Serves You Right

A great record on service won't win you tenure, and it could cost you tenure, writes a new advice columnist.


June 18, 2010

Research, teaching, and service are the defining trinity of a university professor's job. Their relative importance depends quite strongly on the type of academic institution and one’s career stage. Understanding how to strike a balance between institutional requirements and one’s own career interests can sometimes be tricky, and young faculty are often in danger of overcommitting to activities that do not benefit their long-term career prospects.

Most tenure and promotion criteria at universities state something like "In order to receive tenure, a candidate must demonstrate excellence in research, teaching, and service." In reality, this means that excellence in research is absolutely mandatory for promotion and the level of excellence you achieve is in direct correlation with how easily you will get tenure. Provided your research record is spotless (i.e., you received a lot of external funding if you are in a science discipline or another where that’s the norm, published many papers in top journals or books with respected publishers), graduated some Ph.D. students, and gave many invited talks), the university will be fine with good teaching and adequate service. It doesn’t work the other way: excellent teaching or service do not get you promoted in the absence of a stellar research program. Bad teaching may result in tenure denial, though.

But can’t you have an outstanding research record, as well as outstanding teaching and outstanding service? The answer is "Yes, in principle," but nobody will believe you. The problem is that, if you are devoting too much time and showing too much zeal toward either teaching or service at a large research university, your colleagues will wonder what it is that you are not doing instead (i.e., why you are not spending all this time on research). Unfortunately, in order to be considered a serious enough scholar in many departments in large research universities, you have to manifest a slight level of disdain for teaching and service. (How this bodes for the quality of undergraduate education is a topic for another column, or perhaps a few.)

While the quality of research and teaching can in principle be measured, through the number of papers or amount of grant money or teaching evaluations, service is a vaguely defined category that has the potential to drain a junior faculty’s energy with poor return.

So what is service and how much service is enough?

Service is a set of faculty duties that demonstrate good citizenship in the department, university, and the broader scientific community. Therefore, we can roughly divide service into service to your institution and professional service to your scholarly community.

Service to the institution can be further divided into departmental service and service outside the department. Departmental service requires a fair bit of time, and it includes serving on various committees (e.g., undergraduate and graduate student admissions, facilities, curriculum, student advising), serving on students’ master’s and Ph.D. defense committees, or serving in an administrative capacity (e.g., being chair). Service to the university outside the department also involves being elected to serve on various committees, but these are often open to tenured faculty only. On tenure track, it is reasonable to assume that most of your service to the university will be in fact service to your department; which makes sense as the department is your champion in the tenure process.

Professional service to the broader scholarly community comprises activities such as reviewing research papers, serving on the editorial board of a journal, serving on organizing and program committees of conferences, mail-in and panel reviews of grant proposals, as well as serving on the board of a professional society or a federal funding agency.

The level of department and university service for a junior faculty member should be fairly light. I recommend that most service activities be skewed toward professional activities in your broader disciplinary community, which, besides being service, have the additional benefit of enhancing your research program and your visibility in the community. For instance, reviewing papers enables you to stay abreast of latest developments in the broader field, being part of technical program committees for conferences gives you visibility and enhances your network, serving on grant panel reviews strengthens your ties with the program managers and helps you feel where the field is moving.

Find out what the absolute minimum of service is that the department requires and stick with that. Often, this means you will serve on one committee, and try to pick one that you either feel passionate about (e.g., facilities or curriculum planning) or one that does not require a lot of time. If you are really passionate about serving your institution, I advise that you somewhat curb the passion until after tenure. Try not to commit to more than one additional committee in excess to the required minimum. Serving on the master’s and Ph.D. defense committees for your colleagues’ students is extra, and these will help strengthen your bonds to the faculty in your sub-area; however, these activities should also be practiced in moderation.

Sometimes junior faculty feel that they owe it to someone to put in excessive amounts of service. The reasons for this are different: for instance, women are sometimes pushed into extra committee roles because committees need gender diversity or it is perceived that all women like service because they are stereotypically nurturing and caring. If you are a female, and even if you love service and happen to be nurturing, I recommend you fight tooth and nail to not perform any more service than your male counterparts. This will not only free up your time, but will also establish that you are not a pushover, which is important for your future standing in the department.

Another example is when a junior faculty member feels vulnerable, such as when he or she is the trailing spouse in a spousal hire, or when the hire is a member of a minority group and thinks people will perceive him or her as a beneficiary of affirmative action. In these situations, some tenured faculty feel the new hire is not really meritorious and the new hire often feels that he or she needs to perform extra service in order to get into the colleagues’ good graces and demonstrate good will. If you are in this situation, the worst thing you can do is pile on all the extra service tasks; not only will this course of action detract from your research and result in confirming naysayers’ doubts, but it also makes you seem insecure and hungry for approval and will only exacerbate any ill will the colleagues may harbor towards you. I know this is hard, but you have to keep telling yourself that you have as much right to have your faculty position as anybody else and that you do not owe anybody anything above and beyond what every other tenure track faculty does. Be friendly and civil and do your share, but be firm and protect your boundaries.

In general, while on tenure track at a university, it is a good idea to be a little selfish. Your goal it to get tenure, and that means the primary focus is on developing your research program and the secondary one on honing your teaching skills. Regarding service on tenure track, find out the minimal requirements for an assistant professor in your department. Stay close to that minimum for the duration of tenure track, even if you burn with desire to serve more. Instead, devote more time to professional service that brings visibility to your work, and enhances your research program and funding prospects. If any free time opens up after trimming unnecessary commitments, spend it with your family and recharge. Once you have secured tenure, you will have plenty of opportunities to take on additional service roles and engage more deeply in faculty governance at your institution.


GMP teaches at a large public research university.


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