When to say yes to service before tenure

We constantly warn faculty not to take on service opportunities before tenure. “Just say no” is the mantra from dissertation advisors to senior colleagues. However, I think this is poor advice. Yes, you should limit your service opportunities before tenure. Depending on your institution, some combination of research and teaching will be what gets you tenure. Most faculty can’t avoid all service opportunities prior to tenure and even if this was possible— I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, I believe we should be telling faculty when to say yes to service before tenure rather than just telling junior faculty to say no to everything.

Service is tricky for new faculty. It can be tremendously time consuming, but also a valuable way to feel part of the community. 

Despite the necessity of service for the proper functioning of institutions and disciplines, tenure and promotion committees give service little credit.

In fact, I’ve seen committees that count service as a negative saying, “They could have published more if they weren’t wasting time with all that service.”

I’ve also seen (and even been a victim) of placing too many service burdens on new faculty.

So where is the happy medium?

I do believe that it is useful for pre-tenure faculty to participate in some service opportunities.

So when to say yes to service before tenure?

I break this question down into two contexts:  professional service and institutional service.

Professional Service

I recommend assistant professors focus most of their service activities here assuming research is part of the criteria for awarding tenure at your institution.

Professional service includes activities such as a committee of a professional association or reviewing for academic journals.

Often, professional service can overlap with your research interests and activities.

Perhaps even more valuable is the opportunity to meet and get to know senior colleagues who may serve as external reviewers when you go up for tenure and promotion.

Of course, there are a variety of service opportunities that will vary across disciplines so this shouldn’t be considered an exhaustive list. Hopefully, the list provides some examples to help evaluate service opportunities that come up.

1.  Review for the top journals in your field

Benefits: This is a great way to learn about the expectations for the top journals including the questions and rubrics provided to reviewers. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to keep editors on your good side and reviewing for the top journals in your field can be evidence of your national reputation within the field when it is time to go up for tenure.

2.  Review articles related to your ongoing research for major journals

Benefits: Outside of the top journals, I recommend reviewing articles related to your research interests to learn about the ongoing work that is happening. These reviews can also be used as evidence of your developing expertise in your research areas.

3.  Serve as an elected representative in your professional association

Benefits: Most associations have a board of directors of some kind with representatives to share the perspectives of members. These roles offer great networking opportunities and generally aren’t too time consuming.

4.  Serve on an editorial board assuming there isn’t a heavy reviewing expectation

Benefits: Not all editorial boards are equal. Some provide advice and assistance to the editor while others are expected to be the primary reviewers for the journal. An editorial board without heavy review requirements can be great for networking, learning about the journal publishing process, and evidence of your national reputation.

5.  Review for your main professional conference

Benefits: You’re going to be submitting a lot of conference proposals over your pretenure years. Participate in reviews to help with your research karma. Moreover, it is worth participating in the process to not only learn about work in your field and to get better at writing proposals yourself, but also review lists are often published. It is worth a couple of hours to make sure your name is on the list (and you shouldn’t be spending more than a couple of hours on conference reviews).

Principles

Behind all of these are a few basic principles:

Look for opportunities that leverage your research interests

Seek opportunities to meet with senior scholars that may serve as external reviewers

Focus on activities that allow you to engage without extensive time commitments. If it can’t be done in a couple of hours, it is probably better to pass.

Institutional Service

Unlike professional service, institutional service is not likely to be an area where you will be able to leverage your research. As such, you need to be much more discerning with your service commitments at the institutional level.

You need to do enough service to demonstrate your commitment to the university. Additionally, you want to be a good colleague and shoulder some of the responsibility for supporting your department and students.

In a healthy environment, senior colleagues will protect you from too many service burdens. However, you should take on a few things to show that you’re willing to be a team player.

1. Dissertation committee related to your research and methodological interests

Dissertation committees can be a real time burden and should largely be avoided. Students pursuing studies related to your research can be fun and will require less time since you’re familiar with the area.

2.  Department committee of limited scope (i.e. awards committee; NOT the curriculum committee)

All department committees aren’t made equal. Some are incredibly time consuming or politically treacherous. Avoid these at all costs. I was on a fellowship committee before I received tenure. It was perfect. We reviewed 8-10 applications for the department to recommend for a university fellowship and recommended 3 nominees to the chair. The scope and time commitment were limited, but it gave me a chance to show I was willing to help with departmental service.

Principle

I intentionally only provided a couple of examples. You should decline the vast majority of institutional service opportunities. There will be institutions where this isn’t possible, but you should limit service at the institutional level to the extent practicable.

You should particularly try to avoid service during your first two years. This is a critical time for developing your teaching and research.

By your fourth or fifth year, you should start assuming some responsibilities as I noted. While service won’t get you tenure, I think many committees wouldn’t look fondly at someone who avoided all service entirely. You need to show your ability to be a good colleague which is an important, if unwritten, criteria for tenure in many departments.

Bottom line

You will inevitably have to take on some service responsibilities which makes the standard advice of “just say no” impractical and unhelpful. The bigger question is when to say yes to service before tenure. I hope these examples are a useful guide.

Each situation is different so I recommend speaking with senior colleagues in your department, senior colleagues in other departments, as well as mentors from other institutions.