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Since graduate programs are focused primarily on the research and teaching future professors will do, new faculty members may be surprised by the variety and volume of service work that must get done. At small, private liberal arts colleges (the area of higher ed with which I’m the most familiar), there are always ad hoc projects like job searches, general education revisions, assessment plans and policy reviews to undertake, among many others.

These kinds of tasks beyond teaching and scholarship can develop excellent administrative and leadership skills. They often allow collaboration with colleagues outside the silos in which we tend to spend most of our time. They offer insights into an institution’s history, priorities and leaders. They can enhance your skill set and help you grow beyond the parameters of your position and its title. However, this is also a proverbial blessing and a curse.

It can be hard to clearly categorize service work. For example, does inviting high school teachers to come to your campus to visit a class and hear about co-curricular opportunities fall under teaching, service to the university or service to the greater community? If it is hard to contextualize for members of your own campus community, how do you contextualize it for those beyond? If you are considering a position at another institution, how do you convince a hiring committee that your work doing X at College A is analogous to doing Y at University B?

I had been aware of these challenges when I prepared my own tenure and promotion dossiers, but it wasn’t until I left a tenured faculty position due to a program closure and took steps to grow into an administrative role at another institution that the problem crystallized. At a recent higher ed leadership conference, I participated in a workshop for assistant/associate deans. As someone who chaired a department comprised of five different programs, chaired an advisory committee on tenure and promotion, initiated an integration of assessment and general education curriculum, led the creation of a new academic program, and served as its founding director on top of teaching and research responsibilities, I was pretty sure I would be able to contribute, but I wasn’t sure how I would be received.

In the spirit of “dress for the role you want, not the one you have,” I did attend, aware that I would likely do more listening than talking. A breakout session began with introducing ourselves by our titles and roles. As we went around, the range and caliber made me nervous that I was out of my league after all. But as we discussed the initiatives we oversee, it became clear that as a department chair, I handled many of the same things everyone else did. At the same time, in many ways the “full” deans at my prior institution had fewer responsibilities than some assistant and associate deans elsewhere.

As I reflected on the experience, I was encouraged and troubled. When you apply for a position a step above your current one, how do you sell your accomplishments and get them noticed if your title doesn't fully capture what you do? Do the people who serve on search committees truly look past titles to see what exactly people accomplish in those roles, as friends at other universities recently reassured me? How do you successfully make the case that although you were “just” an [insert title] at one place, you would be a great [insert more senior title] at another? If it’s true women tend to apply for jobs only if they meet 100 percent of the requirements while men tend to apply if they meet 60 percent, a mismatch between job title and skill set would likely exacerbate the feelings of inadequacy that make some women hesitant. Given the research showing female faculty members, especially those of color, do a disproportionate amount of service, this is also a serious equity issue.

I am currently navigating these waters and don’t have answers (yet). There are thousands of people facing these challenges, as institutions everywhere grapple with prioritization, declining enrollments, the decline in the humanities and other hurdles. If we assume that the thousands of people who lost their higher ed jobs each has a professional circle of at least 10 people who are aware of their job loss, then mathematically those of us in this boat have reason to hope the people on those search committees really are looking past titles and value our achievements.

Sharon Meilahn Bartlett is currently a visiting associate professor of modern languages and literatures (French) at Beloit College. She has over 10 years of higher ed experience in different roles including adjunct, tenured professor, department chair and gender studies program director.

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