Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Nagasakibomb-colorThe recent linked post about being a “good girl” in STEM focused a lot on following the rules and how that can actually be bad for you. I was particually happy with the list of practical things that you can do to resist, but they were all geared toward “after tenure.” BTW – there is a male-equivalent to being a “good girl.” I call it being a “boy scout.” Many of the men in my department are boy scouts, which makes being a good girl not so out of the ordinary or weird.

In the original post, there was an undertone that you should be a “good girl” before tenure, because you don’t jeopardize your tenure case. Seeing how a large number of my male colleagues get away with doing little or crappy service – even before tenure – I think it is worth exploring things you can do to avoid or get out of service before tenure. This is especially important if your department doesn’t have a protection policy for untenured assistant professors. It is even more important if you were protected pre-tenure, are now tenured, and are staring down the barrel of a sh*t-ton of service.  Here are a couple solutions of some ways to get out of service, or at least spend time on service you value so it isn’t a “chore.”

  1. Mildly suck at your service. A senior faculty in an adjacent department gave HusbandOfScience and me some advice when we first got our jobs – don’t do a good job at your service assignments. This means not going the extra mile for service. You should prioritize it last, do it at the last possible minute, and perhaps miss assignments and deadlines sometimes. Spending only a quarter of the time on it you “think” you should. I definitely did this on some committees like graduate admissions and personnel committee stuff. It’s not that I did a bad job, per se. I am still basically a boy scout/good girl at heart, but I definitely didn’t spend a long time on these things. Why is this OK? A. Service is not going to get you tenure. B. On campus service never got anyone tenure. C. No one is going to not give you tenure because you sucked at your service. D. They might not ask you to come back.
  2. Play one service role off another. This basically means to use any other service you have as leverage to say no to the thing you are being asked. When I was asked to serve on admissions for GradProgramX, I was able to say no because I was already serving on admissions for GradProgramY. I ended up serving on both in consecutive years for about 4 years total – flipping between GradProgram X  and Y. This was great, because I learned a lot about how each program did things and could communicate successes and failures between the programs. Once you are committed to a big service role like admissions, personnel committee, or quals committee, you can use that commitment to say no to a lot of other department and college service.
  3. Make Up Your Own Service. When I got to UState DepartmentOfX, there was no women’s group, despite the department having a very small fraction of women and minority students. So, I started a women and minority group. We met for tea, and there was a lot of bitching because there was a lot to bitch about. The students told me they didn’t have a venue to give 1-hour talks, so I started a student seminar series where they could talk to each other and practice job talks and just exchange ideas. We discussed professional development and work-life balance. I told the department chair that I was doing this, and that it should be a service assignment (and not just assigned to women and minorities). And he made it one, and I got to do a service role that I really cared about. Along the way, I have invented or help invent with others other service assignments including Publicity committee (to fix and update the website more regularly) and a Departmental Teaching Luncheon working group. These were all things I cared about and were providing a service for the department. In addition, because I was doing these roles, I was also able to say no to other requests on my time (see #2 above).
  4. Question Yourself. One question you can ask yourself when considering a request of your time is: “If I had only a limited time to live, would I spend my time doing this?” If the answer is “Yes, this is important. It will help me leave a mark and affect a positive change,” then say yes. If the answer is, “No, this is a waste of my precious time,” then say no. I had a minor breast cancer scare a couple months ago (don’t worry it was a cyst!), and I went through all my commitments and thought, “If I do have breast cancer, do I want to work on this?” and for most of the things I was doing (my made-up service) the answer was yes. I feel like the service I am doing and have been doing is really good to affect positive change in the lives of students and my department colleagues, and it is worth doing.
  5. Armageddon: Blow Up Your Service. OK, I am NOT recommending this, and certainly don’t do this before you get tenure, but… another way to get out of service is to be so miserable and heinous to work with that no one wants to work with you. Call everyone assholes to their face. Accuse them all of being racists. Act racist yourself. Start flame email wars and never, ever let anyone else get the last word. Be super negative and disgruntled about everything. This behavior is what we call, “un-collegial,” and it will get you out of service. But, there is a price. Just as the price of being a good girl/boy scout is that you get dumped on. The price of being a truly heinous colleague is that you never get to do service. You are not trusted with the responsibility. You certainly will not be trusted to lead or have any important service. In fact, you might get stuck with the worst service, having no impact, but high work load, if you act this way. If you are fine with that, go for it. But, if you think you are important and you should be heard, don’t act like this.

So, what do you think? Are there other ways to get out of bad service? Not all service is bad, and you can get out of anything, actually. You can even back out of service you already said yes to. People won’t hold it against you, especially if you are over committed and won’t get the work done. Also, if you get better service and don’t have time for something that isn’t good or interesting to you, you should back out. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Comments on: "How to Get (the most) Out of Service" (5)

  1. There was one method that you didn’t mention, I call it the hubby/dad method.
    Being utterly inept at the service, bringing ineptitude that is record breaking in all ways since ineptitude was first described.
    Being so mindbogglingly bad as to quite literally generate a real fear of one setting fire to the building unintentionally.
    It’s a step shy of the Armageddon method, but it results in one not being asked to do that ever again, out of fear of a potential mass extinction.

    Or more simply, if one is asked to do something one doesn’t really want to do, foul it up in epic ways, ways guaranteed to become the stuff of legend, while appearing to just simply be bumbling.
    Of course, the downside is never being allowed near the physics lab. 😉

  2. You are right, there is a gradient of incompetence that you can display. Not every level of incompetence will get you booted out of service, and you can tune your bungling. Thanks for commenting!

  3. I’ve always thought that one has to do a certain amount of service, and there are many ways you can do it, so just pick carefully what you say yes to. I agree, it ought to be something you personally find valuable.

    One random thought: my department wants various things (faculty lines, for example) and I find it is helpful that I have done a variety of service activities in the past, such that I have gotten to know administrators who grant or deny requests for those things. It gives me a bit more insight in how to frame those requests, and it gives me a bit more clout with the administrators when making the requests. I suppose one could argue that a research superstar who is a service dud still has clout, but they may not know how to make the argument in a way that the administrators will hear.

    I recall one time when I was hosting a sabbatical visitor for a full year, and we needed to come up with a quarter of his annual salary to make this possible. I went around to my friends on campus and scrounged up the money. And these were all friends who knew me through my service. So that’s a tangible case of service = research benefit to me.

  4. Gerbillinae said:

    Hmmmm …. Not sure I agree with the approach suggested here. Here are my suggestions for service:

    1. Don’t be the weak link. Don’t be the person who shows up late to meetings, comes unprepared, misses the deadlines, plays on his/her phone during the meeting, hasn’t read the files, etc. If you’re not the chair you don’t have to knock yourself out, but don’t give your coworkers cause to resent you.

    2. Pick your committees by looking at who else is serving. Some people are just impossible to work with (see above). Avoid being assigned with them. Other people are alert, responsive, engaged, and fun. Get onto committees with them.

    3. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Just because you’ve given tirelessly to the library committee over the years is not a reason why you should do it forever. Quit and ask for something new.

    4. Take a positive and proactive attitude by asking for service assignments you might enjoy, or that might teach you new skills. This is a little like your #3 suggestion, but you don’t have to invent something new. Maybe you would actually like to be on the teaching evaluation committee because it might give you ideas for your own teaching. Or maybe the nominations committee is a good tool for rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies. Just find something that interests you and ask for it.

    5. Fixing what’s broken is underrecognized as a way to do real service. Many operations in a department are inefficient and/or inept, mostly because previous generations of faculty were more focused on minimizing their service than on improving what was broken. In my college the Dean’s Office used the same form with the same glaring typo for at least 15 years because everyone was too lazy to correct it. If you actually have a better idea how to run the qual exam committee, the grad recruiting committee, or to redesign forms and procedures to make them less incompetent, you are performing valuable service. And you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you are having a lasting positive effect on your department.

  5. […] ago, I had a post about how to manager your service. I titled it, with tongue in cheek, “How to get (the most) out of service.” I had a pretty hard push back on Facebook from a number of academic friends advocating for […]

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