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:

  1. It is really important. For example, tenure and promotions is a core function. Study abroad committee probably not so important.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 30, 2013 at 12:09 am

5 Responses

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  1. I think this is good advice, but it doesn’t apply to SLACs (nor does it explicitly claim to). I’m coming up for tenure this year and I’ve already finished my term as chair of a standing faculty committee. It was a boring topic (academic computing), and it was a ton of work (part of the fight to stave off the big, bad MOOCs). I’ve also been on four search committees (one of which took up nearly every minute in Denver). However, in all cases, though, I still see my service as worth it and I wouldn’t advise others to avoid it.

    Context: We were very close to signing on as an “affiliate” to an online learning program that has since seen others drop out in droves. And the hiring process, while tiring (mostly from the shuttling of candidates too and from campus) resulted in great colleagues doing really good work. So, for ABDs moving up in the world, I think the guidelines outlined above are likely spot on. But for those headed to other kinds of places, I think the classic advice of “keep your head down, protect your time” works sometimes but not all the time. If anything, I would underscore point #2 when judging committee invitations. That strategy has worked the best for me.



    September 30, 2013 at 1:06 pm

  2. lots of typos above. Apologies.



    September 30, 2013 at 1:20 pm

  3. KenKolb is right. The calculus switches highly when you’re at a place that a) values service and b) is structured for effective service. At SLACs, faculty governance is a key way the institution runs. As such, your time on committees may take you away from research or other things, but it is not as often wasted. One individual can make meaningful policy changes through their participation.



    September 30, 2013 at 6:02 pm

  4. With respect to the Junior faculty advice from Fabio, I’d add something. At some institutions, the dean or the provost is the choke point for establishing the merit of committee service. That is, there might be an expectation for college or campus service at these institutions and a fairly emphatic denigration of departmental service. The ad hoc library committee is a loser at all levels, but a campus committee on student attainment, support for under-represented groups, or advancement (I know, yuck!) may be seen as a serious contribution. Investigate the political landscape before serving on a departmental committee.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 30, 2013 at 8:09 pm

  5. Some people do say yes too often. This is a real issue. But other people say no too often. So I’d add another criterion: How does your share of the work compare to your colleagues? Is refusing to do this job a sign that you are a self-important jerk who thinks other people should do all the tedious jobs and leave you free to Think Big Ideas and promote yourself? Or is it an act of self-preservation and a refusal to play a codependent role with the people who are refusing to do their share? Gather some data if you are not sure what end of the distribution you are on.

    Also attend to department culture. Are the people doing the work stigmatized as patsies whose service itself is taken as a sign that they don’t care about research? Then say no. Or do most people pitch in and gossip behind the backs of the lazy people about what jerks they are? In this case, adopting the My Research is Too Important approach can backfire if you are an assistant professor. It can be a delicate balance.

    Overall, I think it is important to try to gather data to assess your service work and teaching load compared to others before deciding what your load should be. If you honestly think a job does not need doing at all, can you persuade others of that? Can you figure out how to minimize the amount of work anyone does on a meaningless committee or assignment?



    September 30, 2013 at 10:15 pm

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