Midcareer Mentoring, Part 3

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

June 10, 2012

Much has been written about how much time an assistant professor should spend on "service" work and what types of service might be important for career advancement, as opposed to a poor use of time, not to mention soul-destroying. The typical advice is: "do some but not a lot." Once you have tenure, those questions don't go away and may be even more important to resolve given how much more service you will have to do.

In Part 1 and 2 of this series on midcareer mentoring, I looked at some of the general post-tenure career issues that can provoke anxiety, such as changing jobs or negotiating a counteroffer. Service deserves its own column, however, because the amount of it you will be expected to do—for your department, institution, and profession—increases substantially with tenure.

So the question arises yet again: How do you know how much service work to do as a tenured professor?

The amount will vary from institution to institution, depending on what the expectations are for promotion to full professor. Some service activities provide evidence of a growing national or international reputation in your field, and that can be important at some institutions. Other activities show that you are a respected member of your department, which may be a minor but important part of your promotion evaluation.

To properly answer the question about how much post-tenure service to do, you will first have to answer some other questions about what you want out of the rest of your career.

Do you even want to be promoted to full professor? Thanks to my blog, I have learned, much to my surprise, that some associate professors don't want to be promoted, in part because they believe that full professors are expected or required to do even more service work than associate professors. That is true in some cases—at my own university, for example, certain committees are populated only by full professors, and in many departments, only full professors can be department heads. I was surprised because I had never previously encountered someone who wanted to be a "terminal associate." Clearly I need to get out more.

And yet, it is not always the case that full professors do more service than their counterparts at the associate rank. The type of service opportunities may change for each rank, but not necessarily the amount expected or required. In addition, the amount may vary from professor to professor as those with a modest research agenda will have to do more service than those with active research programs.

Do you enjoy a certain type of service work? That might seem like a preposterous question on its face. But not all service activities involve endless meetings spent listening to colleagues blather about things for which you cannot summon a detectable amount of enthusiasm.

You may hate serving on awards committees, but enjoy organizing conference sessions. You may hate being on your institution's library committee, but enjoy serving on a journal's editorial board. And you may hate being an officer in a professional society in your discipline, but enjoy being the graduate adviser in your department. Most (but certainly not all) faculty members can find some kind of institutional or professional service that will be at least somewhat rewarding.

Are you good at a certain type of service? Perhaps you are terrible at speaking up in meetings, but can write a compelling memo or report. Perhaps you can't keep track of how many credits the undergraduates in your department need to fulfill various requirements, but your mind is a steel trap when it comes to keeping the books for the Nanoastrobiochemicalists Society. There are so many possible service activities. Try to say no to the ones that would be unsuitable for you and work on the ones that are a better match for your interests and talents.

What about after you are promoted to professor? When I mention the great variety of service opportunities out there, I am speaking from experience. As a female full professor in a scientific field in which women are underrepresented, I never lack for requests to participate in service activities within and beyond my institution. That's partly owing to a need for at least one female full professor to sit on some committees. I could easily spend my time doing nothing but service, but of course that's not reasonable or desirable.

Being in this situation has good and less-good aspects to it: It means I have lots of options, which is good. What is not so good is that I end up doing more service work than most of my male peers, even if I reject many requests.

Even those of us who have the luxury of picking and choosing among service tasks find ourselves continually doing mental calculations: Can (or should) I take on this new thing? If I do, should I quit something else?

I try to follow the Law of Conservation of Committee Mass: I only add a new activity if I can subtract one. That seemingly simple approach is not always so simple. The new activity might be a lot more work than the subtracted one, and it can be difficult to know that in advance. If so, it might be necessary to subtract two old commitments (or more) to handle a new one. Ideally, a useful and interesting activity will replace a time-sucking boring one.

Over the course of a career, you will face a large number of possible service activities, some of which are important (not just to help your career, but to help your community, your students, and your colleagues), and some of which seem to have no good purpose. Seek out the good ones, spend as little time as possible on the bad ones, and somehow find the time to do what we are supposed to spend most of our time on: being excellent educators and researchers.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is