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How Much Is Enough?

Over the years I’ve been asked to serve as a mentor or adviser to several new faculty members or to pre- or postdoctoral trainees who hope to embark on a faculty career. For those who are fortunate enough to obtain a full-time position, the immediate (and continuing) challenge is one of balance: making sure that everything gets done and that the right things get done in the right amounts.

It’s not easy. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, promotion-and-tenure criteria are often vague about how much teaching, publishing, and service work is enough. But one issue has come up often with mentees and has been a topic of discussion among many others who have interests in faculty development and success—the allure of service work.

For academics with a deep love of the profession, it can be hard to resist the many service opportunities that arise: students ask us to advise them, colleagues ask us to serve on a committee that deals with an issue close to our heart, and editors and grantors ask us to serve as reviewers for other scientists in our field.

The problem is not that any of those opportunities are, in and of themselves, bad. It’s that there are so many of them. If a new faculty member takes on too many of them, there will be no time for the other aspects of the job that are so crucial for promotion or tenure: publishing, grantsmanship, and contributions to the curriculum. How should a new or junior faculty member set priorities?

Here are a few suggestions I make to my mentees:

Don’t be afraid to be selfish. I have seen some young faculty members, especially those in underrepresented groups, take on large numbers of advisees or significant roles in campus committees and organizations because they care so deeply about the success of others and are identified early on as important role models. The problem is that you can’t be a great role model for the long term if you don’t survive the promotion and/or tenure process.

Saying “no” can be very difficult, but it is essential to learn how to refuse some service requests in your early years so that your publishing, grantsmanship, and teaching activities get the time they deserve.

Be proactive with your chair or another experienced faculty mentor to identify which service activities are most important. Depending on your institution’s mission and priorities, student advising may be valued more by promotion committees than serving as a reviewer for a journal or grantor (or vice versa). Knowing this, and knowing your department’s expectations for service in the first years of your appointment, will help you decide which opportunities will pay off most during promotion reviews.

If you find that others are asking you to serve in too many roles, ask your chair or mentor to help you. I often tell my mentees to blame me for their refusal to take on another committee assignment (e.g., “My mentor, Dr. Stewart, says I have to focus on my grant applications this semester, so I should hold off on this committee right now”).

As a senior faculty member, I am less vulnerable than they are. This is part of a mentor’s role, and although I realize that’s not a universal feeling, I think many department chairs and other mentors think similarly.

Track your time carefully and set a quota for service time. Most departments have expectations about how much time faculty members should spend on research, teaching, and service. Know what those expectations are, and track your time accordingly. While it’s unlikely that the time you devote weekly to those tasks will always match expectations, it shouldn’t be widely inconsistent on a regular basis. If it is, it’s time to take a hard look at how you spend your time and to work with your department chair to recalibrate your efforts.

It’s vitally important for new faculty members to do their part in terms of service, to be good colleagues and departmental citizens. But faculty members rarely earn extra points by doing more than their share, and, indeed, they may hurt their careers by doing so. What recommendations do you have for faculty members who are struggling to balance their careers and manage the large number of service requests or opportunities that come their way?

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