Something that I need to continually evaluate is how much service I’m doing and what specific kinds of service I want to do or should be doing. The questions I almost always have in mind while doing so are “Am I doing too much?” and “Should I take on this new task?”
In terms of deciding how much service to do, I think this is always going to be hard and this is where it’s key to ask department mentors and/or chairs for guidance.* But this, on its own, doesn’t always work. While some chairs are really great about making sure to protect their junior faculty from lots of service, others are less so. (I suspect that, in many cases, it’s just that the chair is torn between a desire to protect junior faculty and a real need to get things done in the department.) Some strategies that I have found useful when trying to decide on whether to take on a particular service role:
- Never say “yes” right away. I think I first read this in Boice’s Advice for New Faculty, but I’ve lost that book and can’t check it now. But, for me, this is really key. My initial inclination is almost always to say “yes”, but that is not what is right for me most of the time.
- Even if you’ve said “no” to 100 things in a row, it doesn’t mean request #101 is the one to say “yes” to. One of the reason’s The Seven Year Postdoc resonated with me is that I felt that she had a good perspective on this sort of thing. By knowing she would only allow herself X trips a year, she was better able to say “no” to requests. I feel like it would be very helpful to have a set amount of service in mind, since it would help to set limits like this. The problem is that service tasks are so variable (and it can be so hard to predict at the outset how much time they’ll take) that I have no idea how to actually do this.
- If you feel like you are already doing at least your fair share of department service but have been asked to do another thing, write out everything you are currently doing and bring that to your chair and mentors. In one case, I felt like I was already doing a lot of service, but was asked to take on another pretty time-intensive service task. I wrote up all the department service I’d done the previous year and that I had agreed to do in the following year already. Once I listed it all, they found someone else for the new task. (Pat Schloss recently had similar advice on twitter, where he said, “Unsolicited advice to Asst. Profs: learn to say NO to all requests to do service until you have a chance to ask your dept chair/mentors”)
- Related to the above, if it’s something you’d like to do, it’s always an option to say that you would be happy to take that on in exchange for them finding someone else to do one of your other service tasks.
- Think of what other things you won’t be able to do if you take on this service. Is it worth it? Again, this is hard to answer concretely, but it helps me to think things through. In my experience, taking on additional service eats into non-work time and research time. Sometimes that’s worth it, but other times it’s not.
Lest that give you the impression that I have this all down and am great at turning down service requests, I am sure I am doing “too much” service. I think part of this is because I haven’t sufficiently specialized in terms of the service I’m doing. I do all the things I “should” do (e.g., department service, reviewing proposals and manuscripts, serving on dissertation committees). I enjoy many of those things (especially being on dissertation committees), but they take up a lot of time. Other things I do because of a combination of feeling like I “should” do them and thinking they’re really important (e.g., serving as an Associate Editor, reviewing tenure dossiers**, society-level service). And then there are the other things I do because I really care about them and feel like they’re an important way I can make a difference. Blogging and activities related to diversifying STEM both definitely fall in this category. These both take up a fair amount of time, and, if I didn’t do them, I think I would still be doing “enough” service. But I feel like these activities have the potential to have a bigger impact than anything else I do.
I have currently been struggling with this question again as I consider two service-y tasks. One task relates to teaching, which is something I care a lot about. It also would have the potential benefit of having me meet more people from across disciplines, and would be service within the university but outside my department, which I’m currently lacking. But, ultimately, I decided that my participation wouldn’t have that much of an effect, and turned that opportunity down. The second one is an opportunity to get more involved in a group that I think is fantastic and doing really important work. Thinking it through, I’ve been torn between recognizing I don’t have enough time or energy to take on all the interesting service roles, with feeling like this could be a really valuable thing to be part of. In the end, after thinking through the things that I couldn’t do if I took on this one (and considering how stressed I would feel if I added more to my plate), I decided to turn it down (albeit reluctantly).
I think one issue for me is that I haven’t sufficiently specialized in my service. Or, more accurately, I think that I’m trying to be both a generalist and a specialist. I am doing the generalist things that I “should” do, and the specialist things that I care a lot about. Probably one or the other would be sufficient. But should I really start turning down more review requests or step down from an editorial board so that I can do more work related to diversifying STEM? I truly don’t know the answer to that right now.
I would love to hear from others how they decide on how much service to do and what kinds of service to do, and on how those changed over time. Do you try to specialize? Are you a generalist? Has that changed over time?
* Of course, there are fewer and fewer relevant mentors the more senior you get.
** I originally thought these requests wouldn’t appear until I was a Full Professor. I was wrong.