of these needs can be met by your project team (that’s why they’re on the team!). Sometimes a single human can cover multiple needs, and sometimes you need multiple humans with overlapping expertise. However, it’s quite rare for all of these needs to be well-covered within your project team.

Generally speaking, your project team should have enough expertise to cover the core aspects of your project (whatever they are). Advisory board members can augment your team’s expertise with more depth in core areas or more coverage in other areas. The larger your project is, the more need you will have for diverse expertise, and the more need you have for advisors outside of your project to look at your work with fresh eyes.

Alyssa’s dissertation committee should (collectively) bring expertise in teaching first-year biomedical engineering courses, interview methods, and student motivation and persistence. It would also be helpful to include expertise on equity and inclusion issues in undergraduate engineering, as those are often entangled in motivation and persistence.

As a cell biologist, Hassan feels really confident about the science of ion transport, but he is less confident about how to investigate learning. He’s working with a partner in data science to develop the simulations already, but his partner doesn’t have a background in visual design or user experience. Hassan teaches a junior-level cell biology course where they can test the simulations, and he’d like to bring in some users from other institutions to see if they work with other student populations.

How big is your board?

A common size for an advisory board is 3-5 people. This is a reasonable number of people to bring breadth of expertise while still being small enough to manage logistically. Unless you have a very good reason, don’t grow beyond five.

Alyssa’s dissertation committee should be composed of about three people, plus her advisor. Alyssa’s advisor teaches the first-year biomedical engineering sequence, and recently updated it to increase retention. Alyssa asks a qualitative methodologist from the school of education with expertise in interviewing and an engineering education researcher who studies student motivation.

Alyssa’s advisor recommends a third person with a good reputation for helping female graduate students navigate thorny issues in professional development. That expertise is not super relevant to the specific topic of Alyssa’s dissertation, but it is very important to Alyssa’s growth as a researcher.

Hassan talks to a design-based researcher to advise him on study design. Together they decide that it would be better to have her expertise as part of the team, not just as an advisory board member. She recommends a user experience designer to advise on usability studies, specifically for educational simulations. Hassan invites two representatives from curriculum repositories, one from physics and one from biology, to advise on dissemination and user needs. Hassan’s partner in data science suggests a representative from the game design group to advise on both the “playability” of the simulations as well as visual design elements.

Hassan now has a project team of three: a cell biologist, a data scientist, and a design-based researcher; and an advisory board of four, focused on usability and dissemination.

If your project is really big – more than four dissertations or two million dollars – you might need a larger advisory board to make sure that you’ve represented all the appropriate stakeholders and expertise well. Larger boards are more unwieldy: scheduling complexity increases dramatically the more humans you have to coordinate, and the potential for interpersonal or expertise conflicts also increases.

There are a few common use cases for large advisory boards:

  1. A stakeholder board: Your project is doing some important stuff in the community, and you need to make sure that everyone important has a seat at the table. Your advisory board might include high-level administrators and representatives from multiple major stakeholder groups (other departments or offices on campus, professional societies, industry leaders, etc). This kind of board tends to center the people who hold power in your community to make sure their voices are heard. It doesn’t focus on research or development expertise, because this is assumed to be covered within the project team or targeted subcontractors.

  2. A committee board: Your project has a lot of moving parts and each person doesn’t have a lot of time. You bring in a large committee to help share their expertise, and also to help shoulder the load. Your core project team handles most of the day-to-day operations (and also a lot of board member wrangling). This is common for conference organizing, writing white papers, or anywhere a two-tier structure of core workers and diffuse other people is important. In a committee board, board members are chosen because they have some relevant expertise, and also because they might have time to contribute at some point.

If you find yourself tempted to make a large advisory board for a smaller project, think again. Does your project have the capacity to wrangle lots of people? What are you asking them to do? Why are you asking each person?

What does the board do? (and how?)

Your board is there to advise you, but how do they do that? Consider:

  • Meetings:
    • How often do they meet? In person or virtually? for how long?
    • Do they meet all together, or do you meet with board members separately?
    • Who on your team meets with them?
  • Work:
    • Do you write reports to them? Do they write reports to you?
    • Outside of meetings, what are they supposed to do for your project?
    • Do they have access to your raw data, or only analyzed/reduced data?
    • How much time (monthly, annually, total, whatever) are they expected to work?
  • Advice:
    • What will happen if you don’t take their advice?
    • What if different board members disagree?

Luckily, the job of an advisory board is to advise you! It’s ok to ask your board members for advice on how to answer these questions.

Are they paid?

People deserve to be paid for their labor. Advisory board members bring their time and expertise to your project. Typical advisory board rates vary with what you’re asking them to do, how much time you’re asking for, and whether their labor on your board could be reasonably included as part of their regular academic appointment.

Serving on dissertation committees is part of the ordinary work of faculty members. Alyssa does not pay her committee members. Depending on how the work of her dissertation progresses, it might be appropriate to list some of them as co-authors on her papers.

Hassan plans to have quarterly meetings with his whole board, plus occasional email consultation as necessary. He estimates this work as four days per year, and offers $1000/day consulting rate, which is pretty typical in academic research though low for industry.

Inviting people to your advisory board

So, you’ve figured out what kinds of expertise you’re looking for and how much work you’re asking your board members to do. Who do you invite? and how?

Finding advisory board members is almost always a networking problem. Who do you know already? Who does your project team know? Do you want to work with them? Ask your friends to join your board.

If you’re stretching into a new area, you might not know anyone who can cover a particular kind of expertise that you need. This is an opportunity to meet new people. Ask your friends if they know anyone. Write to someone who authored a paper that’s similar to your ideas.

How to ask prospective board members

When you ask someone to join your advisory board, you should share a 1-page synopsis of the project as a whole, including information about:

  • Central idea: what is the project trying to do? why?
  • Project scope: how big is this project? How much data, how many people, what kind of budget, etc
  • Project timeline: how long will this take?
  • Project status: what is already done?

You will also want to talk about their role:

  • Why you’re asking them
  • What expertise you want them to bring
  • What work you want them to do
  • How much flexibility there is in building the project plan

Close your request with one or more concrete next steps:

  • Offer to meet about the project
  • Offer to send more information
  • Ask if there’s someone else they’d recommend
  • Ask for a letter of commitment

When to ask prospective board members

Generally, it’s a good idea to have advisory board members on board at the start of a project. Their expertise can help shape the project before it gets started, and their commitment to a project can signal to funders that the project has thought carefully about what expertise is necessary for success.

However, sometimes you get partway through a project and realize you need more or different expertise. An existing advisory board member might leave the project, or you might need to grow your board. Especially for longer or more complicated projects, it’s normal to bring on replacement or additional advisory board members after the project is well underway.

When you ask, be nice. You’re asking them for a favor, even if their labor is to be paid.

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