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Research, Teaching, and That Other Thing

How volunteering can help you become a more productive scholar.

April 5, 2016

DeWitt Scott is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership at Chicago State University.  You can follow him on Twitter at dscotthighered.




Traditionally, graduate school has served as training ground for the professorate.  It was once believed that all students who pursued Ph.Ds did so only to embark on careers in the academy and live a life of the mind.  In recent years, this expectation has changed.  Current graduate students and doctoral recipients have begun to envision using the skills learned pursuing their degrees in other ways.  Still, there is a large portion of doctoral students who see obtaining a tenure-track position as their ultimate goal.


Essential to that preparation is gaining an understanding of what is necessary to be successful in a tenure-track teaching position.  Repeatedly, we are reminded of the academic triad: research, teaching, and service.  We are told that research and publications are what principally will get you hired, promoted, and tenured, particularly if you want a job at a top-tier research institution.  Second is teaching.  No matter how great of a teacher you are, the unwritten rule of academia is publish or perish.  At smaller, teaching-intensive, liberal arts institutions, teaching is usually the main requirement, followed by research.  Sadly, many professors and administrators admit that service is the neglected provision.  Service is often framed in terms of serving on institution-wide committees created to solve some sort of campus issue.  Whether it is the “diversity committee,” the “community outreach committee,” or the “budget committee,” service work is often seen as an undesired necessity that drains one’s time.


For the purposes of this article, I have reframed the academic definition of service to include volunteer projects that exist outside of the academy and professional associations.  Higher education professionals sometimes overlook these types of service endeavors.  Below are examples of ways in which giving of one’s time and effort outside of the institution can contribute to being a more productive scholar.


1. Stress Reliever.  The life of the graduate student and professional academic is filled with stress and busyness.  Research proposals, grant applications, defenses, presentations—sometimes it feels as if the rollercoaster will never end.  Taking time away to serve in a volunteer role with an organization or club away from your institution can allow your mind to relax and rejuvenate your spirit.  Ask any college professor or administrator, the stressors of academia are not going away.  Serving others as a way to mentally and emotionally relax can help you manage the many demands on your time and energy.


2. Idea Formation.  Connected to the concept of relieving stress and clearing one’s mind, many of our best ideas about a project or topic can come to us precisely when we aren’t thinking about the task.  Taking our mind off of the issue allows new ideas or thoughts to enter our consciousness. Use your service obligations as a way to shift your focus for the purpose of generating new ideas.  Put your mind on autopilot for a few hours by volunteering or working with others and let your creativity flow unrestrained.


3. Gain Perspective.  In the midst of our busy schedules and endless demands, we can sometimes get the feeling that our academic problems are much more urgent than they actually are.  Demeaning feedback on an article and office politics are important, but when we take the time to help and volunteer with people who are less fortunate we quickly gain perspective of our circumstances.  Over the past year I have been volunteering with an organization that sends books to women who are incarcerated.  Reading letters from these women about the things they face daily quickly brings me back down to Earth when I get upset about receiving unflattering remarks from an article reviewer.  Spend time serving others who could really use your time and attention.  It can change the way you view your own “problems.”


4. New Friends.  Service work can provide you with an opportunity to meet and get to know new people.  Many graduate students and academics tend to build a network of people who are also in academia.  Allowing yourself to work altruistically with people outside of the academy can spring forth new friendships and relationships.  These relationships can become extremely valuable when we are on the verge of burnout and need a fresh face and an objective ear.  Make new friends through the organizations with which you volunteer.  Talk about something other than grading papers or the grumpy department chair.  You, your students, and your career will be better for it.


Obviously, volunteering and service outside of the institution must be weighed against the requirements for your academic and professional success.  You must give the majority of your focus to the areas in which you will be evaluated for graduation, employment, promotion, and tenure.   Through it all, do not forget to carve some time out of your busy schedule to provide service to others.  You can potentially help others while helping yourself.


What are some other ways that we can imagine service outside of the traditional academic definition?  What service projects have you participated in that have rejuvenated and reenergized you as a scholar?


[Image by Google Images user pixbay.com and used under Creative Commons license.]


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