Why I love academic service

Service can be the third rail of academic life. Research has strong incentives because academia works on a reputation economy. Teaching involves all of the warm fuzzy feelings of working with students, shaping minds, and junk. But service?! Pre-tenure faculty are often mentored to avoid it. I’ve seen it become the last priority for so many academics who often feel overwhelmed with the number of things required of them. But service is not just important to keep academia moving in its inimical fashion, but it’s important for the development of the individual academic.

The term “service” carries a lot of freight in academic assessment. For most people it means serving on committees, providing reviews (in a timely manner, you!), serving on program committees, or funding panels, or any of the more traditional modes of service. But increasingly, academic units are including other work under the aegis of service. Public scholarship and community activism are two good examples of service that have been appearing in annual review forms. Within these categories, the amount of work can vary widely. Sitting begrudgingly in a committee meeting while you check your email counts as service (of the crappy variety), but so does running a major conference or starting a new initiative for your university. Interestingly, both take up about one line on your C.V.

When I was a newly minted Assistant Professor, I think one of the things that surprised me the most was how much of my effort went into service activities, and how unprepared for that I was. My PhD program made the rational choice to focus on research and teaching in training me, since those are necessary conditions for tenure. I’ve never seen or heard of a case where service was a significant factor in a tenure decision — except in subtle ways discussed below.

Service is important to academic life

It’s banal to talk about ways that service is important to both academic institutions and Science. Suffice it to say, both would collapse entirely in the absence of the service efforts of academics. More interestingly, I think service is not just the grudging duty of academics, but can have concrete benefits for academics as well. While research and teaching cannot and should not be exiled from the life of the academic, it’s also possible to think of service as something more than the Gollum standing next to Frodo and Samwise. Here are some of the benefits I’ve felt as someone who takes on a metric ton of service:

  • Build that social network!
    The standard advice for pre-tenure faculty is that you should avoid service like you avoid the political Facebook posts of your high school friends. But I found that doing service to my scientific field helped me learn more about researchers in other institutions, make true friends in my field, and get on the radar of people who would write tenure letters. Now, those letters would not have come if I also wasn’t doing solid research, but I think it helped grease the wheels. I’ve met so many cool people through service opportunities that it has provided the classic benefits of weak ties. I know more about the perspectives of people unlike me because of interacting them in service roles. I have zero doubts that my social network built through service provides me with benefits on a daily basis.
  • Advancement to more interesting service.
    If you’re going to do service, it’s nice to do interesting service. The past two years I’ve served as the Technical Program Chair for CHI, which has been an incredibly rewarding and exciting opportunity. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if I hadn’t been slugging away at smaller service roles for the past ten years, and doing a decent job at them. For me personally, I’m interested in serving as a leadership role in academia at some point in the future. When one hires a dean or department chair, how they’ve done in service can definitely play a role.
  • Some people just want to change the world.
    I have a personal motivation related to social change. Part of why I became an academic was to promote active change in society, and I thought that academia was a nice, relatively secure place, to do that from. And I was right! I do a lot of projects and am involved in a bunch of outreach that serves the public. Academia still struggles to do more than nod approvingly in the direction of that type of activity, but that’s OK. Sometimes doing service is all about thinking about your impact in a different, broader way. I’m definitely not saying all academics should be doing this, but public service motivates you, academia is a lovely place to accomplish that.
  • Become a better leader, and maybe a better person.
    One of the things I’ve been surprised by as I take on more advanced service activities is how much those opportunities make me into just a better person. I’ve learned a crazy amount in the pat year that I think make be a better leader and a better person. Here are just some of the things I’ve learned: I should think about how I can be of service to the person criticizing me. Take responsibility and apologize when something goes wrong. Be willing to be wrong in the first place. This isn’t about me. Treating people with respect always seems to work. Watch out for unintended consequences. And a million more things. I don’t like conflict, but sometimes it happens. Now I know more about responding to it. I’ve learned so much from the people around me in service roles, that I feel like I’ve taken a Masterclass in working with people. This has benefits not just for my academic life, but in other areas of my life as well.

I’d love people to add their own thoughts on how they’ve benefitted from service below. Of course, we need to add provisos. All things in moderation. This is from the perspective of all sorts of privilege (straight, white, married, male on the tenure track, with tenure, at a great university, etc etc), and I would love to hear other experience.

But at the end of the day, service is more than the borrowed mule of academia, or something we grudgingly do to keep the whole ship from sinking. It’s an investment in ourselves.

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I found this article by Heather Pfifer to be a really good read. You might too.