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In defense of service for junior scholars

I had been brewing this idea of blogging about service (the often-ingrate, unpaid, time-consuming activity of contributing to our discipline, to our department and our university/institution). The truth is, I do DO a lot of service, and I don’t regret it nor do I think it has hindered my research. Much to the contrary, being able to participate in institutional governance, and to serve on association committees and editorial boards has been incredibly eye-opening for me.

I have participated in 2 search committees for tenure-track faculty since I arrived at CIDE. I have also participated in an overhead committee (e.g. an ad-hoc decision-making committee on how to assign and spend overhead), and I am currently my campus’ representative to the library at CIDE. In addition, I’m the associate editor for a journal and I serve in six other editorial boards. I am on the Executive Committee of a Section of a scholarly association, the Chair of Professional Development of another. Plus, I peer-review about a journal manuscript per week, grant proposals, book proposals and entire book manuscripts.

Admittedly, I have the privilege of special circumstances: I’m single, have some RA support, a low teaching load, and I speed-read, touch-type 100 words per minute and have quasi-eidetic memory. So yes, I definitely can do a lot more service than someone with a 4/4 teaching load, married or single-parent with two kids. And I am the first one to acknowledge this privilege.

But if we want to have a voice in shared governance, if we want to be on top of our fields, if we want someone else to go to bat for us when we request help in our academic circles, we DO need to contribute and the best way to contribute, in addition of course to publishing papers, is to provide constructive feedback when we are asked to, to participate in shared-governance committees, to peer-review for journals and publishing houses, and to contribute to our discipline, our department and our institution.

So yes, I am defending service, and I know that most pre-tenure scholars may not want to take on any of this (and may be advised to do “the least service you can”). But I can’t vouch for that strategy. I have gained a lot of skills from actually doing stuff that is not 100% my research, and I can say this has helped me advance my career. As Christopher Lynn puts it:

So, what’s the take-home message? Do service willy nilly? Not hardly. But don’t shy away from it either. Everyone is busy, but your willingness to take on just a little more will be greatly appreciated &, to invoke some of my favorite evo theory, it is a costly honest signal of your willingness to cooperate that will reward you with unforeseen dividends!

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