External service calculus

Service plays a non-trivial role in most academics’ work lives. The type and amount of service varies depending on where you are in your career and the type of institution you inhabit. So, for instance, academics at research-expecting and research-producing institutions peer review papers and grant proposals, and the volume of such requests likely changes as your reputation in a field grows.

There are certain types of service in academia that require specific standing. In many, though not all, cases, only associate and full professors vote on tenure and mid-tenure review cases, and only full professors vote on promotion to full professor cases. When a department undergoes an external review, they turn to associate or full professors to serve as external reviewers. (I am sure there are exceptions to this. In my experience, though, I started receiving requests after earning tenure.) And except in dire or unideal circumstances, department chairs should be tenured, and ideally a few years past tenure at a minimum.

If you’re doing the math, you’ve likely noticed that as you become more senior in your academic career, the service requests — and expectations — skyrocket.

Service requests tend to ebb and flow for me. Sometimes I’ll go a few months with zero requests. At other times, like the past few months, service requests pop up like dandelions in the spring.

I’m in the service sweet spot in my career. I’m a female-identifying full professor at a small liberal arts institution in a male-dominated field and with administrative responsibilities. I check many of the boxes on the representation checklist. So I tend to get a lot of requests, mostly to serve as an external reviewer of scholarship in a tenure or mid-tenure review, or as an external evaluator in a department review.

I wish I could say that I’ve developed an exact science for determining when to say yes and when to decline a request. In general, I try to say yes as often as possible to external scholarship reviews when they come from liberal arts schools. In these cases, it’s important to have someone doing similar scholarship and coming from a similar institution weigh in, because they are uniquely qualified to comment on the person’s scholarship in the context of the demands of working at a liberal arts school. That said, the work involved is significant, particularly since 95% of the time the person’s scholarship is in a related area but not my area and I have to read the work pretty carefully. So I limit myself to at most one per year. I find it particularly hard to turn these down, mainly because I know how hard it can be to find someone at a liberal arts school who’s (a) tenured and (b) qualified to comment on someone’s scholarship. But weighing in on someone’s tenure case is something you want to do well and get right, so overcommitting is a Bad Idea.

I really enjoy doing external department reviews. I find it fascinating to learn how other Computer Science departments structure their major requirements, teach their courses, and foster community among their students. Witnessing different institutional cultures is also endlessly fascinating to me, and something I view as “field research” for moving into administration. And sometimes, my fellow reviewer is a colleague-friend from another institution, which makes the process even more fun. But these reviews also require a significant amount of time and energy: reading the department self-study report; traveling to and from the institution; spending several days at the institution talking to faculty, staff, students, other departments, and administrators; and compiling the report afterwards. I do one of these every few years because of this time and energy commitment. These requests definitely come in batches — I know if one appears in my inbox, I’m likely to get 2 more within the next month. I’ve gotten a tad choosier here — I’m more likely to say yes if the institution is one I’d like to learn more about anyway, or if there’s a particular circumstance the department finds themselves in that I think I can lend insight into.

I’ve become more comfortable declining requests through the years. Early on, I worried about not being asked again, or about people getting mad at me for turning them down, but that hasn’t been the case. People understand when you say “I just can’t add this to my plate right now” and appreciate your honesty. When possible, I try to recommend someone else. Oftentimes this person is already on their radar, but it can’t hurt to endorse that the person would be a good pick. I still sometimes feel guilty, though, particularly if I’ve already said yes to something and then another request comes in that I really want to say yes to. I wish I could say the guilt’s subsided over the years, but nope, it has not.

How do you perform the calculus of deciding to accept or decline a service request, whether you’re in academia or some other field?

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