career strategy: committees and the “value added” approach
Once you get a faculty job, you are confronted with many requests to be on committees. These requests should be handled very carefully. Turn too many down, and the work of the university will be left undone. And you’ll miss out on the nuts and bolts of academic policy. Accept too many, and you can wreck your productivity and possibly undermine your career.
So how do you deal with these requests? A lot of it depends on your career stage:
- Doctoral students: You should only do a single, important committee. For example, some departments allow students to sit on job search committees. At Chicago, I worked for the AJS and that was my contribution to department governance. It’s perfectly acceptable to completely avoid administrative work during this phase of your career.
- Junior faculty: You should avoid most committees, except those tied to your department. Then, if your chair gives you a choice, select, or ask, for the easiest committees possible, like the library committee. “Heavy” committees, such as admissions or job searches, should be left until you are well on your way to promotion.
- Senior faculty: Depends on what you want out of life. If you see yourself moving into administration, you’ll probably want to dabble in planning committees, tenure and promotions, and other high impact committees. If you see yourself focusing on teaching and research, you’ll probably want to limit yourself to committees that have an immediate impact, such as tenure and promotions.
A problem with many faculty is that they can’t say no, or they are too scared to say no. You have to shake this attitude for the following reasons. First, unless you are a complete shirker, no one will care if you turn down the occasional invitation. Second, your quality of life will be severely impacted by too many committees. Your schedule should only look like “committee Swiss cheese” if you are paid for the inconvenience (e.g., you are a chair of some sort). Third, is this what really drew you to academia? Seriously?
When judging committee invitations, I usually employ the following criteria:
- It is really important. For example, tenure and promotions is a core function. Study abroad committee probably not so important.
- I have a compelling personal interest. For example, I have a strong belief that more women and under-represented minorities need better support in the academic career. Thus, I will serve on committees that address this issue. Building committee? Important, but I’ll let someone with more expertise take that one.
- The committee is not bull—-. Honestly, a lot of committees exist to make people look good, or to do the hard work that should be done by administrators. Avoid these committees. For example, when it comes to women and under-represented minority issues, I will only do it if the committee actually has some power to do good, or punish evildoers. So, if we are handing out financial support, I help out. If you want another hand-wringing report, I’ll pass.
- Somebody will owe you a big time favor. ’nuff said here. Sometimes we do bull—- just to buddy up to others. That’s life in an organization.
- I’m paid/part of the job. Right now, I am director of undergrad studies, so I say “yes” to all undergrad issues committees. It’s my task, even though it makes me nauseous. And yes, curricular reform committee induces illness in me.
To sum up this post, you should only do committees if there is “value added.” Do it if it matters and realize that a lot of committees don’t matter. Don’t just say yes to everything. That’s crazy.