The good, the meh, and the ugly of pre-tenure service

To academics, the term “service” covers a variety of activities, from reviewing papers, to serving on committees, to doing public outreach. Really, service is anything that doesn’t fall under the categories of teaching and research. While service is part of our job descriptions and for some of us is even factored into our workloads, the old saying “no one ever gets tenure for doing service” is still, unquestionably true. It’s also true that women and minorities often shoulder a disproportionate service load relative to white, male colleagues.

So given that we as women in academia are going to get asked to do service, and that the time and energy we spend doing service is going to detract from what we can accomplish on the research and teaching fronts, it behooves us to be strategic in our service choices. As I prepared to write this post, I thought “Surely, someone has written about service before on TSW.” I searched the archives for the term, but found no posts that gave the primer on how to wisely navigate requests for service in our pre-tenure years. Its absence demonstrated just how necessary such a primer is, so today I’m going to share my lessons learned with the good, the bad, and the ugly of university service. These lessons learned come at some cost, because by all accounts I have done far too much service for someone pre-tenure. However, I’m not going to talk about university-wide service (above the departmental level), because that is often not expected of pre-tenure faculty. Nor will I write about public outreach forms of service, because the calculus is somewhat different there, and it deserves its own post at some point in the future.

My service advice basically boils down to this: “Do the service that serves your self-interest and rewards you professionally or personally. Doing these things will help you avoid the less-rewarding, more time-sucking forms of service in your pre-tenure years.”

The “Good” Service – In this category, I put the things that boost your professional recognition or advance your career. At the professional level, I think pre-tenure faculty should be reviewing papers and proposals in their fields and chairing conference sessions. At the departmental level, good service is something you genuinely care about, but that is also helpful to your own interests. For me, this has meant serving on search committees and the graduate program committee. Good service also includes things that spare me from worse fates.

Reviewing papers (and doing a good job of it) gets your name in front of editors, who are senior people in your field, and makes them think well of you. More than that, you can learn an awful lot about what makes a good paper or proposal from reviewing manuscripts not quite ready for the prime time. At first you may not get opportunities to review papers and grants handed to you. This means your name is not yet known, so you need to befriend or email some editors and soon enough you’ll get plenty of requests. Getting started on reviewing proposals for NSF or another agency seems to be harder, until you’ve gotten funding from that program, but dropping an email to a program officer can get you in the door as an ad hoc reviewer. It worked for me. If, at some point, the deluge of review requests gets to be too much, you can start declining them, but editors really appreciate it if you can offer some alternate names – maybe a post-doc or junior faculty member not yet on the radar with the journal.

Chairing a conference session, either with a senior colleague or other young faculty, gives you two big advantages: you get to hear talks by people you think are doing interesting work in your area of research or one you are positioning yourself to move into; and you get your name and face out there as someone who is up and coming in your research area. The other good thing about reviewing and session chairing is that it doesn’t take a lot of time. In my field, chairing a session requires some emails to get your session on the program and advertised to attract submissions; a few days of busy-ness getting the session arranged after the abstracts come in; and then a few hours of pure fun at the conference itself.

Serving on the graduate studies committee has allowed me to really understand how admissions and funding decisions are made and to advocate for programmatic and bureaucratic changes that are helpful to me and my students…and of course good for the program as a whole. The same thoughts apply to search committees, which are a huge amount of work for a few months, but with a large payoff of having a great colleague to work with for the rest of your career at the institution.

Finally, there are some times of good service that are good in some part because they are better than the alternative. For example, serving as our department’s seminar czar means that I get to invite friends and collaborators to visit and give interesting talks. Doing all those logistics is a fair amount of work every week all year, which is a downside. However, by being seminar czar, I explicitly excluded myself from another form of service that would have been a lot less enjoyable and rewarding, moving seminar czarship firmly into the good service category.

The “meh” service – In this category, I put the things that may in some ways be enjoyable, or at least not too onerous and time consuming, but which don’t really help your career in any significant way. For me, this category has included serving on prize selection committees (of any sort), serving on diversity or mentoring committees, being on a program committee for a workshop or conference, and being the guest editor of a special issue. Selection committees can be fun, inspiring, and intense for a short while, but in the end the glory appropriately reflects on the award winners. Diversity, mentoring, and other types of committees may not be a huge amount of work, but they sadly they don’t seem to accomplish very much either, at least in my experience. There’s undoubtedly a tradeoff between the level of work and the level of accomplishment, but it’s unlikely that you as a pre-tenure committee member are going to tip the balance toward high work-high accomplishment. Nor would you probably want to. Being on a program committee for a conference or workshop is likely to be more directly related to your research, which makes it good. But, depending on the nature of the workshop or conference, and the committee’s role in organizing it, it can also be much more time consuming than other types of committee work. My advice here is to ask lots of questions before saying yes to this one. It can be a good type of service, or it can veer toward the ugly, so better to go in with your eyes open. Guest editing a special issue of a journal can arise out of chairing a conference session. Some might argue that this a good form of service, because you get some experience in the editor’s seat and your name goes on the issue, but I think that these things don’t have to happen pre-tenure. Reviewing and session chairing alone accomplish much of the same visibility-raising and continuing-education functions, and I’m not convinced that the added experience of guest editing is worth the effort and timescale of producing a special issue for pre-tenure faculty.

The “ugly” service – This category is the one to avoid – lots of work, no glory, lots of opportunities for criticism of your work, and no adjustment of your other responsibilities to account for the work you are doing. I suspect that there are multiple things that could fall into the ugly category – being your department’s sole undergraduate advisor, redoing the departmental website, etc. I’ve had two ugly service responsibilities so far. One, being an editor of a journal, was simply ill-timed as a result of starting over on the tenure-track, but would actually be in the good category if I were tenured and trying to move up to full professorship. The reason that it’s in the ugly category pre-tenure is that it can be time-consuming and stressful and you have little control over the timelines of when people submit papers and reviews on which you have to make decisions. Being an editor also forces you to sign your name to decisions that people publishing in your field may find disappointing or frustrating. Though I haven’t experienced anyone coming up to me at a conference and blaming me for their paper rejection, I still worry a little. It would be nice to know those people I’ve rejected aren’t going to write me tenure letters next year. But being an editor is trivial compared to my biggest horror story, back in my first year on the tenure track.

To make a long story short – if someone puts you, the first-year, only female faculty member in charge of catering for a conference, run away as fast as you can. Run from that person and from anyone who actively or passively enabled that decision. You should not be worrying about what type of appetizers to order or 20% built-in gratuities on $10,000 catering bills on the tenure track. To be given that assignment, or anyone of numerous other examples I’m sure people could share, is the polar opposite of what is needed to make you a successful, tenured faculty member. Yes, and it’s also incredibly, jaw-droppingly sexist.

If you’ve strategically chosen good service opportunities at your department level and engaged with your professional society or journals, hopefully you’ve got the leverage to say “No” to service requests that look ugly. Keep your chair and faculty mentor in the loop about the service you are doing, and ask them whether you should take on more service, particularly of the ugly or meh varieties. If they say yes, you may be stuck with an ugly duckling, but then find out what they’d want you to cut back to make room for it. Your chair, your colleagues, and your university should want you to succeed. If you are finding yourself overly burdened with meh or ugly service, especially after speaking up, something is wrong. But hopefully, if you think about service as strategically as you think about your research plans, you’ll have good service experiences that actually help you on your way to tenure.

14 thoughts on “The good, the meh, and the ugly of pre-tenure service

  1. Hmmm…such a timely post for me. I’ve had three recent requests to be an associate editor at different journals, and also one for high level society service. Obviously I can’t do it all, and have said no to the three editorial gigs and “I’ll think about it” to the society service. But I’m getting a bit of pressure/lobbying to say reconsider at one of the journals, from a senior scientist I know and respect. I’m really not sure how to navigate all these different options, and know that the requests are going to keep coming so it will mean constant re-evaluation!

    • If you are reconsidering at a journal, make sure to find out how many papers to expect per year, how broadly you will cover (just your sub-sub-discipline? or more? how much more?), and what administrative support the journal can offer (I’ve got a friendly helpful admin that all editors share and who is just an email away). Then think about what that means in terms of how often you’ll have to set aside other things in order to handle a paper in a timely fashion. I think it’s rewarding and fun…but also stressful.

  2. Re: your horror story, this happened all the time when I worked at a federal agency. Somehow all the younger, female scientists ended up in charge of the holiday parties and retirement parties. After one year, I wised up, and told my boss that I wouldn’t volunteer anymore unless it rotated. It sent the message that middle aged male scientists were too important to interrupt their work but not so for the younger/female scientists.

  3. One caveat: what types of service are expected depends on the institution (and institution type). The undergrad-only colleges where I’ve taught expect pre-tenure faculty to do college-wide service. And they’re important, because tenure decisions are made by college-wide committees, and your reputation at your institution but outside your department is a factor in getting tenure. The Curriculum Committee is an especially good place to have collegial conversations with colleagues outside your department.

    On the other hand, editing a journal is too time-consuming, and nobody cares if your organize sessions at a conference. And spending time on service in your community but outside your institution… let that wait until you’ve got tenure. Especially if the service involves pre-college kids and you’re at a private college.

    Reviewing papers and grant proposals, though, is still valuable.

    • Thanks for the valuable caveats, Kim! Since I’ve got no experience at a PUI, I should have made it clearer that I was speaking about research heavy institutions.

    • Yes, I absolutely agree re: different service priorities at a PUI. I’ve been advised to keep going to conferences and reviewing papers, but organizing sessions or serving on editorial boards would be above and beyond, and take away from campus-wide teaching-related service.

      I am considering starting a women in STEM committee at my PUI, because there is nothing like it and I think it would be valuable. I am however worried about how much time it would take. Possibly it should wait until after tenure – although there is something to be said for women to have role models close to their age, as I currently am.

  4. Great advice, agree 100% with the general point that, as a pre-tenure person at a research university, you should not be doing too much service, and that you should aim to do things that you enjoy doing, that help you personally, and that protect you from having to do things you don’t want to do. And I agree with your suggestions as to what sort of service falls into those categories.

    I also served as “seminar czar” for a few years pre-tenure, and I loved it. I made sure to invite in some people whom I and my students wanted to meet and interact with (and remember, down the road those people might be candidates to write tenure letters for you). Another thing I tried to do was use the seminar series to shape the department’s collective “search image” as to what sort of person to hire. This was during a time when the department was growing, and there was a lot of discussion about where entire fields were going; research universities want to hire people who are going to blaze the trails that others will follow. So I invited in some folks who I thought were up and coming leaders in their fields. And in my experience, people always appreciate the efforts of the seminar organizer, because a seminar series is an important part of the collective intellectual life of a department. If you’re inviting in good speakers, your colleagues are going to thank you for it.

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