Professional Service

You’ve secured your first faculty position. Finally, you can set up your research group and make a name for yourself. But with faculty jobs also come a flurry of service duties and responsibilities. You’ll be expected to review proposals and manuscripts, take care of facilities, and sit on departmental and institutional committees. Many of these duties, especially at the junior faculty level, are trivial and boring. Yet you can’t avoid service work entirely. “When you wanted to be a scientist, it’s not what you were dreaming of, but basically there is no escape. For the system to work well, you have to do it,” says Eduardo Moreno, a junior group leader at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center (CNIO) in Madrid, Spain.

“You’re in such a competitive environment that you absolutely must find a way to make every single duty and every single activity contribute to the work that you want to do.” –Melissa Anderson

You can’t avoid it entirely, but you have to keep it in its place. For early-career academic scientists, success requires balancing the common good–such as service work–with parts of the job that have, or should have, more impact. Doing too little service runs the risk of alienating colleagues. But doing too much could result in research paralysis.

Committees and other duties

Service work takes many forms. Among the most common forms is peer review–of grant proposals, manuscripts, tenure dossiers–which most would agree is among a scientist’s most sacred obligations.

Another common service type is committee work. A committee may be impaneled, for example, to discuss library-related issues with the head librarian or budgetary issues with the treasurer. Such activities may be purely pro forma and of little real value. Higher-impact committees have more prestige but arguably more exposure: search committees for the recruitment of new faculty members, personnel committees for tenure and promotion, or institutional review boards (IRBs) for the enforcement of regulations and the approval of plans for human-subjects and animal research. More prestigious still are national and international committees formed to make policy recommendations or set long-term scientific strategy for scientific agencies.

At some point, you will also likely take on some administrative duties. At CNIO, for example, the faculty member who uses a particular facility most often automatically heads the committee that runs that unit. “We have meetings every 2 months and we decide what should be bought, or what equipment or what techniques should be implemented in the unit, and if the unit is working properly,” Moreno says.

“I’m not officially on any committees yet, being a young faculty member, … but I do a lot for the university” already, says Catherine Cardelùs, a forest ecologist who took an assistant professorship at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, last July. An example: After a search committee provides a shortlist of candidates for an open position, she and her colleagues all review those packages and vote on a candidate, Cardelús says.

“Young faculty will almost certainly get invited to serve once they start at a new place. Committees are always on the lookout for fresh blood from enthusiastic, energetic newcomers!” Jonathan Williams, an associate astronomer at the Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu, Hawaii, writes in an e-mail to Science Careers.

Chore or opportunity?

“Most people regard it as a duty, which I suppose means it’s a chore,” Williams says. “It absolutely can be a time sink and significantly reduce your research productivity.”

Some committees meet once a month, or even once each semester, and require no work outside the meeting room. A few committees never meet at all. Others, like an IRB or personnel committee, can be much more time-consuming. Guillaume Dubus, an astrophysicist with a French National Centre for Scientific Research position since 2002, recently spent 2 weeks in Paris interviewing 80 CNRS entry-level candidates as a nominated member of the CNRS committee in his field. During that time, Dubus, who is based at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Grenoble in France, accomplished little else. “My own research has not moved one bit for quite some time because of it,” he says. Eager to make the most of a starting grant he’s just received from the European Research Council, Dubus sees his committee duty as a “distraction.” 

Yet he doesn’t regret accepting the assignment. “It’s a lot of work, but … you learn from this,” he agrees. “By sitting on various committees, you get to know a lot more people and some people that you wouldn’t necessarily meet in the conferences that you go to.”

Another important benefit is exposure to the broader aspects of the research enterprise. Reviewing papers and grant proposals in particular is valuable because they allow you to hone your writing skills and keep your finger on what’s hot in your field. Even committee work can provide a peek into how the system works and decisions are taken.

Finally, service teaches you how to work with colleagues. “You can watch how they interact with each other. You can see the norms for civility and politeness. You can see how they deal with conflict, how they get their own agendas moved forward in the face of resistance,” says Melissa Anderson, a researcher in research ethics at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. And by doing service, “you gain visibility, which certainly helps with career advancement,” Williams says. 

The art of saying ‘no’

about the other parts of your academic job:

Whether, and how much, your service helps or harms your career depends on how wisely you choose. Just keep in mind that you don’t always have a choice. And even when you do have a choice, there are several factors you may wish to consider.

In favor of service is a sense of moral and professional obligation. “The university, and science, require and depend on people’s willingness to take on these kinds of tasks. … It’s everyone’s responsibility to do some of them,” Anderson says. “You should be doing a piece that is in some sense commensurate with your role and your status within science.”

There also are some career incentives to doing your share. Appointments, tenure decisions, and promotions are never made on the basis of service work, Anderson says. Yet service is a box that needs to be checked off. “If you don’t want to do your service, then that’s interpreted as you’re not being a good citizen or not being a good colleague, and those things hurt,” she adds.

On the other hand, it’s very easy for early-career scientists to be taken advantage of, and “sometimes people will appeal to the good of science or the good of the community when they simply want someone to get the work done,” Anderson says. How much service you really should be doing “depends on the context. It depends on the people around you who have power. It depends on the expectations that go with your job.” As a rule of thumb, “I try to keep the total time over the year to about 1 month, so … the duties amount to 10% of my research and teaching time,” says Williams, who took his first faculty position back in 2000. That percentage may be smaller, or larger, at other institutions.

The quality of your assignments also matters greatly. “You’re in such a competitive environment that you absolutely must find a way to make every single duty and every single activity contribute to the work that you want to do,” Anderson says. “As you move up the ladder to more ‘important’ committees, you can gauge their utility and figure out the cost-benefit analysis more accurately,” Williams says.

But the greatest service-related hazard may well be that service work’s intrinsic appeal can make you feel busy and productive without moving your career forward. “It all just feels so positive, and the end result can be that you are sidetracked and you’re blind-sided,” Anderson says. You haven’t done the work that really matters, and “wham, all of a sudden, you realize that the people who weren’t doing all of that have been getting ahead and they’re getting the rewards that you should have been getting.”   

When you decide to say “no,” always be courteous and diplomatic. If you “might be interested down the line, say so. Otherwise, simply state that you are pleased that they considered you but that other priorities prevent you from being able to accept,” Williams says. What about those times when you don’t really have a choice? “Give it your attention for a short period of time and then … leave with a good reason, with the sense that ‘it’s been a pleasure and a valuable experience to be part of this assignment, but I find that now I must take on some other duty or whatever,’ ” Anderson says.

“Some faculty avoid committee work like the plague, others seem to love it more than their teaching and research (traveling and discussing big issues can be more appealing than preparing a class or writing a paper!),” Williams writes. “But I think most strike a good balance and can offer their expertise to a few committees while still being an active and involved researcher and teacher.”

Special Feature: The Other Parts of Your Academic Job

Teach the Students You Have