Service: How much and what kinds?

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.

10 thoughts on “Service: How much and what kinds?

  1. First, I agree with Pat.

    Service is a chance to serve. Many people view it as an impediment to their ambitions. If you hear someone recommend ‘Look out for number one first,’ you are listening to the wrong person.
    Serve to … serve others.

    To be the right person for a job, you don’t have to be the best person for the job. The principle of competitive advantage – you should do the job you are least bad at, relatively speaking.

    Pat is right because the Chair may have global awareness and insight, even into needs and opportunities that nobody else yet sees. Of course, the 30,000 foot view misses quite a bit of detail – and you may see details that the Chair cannot.

  2. Service is a difficult part of Academia, and many folks have a love-hate relationship with it. I personally define it very broadly, and essentially as anything that doesn’t ‘neatly’ fit into research or teaching. But the lines are blurry, as blogging about research could be a type of ‘outreach’ activities would could be a kind of service!

    I do a lot of service, and it’s largely been my choice and I have no regrets (I’ve written about this before in the context of an administrative appointment: ). At a Dept. or Faculty level, service can help make your workplace a better workplace: putting time into meaningful committee can really make a difference to colleagues and students. At a University level, there are equally challenging and exciting opportunities for service, and contributions can potentially make an even bigger difference. But this certainly comes at a cost since time is so limited. My general philosophy is to really think about some kind of intangible metric that captures both the sort of broader impact a service opportunity might have, and whether to not it would be interesting and allow growth both personally and professionally.

    I’ve certainly had some committees and service-y things that have been unproductive, and have had some regrets, but by in large, service is something I have found fulfilling and rewarding on many levels. And I’ve not had to give up on research or teaching, which is important to me.

    I do have some fundamental worries that too many people are shying away from service opportunities, and this will create additional problems in the future. The beauty of academia is that “we” contribute on many levels, and if the service is always squeezed out, the face of Universities will change for the worse. We all have to play a role and should embrace service, when the timing and opportunities are right.

  3. While service can be a burden, it is also critical for the effective functioning of an institution. Anyone who doesn’t do a fair share of service (obviously a what is a fair share will change with rank and experience) is actively harming their colleagues who have to fill the gap.

    I would also add that certain types of service can be extremely beneficial to a new faculty member. Once of the best decisions I made as a new faculty member was to sit on my departments merit committee for a year. Seeing everyone’s CVs gave me an invaluable perspective on where I stood, and what I needed to do.

  4. Looking back, I’ve tended to aim for service that’s both fun/interesting/beneficial for me, and that contributes in a tangible way to a good intellectual environment at my university or in my field. Coordinating my department’s EEB seminar series (which included getting to choose many of the invitees) was something I really liked doing. Organizing our annual Darwin Day events ( Volunteering to organize a bunch of Darwin-related events in 2009 ( Serving on hiring committees. In terms of external service, stuff like serving as a reviewer and journal editor (or serving on an NSF panel or the equivalent; I’ve never been asked but would jump on it if I was). Doing this sort of service is like having your cake and eating it too. Not only was I happy to do it and often got something out of it for myself, but my colleagues and dept. head appreciated me doing it.

    As opposed to, say, sitting on a necessary-but-boring committee like the space use committee. Or serving on the grad student scholarship and awards committee–that’s probably the service I’ve done that I least enjoyed, because it involved ploughing through a ton of reference letters and other supporting documents that were totally useless (EDIT: see below for further comments on this; I’d have been happy to serve on the student award committee had I found the material I was provided more useful for adjudication purposes). It just felt like a waste of time to me, and that’s the kind of service I try to avoid.

    One thing beginning faculty don’t always realize is that you don’t have to wait to be asked to do service, and that by seeking out or creating your own service activities you can then say “no” in good conscience when asked to do something you’d rather not do. Nobody asked me to organize Darwin-related events back in 2009, for instance.

    And of course, nobody asked me to blog, but I tend to think of that as a scholarly contribution (or sometimes a teaching contribution) rather than a service contribution. So I’m interested to hear that you think of it more as service, Meg.

    “I originally thought these requests wouldn’t appear until I was a Full Professor. I was wrong.”

    Yeah, once you have tenure, you’re fair game to get asked to do lots of stuff. 🙂

  5. Thanks, useful post yet again, Meg!

    The general understanding in my department was that junior faculty are to take on service obligations that have a high visibility:work ratio. There are some assignments that aren’t much of a time suck, but do tend to give the impression that you’re putting in well enough time for service. Other ones require almost no time at all, but are lines you can put on the CV that will satisfy people at various levels during the tenure process.

    What drives my choices post-tenure is to protect our junior faculty. Our department is small enough that there are plenty of roles that need to be filled, and if the senior faculty don’t do them, they’ll get foisted on the newly hired faculty who are busy getting their labs ramped up and are teaching new preps. I’d be a bad colleague if I didn’t shield them from the more annoying service obligations. For me, this means being the departmental rep to the University Senate. This is a pretty big time suck, and it’s also (in my view) one of the more annoying forms of service, but it’s also necessary. I couldn’t really say no to Senate after ducking out on both Chair and Graduate Coordinator, to other department mates who weren’t keen on those jobs either but took them because nobody else was available. (Those are bigger jobs, but they also come with reassigned time whereas the senate does not.)

    One drawback to the Senate is that to many people in the university, especially in other colleges, I’m the face of the department. So I’m more often asked to serve on additional committees, like admin searches, and also just for general input about things. This would be a good strategy to attempt to go into admin, if I wanted to do that, but in practice it just means that I have to get better at saying no (or rather, I’d like to, but x and y are keeping me too busy).

  6. Meg, Jeremy and Terry all touched on this, but I want to highlight it. Career stage is so relevant to this. As far as I can tell the service expectations take a step jump when you get tenure and then just increase for the rest of your career. This is the cost of being part of a peer-governed university and peer-reviewed research field. I haven’t yet figured anyway around it. But it still comes as a shock. It is a real and genuine change in work day – research and teaching become part time jobs as managing grows to become a genuine part time job too. People often say we don’t spend enough time training our graduate and postdoc students how to teach. I think you can say the same about how we don’t spend enough time training or at least setting realistic expectations for our post-tenure faculty to do service.

    I won’t get into specifics but I’ve been approached about all sorts of major service opportunities in the past year. So far I’ve said no to them in part because they weren’t the right fit and in part because I feel like I’ve got a couple more years of specific research burning inside of me waiting to get out. But the writing on the wall is becoming apparent …

  7. I think any faculty member who is a member of an underrepresented group for their discipline needs to be especially careful with managing service. It’s great that departments, universities, and professional societies want to diversify the people who are shaping policy within them and representing them but it places heavy demands on people who represent that diversity. I don’t think there is anything but good intentions behind these requests for service but the effects can be harmful to the individuals being asked to do them. In the end it may also harm faculty diversity as it makes the slog to tenure that much harder and can create burn-out in people asked to do more than the normal load of service. This doesn’t mean that anyone should have less service but it’s important to keep service requests reasonable and to try to find ways to recognize when you’re asking someone to do more because they’re being asked to represent a group rather than being able to focus on their own career development.

    These issues may be why I hear from many students that the perception is that many female faculty are less happy in their jobs than male faculty (I do not have sufficient feedback from students on their perceptions of what it is like for faculty of color because we are not diverse enough for that, a sad statement but true). I have no idea if this is a correct perception (I love my job!) but I’ve got a great chair who has looked out for me and kept my service reasonable. It does seem though that lots of extras in the service department, particularly if some of these are unrecognized (e.g. serving in informal mentorship roles), could contribute to burn-out and dissatisfaction.

  8. Thoughtful piece. One thing that I don’t think was stressed enough was to ask yourself: am I doing enough locally, and at most/all levels of local administration? By that I mean, sure it’s great to be an AE at a journal, but the most valued contributions often come from the things you do for your local institution. I’ve long tried to do a bit at each of the Department, Faculty and University levels, although the degree to which you participate in the latter two may correlate with your career stage.

    Now on to part of the comment by Jeremy that I take exception to:

    “As opposed to, say, sitting on a necessary-but-boring committee like the space use committee. Or serving on the grad student scholarship and awards committee–that’s probably the service I’ve done that I least enjoyed, because it involved ploughing through a ton of reference letters and other supporting documents that were totally useless. It just felt like a waste of time to me, and that’s the kind of service I try to avoid.”

    I get that this wasn’t for you, but it’s pitched more like they wouldn’t be for anybody. Personally, I have a totally different perspective on the latter type of committee service. I’ll go so far as to say that I find the adjudication of awards for the next generation of scholars to be an immensely important and rewarding experience. I’ve reviewed some 200 scholarship applications over a period of two years, and keen to keep doing so in future years. Different strokes for different folks.

    • To clarify (and you’re right to ask me to clarify Steve), I don’t think student award adjudication per se is a waste of time for anyone. What I found to be a waste of time was trying to adjudicate student awards *on a mostly non-informative basis*. When every reference letter and reference form says that every student is one of the very best (top 10% or better) of all the students the referee has ever encountered, that’s not helpful. So as a student awards committee member I found myself just falling back on the few elements of the applications that at least differentiated students in *some* way: their previous awards (yes, that’s a recipe for a Matthew Effect), their publications, and a couple of other things.

      For many years I’ve served as a volunteer judge for various student awards at the ESA meeting, and I’ve always enjoyed doing that. I very much enjoy student award adjudication when the information available to me is mostly useful information.

  9. I fall into the category of finding it vey difficult to say no and really enjoying teaching; as a consequence by the time I left the Life Sciences Department at Imperial College (very research intensive, teaching seen as a chore by most faculty) I was doing more teaching than anyone else in the Department (including the Teaching Fellows) and was also expected to run a research group (which I did) and publish (which I did). There was however, no tangible appreciation of this by the Department, so in 20 years I never had a sabbatical. Hence one of the reasons for my move to a more teaching oriented institution (Small Pond Science resonates very well). I still do service, but it is of a different sort (more committees and being part of the press-fleshing outward-facing part of the university, less teaching). The big difference is that I know it is appreciated and acknowledged. So yes service is important but I agree with Meg, you do need to learn to say no, even it makes you feel guilty.

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