Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Serving Right, Inside Higher Ed

I have always thought that there are too few scientists in mainstream academic media. So when I was contacted several weeks ago by Inside Higher Ed about contributing occasionally as their advice columnist, as the editor liked a few of my early posts and wanted to include a scientist's point of view, I thought about it for a little while and decided to give it a shot. I am really not sure how qualified I am to write for a broad university public, as the world of science at large research universities is the only world I know, but I guess we'll see how it goes. Bottom line, there is now a career advice column in IHE called, just like this blog, "Academic Jungle". The first column post was published last Friday, and it is called "Serves You Right". I encourage you to check out the comments at IHE, as they are quite different from the type of feedback one gets in the scientific blogosphere. In the future, I will write for IHE perhaps biweekly and will post the article on the blog a few days later. Below is last Friday's column in full; its tone and scope have been tailored to a broader university audience, hopefully with some success.

Serves You Right

Research, teaching, and service are the defining trinity of a university professor's job. Their relative importance depends quite strongly on the type of academic institution and one’s career stage. Understanding how to strike a balance between institutional requirements and one’s own career interests can sometimes be tricky, and young faculty are often in danger of overcommitting to activities that do not benefit their long-term career prospects.

Most tenure and promotion criteria at universities state something like "In order to receive tenure, a candidate must demonstrate excellence in research, teaching, and service." In reality, this means that excellence in research is absolutely mandatory for promotion and the level of excellence you achieve is in direct correlation with how easily you will get tenure. Provided your research record is spotless (i.e., you received a lot of external funding if you are in a science discipline or another where that’s the norm, published many papers in top journals or books with respected publishers), graduated some Ph.D. students, and gave many invited talks), the university will be fine with good teaching and adequate service. It doesn’t work the other way: excellent teaching or service do not get you promoted in the absence of a stellar research program. Bad teaching may result in tenure denial, though.

But can't you have an outstanding research record, as well as outstanding teaching and outstanding service? The answer is "Yes, in principle," but nobody will believe you. The problem is that, if you are devoting too much time and showing too much zeal toward either teaching or service at a large research university, your colleagues will wonder what it is that you are not doing instead (i.e., why you are not spending all this time on research). Unfortunately, in order to be considered a serious enough scholar in many departments in large research universities, you have to manifest a slight level of disdain for teaching and service. (How this bodes for the quality of undergraduate education is a topic for another column, or perhaps a few.)

While the quality of research and teaching can in principle be measured, through the number of papers or amount of grant money or teaching evaluations, service is a vaguely defined category that has the potential to drain a junior faculty’s energy with poor return.

So what is service and how much service is enough?

Service is a set of faculty duties that demonstrate good citizenship in the department, university, and the broader scientific community. Therefore, we can roughly divide service into service to your institution and professional service to your scholarly community.*

Service to the institution can be further divided into departmental service and service outside the department. Departmental service requires a fair bit of time, and it includes serving on various committees (e.g., undergraduate and graduate student admissions, facilities, curriculum, student advising), serving on students’ master’s and Ph.D. defense committees, or serving in an administrative capacity (e.g., being chair). Service to the university outside the department also involves being elected to serve on various committees, but these are often open to tenured faculty only. On tenure track, it is reasonable to assume that most of your service to the university will be in fact service to your department; which makes sense as the department is your champion in the tenure process.

Professional service to the broader scholarly community comprises activities such as reviewing research papers, serving on the editorial board of a journal, serving on organizing and program committees of conferences, mail-in and panel reviews of grant proposals, as well as serving on the board of a professional society or a federal funding agency.

The level of department and university service for a junior faculty member should be fairly light. I recommend that most service activities be skewed toward professional activities in your broader disciplinary community, which, besides being service, have the additional benefit of enhancing your research program and your visibility in the community. For instance, reviewing papers enables you to stay abreast of latest developments in the broader field, being part of technical program committees for conferences gives you visibility and enhances your network, serving on grant panel reviews strengthens your ties with the program managers and helps you feel where the field is moving.

Find out what the absolute minimum of service is that the department requires and stick with that. Often, this means you will serve on one committee, and try to pick one that you either feel passionate about (e.g., facilities or curriculum planning) or one that does not require a lot of time. If you are really passionate about serving your institution, I advise that you somewhat curb the passion until after tenure. Try not to commit to more than one additional committee in excess to the required minimum. Serving on the master’s and Ph.D. defense committees for your colleagues’ students is extra, and these will help strengthen your bonds to the faculty in your sub-area; however, these activities should also be practiced in moderation.

Sometimes junior faculty feel that they owe it to someone to put in excessive amounts of service. The reasons for this are different: for instance, women are sometimes pushed into extra committee roles because committees need gender diversity or it is perceived that all women like service because they are stereotypically nurturing and caring. If you are a female, and even if you love service and happen to be nurturing, I recommend you fight tooth and nail to not perform any more service than your male counterparts. This will not only free up your time, but will also establish that you are not a pushover, which is important for your future standing in the department.

Another example is when a junior faculty member feels vulnerable, such as when he or she is the trailing spouse in a spousal hire, or when the hire is a member of a minority group and thinks people will perceive him or her as a beneficiary of affirmative action. In these situations, some tenured faculty feel the new hire is not really meritorious and the new hire often feels that he or she needs to perform extra service in order to get into the colleagues’ good graces and demonstrate good will. If you are in this situation, the worst thing you can do is pile on all the extra service tasks; not only will this course of action detract from your research and result in confirming naysayers’ doubts, but it also makes you seem insecure and hungry for approval and will only exacerbate any ill will the colleagues may harbor towards you. I know this is hard, but you have to keep telling yourself that you have as much right to have your faculty position as anybody else and that you do not owe anybody anything above and beyond what every other tenure track faculty does. Be friendly and civil and do your share, but be firm and protect your boundaries.

In general, while on tenure track at a university, it is a good idea to be a little selfish. Your goal it to get tenure, and that means the primary focus is on developing your research program and the secondary one on honing your teaching skills. Regarding service on tenure track, find out the minimal requirements for an assistant professor in your department. Stay close to that minimum for the duration of tenure track, even if you burn with desire to serve more. Instead, devote more time to professional service that brings visibility to your work, and enhances your research program and funding prospects. If any free time opens up after trimming unnecessary commitments, spend it with your family and recharge. Once you have secured tenure, you will have plenty of opportunities to take on additional service roles and engage more deeply in faculty governance at your institution.

* Outreach to the broader community is sometimes cited as a separate category from research, teaching, or service. For instance, in tenure guidelines at some universities, outreach is scored separately for candidates who have a significant outreach component in their portfolio. On the other hand, for most scientists and engineers outreach to the broader community is an inherent part of the research and education activities, and is even mandated by some funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation. Therefore, while outreach to the broader community is very important, I would say that it is not universally considered to be a part of service.


Dr.Girlfriend said...

Nice article, and congratulations on your new column.

This excellent advice regards getting tenure. However, "a burning desire to teach more" may be an indication that that person might be happier in a more teaching focused position. I used to believe that once I had secured tenure it would be a bed of roses, but I no longer believe this.

My point is that no one should get so focused on a goal that they fail to question whether or not the prize is what they really want. If a person is sad about turning away extra teaching and service roles, I suspect the mentality of "once I get tenure" is a recipe for disappointment.

As postdocs we are encouraged to focus 110% on research, because this is the only way we are going to advance our academic career. Had I not got involved in outreach and postdoc career development as a postdoc, I might not have realized I did not want to become a professor at this stage. I certainly did not need to take on these extra activities, and I would not have done so if I did not enjoy doing them. However, it would have been wrong for me to turn down these opportunities and chain myself to the bench.

prodigal academic said...

Congrats on your column.

I liked the article as well--timely for me, since I am beginning to be sucked into doing a lot more service. I really need to learn how to say no better. Thanks for the reminder!

The comments are really interesting--IHE appears to have a much different readership than the science blogs. Interesting to see so many anti-tenure, anti-research opinions.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Congrats on the column! That was fast. :)

That was a good post. My feathers are somewhat ruffled by this comment, though: "...There is an excellent reason for why a minority member should think that he/she will be perceived as a beneficiary of affirmative action: A lot of the time (most?) that's exactly the case. And because many affirmative action hires start the tenure track with weaker research records than other new hires in the department..."

While this commenter may have reams of data to back up their assertion, I am skeptical of its accuracy. People say things like this frequently in Computer Science/Engineering. "Oh, you only got that [job/fellowship/grant] because you're a woman." As though it's completely inconceivable for a woman to be adept as a researcher. I have seen new male assistant professors hired with an infinitesimal number of publications and no funding track record. Somehow it seems that the expectations are lower for them when they're starting out.

Alyssa said...

Great article. I agree with Dr. G above in that perhaps someone that wants to teach more should be looking for a teaching position. The problem (at least in my field) is there are very few of these.

Congrats on the column!

GMP said...

Dr. Girlfriend:

You are completely correct, the advice was aimed at people who are on tenure track at (hopefully) an institution that suits their career plans. But you address a very important point (perhaps this warrants a post at your place?) that one should explore different foci (research, outreach, teaching) to decide whether academia is really the right way to go. Finding out what one really wants to do is very hard... I think the only recommendation I can give is to keep looking and trying different things until you find a fit, and certainly mad focus on a single aspect of one's career is a bad idea if you are not certain that said career track is what you want.


Thanks! Yes, I was quite surprised with the composition of comments over there too; I think it's good to see how others view us (scientists, and profs in general). I too did not expect the anti-tenure, anti-research, and anti-affirmative action voices to all pop up among the relatively few comments received at IHE. It was definitely educational...


Welcome! About that comment at IHE (the comment is called "the law of unintended consequences", sorry I can't link to it directly), I honestly don't believe that person has any research to back up his/her belief that minority hires are less meritorious; it sounded like this person was writing based on their own belief/preconceptions or anecdotes at best. I perosnally don't believe it's true at all that minority hires are less meritorious. Someone said "Women don't have the right to be mediocre"; I am sure this holds for ethnics minorities as well. I would say that if anything, as you say, minority candidates are invariably held to a higher standard, and any shortoming the minority candidate displays is perceived not as that person's alone but somehow translates to the whole minority group which of course is totally unfair; see my favorite strip on that illustrates this point here.
I have been planning a post for some time on a sociology research book where people's career paths are followed and the influence of the institutional prestige/focus on research was analyzed. Women from small or regional universities to Ivy League schools ALL display career patterns of elite schools -- extremely productive research-wise, whereas for men you see a definite stratification depending on school. I think minority candidates are overwhelmigly stellar (in my experience). Is there research to show that the average minority candidate is better or worse or in any way different than the average majority candidate, and a connection to being always held to a higher standard? If anyone can supply some research links to support or refute the last statement, I'd appreciate it!

Hi Alyssa,

Welcome! Agreed. I really think my advice is valid for large research schools first and foremost, with perhaps teaching and research exchanged in importance for PUI/SLAC (maybe someone who woeks at a PUI/SLAC could comment on the balance of service vs teaching and research at PUI/SLAC?) I know that some people w/ PhDs in basic science are able to find teaching positions in some engineering departments, or small engineering-focused schools, or they decide they like science education as a field of research and go into academia with a dual tenure home in science/educatin. I think there are options for people who enjoy teaching; but you are absolutely right, in some fields they may be very difficult to come by...

tideliar said...

I'm gonna have to read in stages, but I love it. I'm going to forward this to a colleague of mine. he is non-TT, but still needs to balance his triumvirate. I've spent a lot of time talking to him (as a neuroscientist I've been exposed to the TT, even if I haven't been on it), but as an engineer now in bioinformatics, he's really struggling ot find his feet.

And congrats. You sure are moving fast! :D

GMP said...

@ Tideliar:
I'm gonna have to read in stages, but I love it.

Glad to hear it! :)

And congrats. You sure are moving fast! :D

Yeah, I know how it looks... Trust me, if I were able to think all this up and pull it off I would leave academia and make some serious money in PR. It shows how things can be correlated (in time, in this case) but not causal. The IHE people contacted me in May, after the early collaboration post and I was mulling it over, and then a bit later the first Isis storm hit... So none of this is part of any plan of mine, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

GMP I have a bit of a problem that is vexing me. I would appreciate your take. Two of us were hired at a Tier II research university -- me and and an internal candidate (Dr. Man) who had been working there as an instructor for years. Research is not his forte as one would expect and his appointment was a political act. He was rewarded for his loyalty. His service and teaching is quite sloppy too. The attitude in the department is that he is doing his best (best at sucking up if you ask me). For some time now I've been picking up his service slack -- getting things done to be a good citizen. Doing someone else's share of service is not terribly difficult and I was able to manage.

Recently we had an opportunity to do some scholarly work together which I completely regret agreeing to. Dr.Man expects me to do his scholarly work too. I've grown to dislike him and the unfairness of the situation (chair told me you can't expect things to be fair get used to it.) What's a way of dealing with this ridiculous situation?

GMP said...

Anon at 3:13,

I am really sorry to hear this.
You don't specify too much detail, but from referring to Dr. Man as a man, I presume you are a female assistant professor?

It is terrible that you are expected to do another guy's work and that Chair tells you to suck it up. In an ideal world, you should do your work well, and if you ever elect to help a colleague that should be considered a big favor by the colleague and everyone around; there is no scenario in which it is OK for you to be *expected* to do another person's work and when you complain the Chair tells you that life is unfair (life may not be, but a Dept Chair should be). Now the issue is how to minimize further abuse of your time while minimizing antagoinizing the collagues and endangering tenure. There are a few questions I have (a) how much support do you have in the department? Do you have trusted senior colleagues, maybe female, who you could talk to about this and who could advocate for you? (b) How is your tenure case doing and how far are you from tenure? (c) How is your standing overall in the department? (d) Would you consider moving?

It's important to gather support -- inside department and outside. Then it's important to consider whether rocking the boat right now is bad or good -- if too close to tenure, bad; if early on tenure track, good. One option that comes to mind, but it depends on the type of support you have in the department, is to try to wean the leeches off you, but avoid confrontation and be passive-aggressive. Simply don't do the things that are not your job [forget about being a good citizen if you are, due to presumably gender, a priori expected to be a much 'better' citizen (i.e. more of a pushover) than everyone else]; if you do things above what the norm is, you should expect recognition, not them saying -- duh, of course she was going to do all this menial work no one else wants to do (because she's a woman, duh).. So I would just start blow off anything that you absolutely don't have to do, with your nicest and most charming and confident smile, and if you can compliment Dr. Man on the way {"Dr. Man, but I am sure you will do a splending job of it [the menial task], better than I could" (bat eyelashes)}. I greatly appreciate the power of holding your cards close and being passive-aggressive (I don't practice this as much as I should in real life): just do what your job is and avoid asking for permission and don't overexplain yourself.

But these are some vague suggestions, based on the very limited info you sent me. You may be so terribly disregarded in the department that it may be worth asking a lawyer or go to human resources. You may be doing swell and be very well supported by a majority of colleagues, except by Dr. Man and Chair, in which case you can be a bit more openly dismissive (but make sure your supporters have enought political power in the department). You may be going up for tenure in 3 months, in which case just don't do anything, but make sure you turn a new leaf after you receive tenure. Different things work for different scenarios, and also depend on your temperament (e.g. you may want to fight, or you are confrontation-averse...)

I am sorry I cannot give you more specific advice. Another thing that I suggest is for you to perhaps write up a somewhat longer account of what you have experienced and email Female Science Professor (there's a link on my blogroll) or Ms. Mentor at the Chronicles of Higher Education. They both have large readerships and if they choose to post your question, you may hear a number of useful things, in addition to their advice. (If you don't want to do this, I can, with your permission, post this comment here as a full new post and ask for input from my readers, but my site is not particularly well known so you won't get as much input at with FSP or Ms. Mentor).

Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

GMP thank you for your well thought out response. I truly appreciate it.

I'm half-way to tenure and I have support in the department from several males and both tenured female members, but my supporters have fallen out of political power so I have to be very careful. I'd like things to work out as overall it is a good match.

Your advice is right on. Now I have to implement it, knowing it is the way to succeed.

I'm not blameless in this. Against my better judgement I did some of Dr.Man's work. People sure did appreciate it, so much so they were puzzled when I said Dr.Man had to start pulling his weight -- as in c'mon you can do it, don't be a bother. There's a lesson to be learned here.

Meanwhile Dr.Man was getting increasingly insecure and had started bad-mouthing me, saying one thing to me and another behind my back. This too I should have realized sooner than I did. While I was expecting to be thanked, he was resenting me. When I eventually figured it out, I was angry and hurt and it is hard to hide it.

I was taken aback by the chairman's instance on supporting Dr.Man, and that's when I realized Dr.Man is going to get tenure no matter how little he does and the chair is so not on my side. Perhaps my only defense is I didn't know this and its taking a while for me to get it.

Anyone reading this will groan at all the obviously wrong things I did. But moving forward, I'm printing your response and keeping it on my desk (at home) for frequent reading. I'll probably get more responses from a wider audience, but maybe some bricks too and I'm feeling quite fragile now. What you said crystallizes the vague ideas in my head. Thank you so very much. Anon 3:13

engineering girl said...

Congrats on the article! I think younger scientists (ie grad students) should read these types of things earlier in their careers, like 1st or 2nd year of grad. school. I know so many 6th years who have no clue what they are doing or what they want to do for their careers. So many people want to go into academia having no idea what they are getting into. For a few people, academia is a good fit and very rewarding, but it's not for everyone, and some graduate students realize it much later that would be ideal.

The bean-mom said...

Just wanted to add to the chorus of congrats and praise. I agree that the Chronicle of Higher Ed/Inside Higher Ed are too heavily slanted toward the humanities folks. Nice to see you offering your perspective as a scientist to the general academic media. And nice article. Look forward to more.

GMP said...

engineering girl and bean-mom, thanks for your comments and support!