Strategic Service on the Tenure Track

28 August 2023, 0830 EDT

Alongside research and teaching, most tenure-track jobs come with some expectation of service. Different institutions may value different kinds of service, but service in some form will generally carry some weight on your path to tenure and promotion.

There are generally more opportunities for service than one can (or should) take, however, so when should an early-career scholar say “yes” to service? In our experience, early strategizing can help manage one’s time more efficiently to fulfill our teaching and research responsibilities.

“Service” is often only loosely defined in academia. You know it when you see it, but we might generally think of service as professional activity distinct from teaching and research that is undertaken to ensure the continued functioning and intellectual advancement of one’s department, institution, disciplinary organizations, or community.

On-campus service takes place often in the framework of committee assignments at the department, college, and/or university-levels and relate to faculty governance.

Individual or group initiatives that seek to contribute to the intellectual development of the university community, such as speaker series, “brown bag” seminars, or campus research fairs, would fall under the on-campus service category.

Off-campus service often takes place at the disciplinary and community levels.

Disciplinary service may include work through a discipline’s professional associations, journals, and ad-hoc initiatives such as research workshops. For International Relations (IR) scholars, for example, the International Studies Association (ISA) and the American Political Science Association (APSA) provide many gateway opportunities for such service.

At the community level, service generally includes public-facing writing or speaking engagements.

Some service activities might straddle the line between teaching and service, or research and service. For instance, some institutions consider student advising to be a teaching-related activity or public-facing scholarship to be research (as in, e.g., the Boyer Model). It is important to understand your institution’s expectations before you report these activities in your performance assessment reviews.

There are two essential questions that go into deciding what kinds of service you want to perform. The first is, what kinds of service activities will help you get tenure? This question focuses on “others’ expectations” of service—especially the expectations of your institutional and disciplinary colleagues.

Others’ expectations will vary by institution. Indeed, at a teaching-focused institution, service will likely be valued nearly as much as research, and institutional service (e.g., serving on a faculty senate committee) may be valued more highly than other forms of service (e.g., public engagement).

Importantly, these expectations exist within reason. Some service activities and disciplinary opportunities might be limited by rank (such as promotion and tenure committee, or leadership positions in professional associations presidencies), but others will welcome early-career scholars.

Service expectations may be outlined in a contract or faculty handbook. Your campus fly-out likely included some discussion of tenure standards, but meeting with your department chair for a more granular discussion after your hiring can go a long way toward helping you discern which boxes you should check, when you should check them, and how to do so.

For instance, some institutions may ask for supporting letters at the reappointment and tenure review stages, including for your service portfolio. If letters are expected, do not hesitate to reach out to your service “supervisors,” such as the presidents or chairs of the committees you serve on, to write letters summarizing your contributions.

The second question concerns your own expectations and goals. What kinds of service activities seem intellectually fulfilling and/or professionally rewarding to you?

One of us was asked in their first year whether they would be interested in putting together a study abroad program. They answered “no.” A study abroad program was neither a major service expectation nor a curricular expectation nor something that felt professionally rewarding or intellectually stimulating at the time. Being on the tenure track is hard work as it is, so why not enjoy the parts of the job where you have some creative control?

Some service activities might be more personally rewarding. Organizing a speaker series for the university community or a campus poster session for undergraduate research might connect you to scholars and talented students on and off-campus and create intellectual community.

Serving on a faculty search committee, curriculum committee, or as a program director can be demanding, but such work can have important long-term consequences for your work environment, and it can sharpen important administrative and interpersonal skills that can help you move into administrative positions or new institutions. 

Taking on chair and discussant roles at conferences and joining the executive board of an organized section in a professional association connects you to a wider scholarly network. These activities generate invaluable opportunities for keeping abreast of the discipline and developing collaborations for research.

Timing is a central consideration as you find answers to these two essential questions. Organizing a speaker series can create more value for your career at the junior stage, while more demanding tasks, such as directing a program, might be more suitable for someone tenured or close to tenure.

University-level service, which is often time-consuming, can be taken on in the second or third year when, ideally, you will have established your course rotation and a productive research pipeline. Some institutions thus deliberately shield their junior faculty from taking on service in their first year. Talk with your department chair early to find out their expectations regarding the timing of your service activities.

In determining whether the time is right to take on a particular service role, talk to those who have served in that capacity. They are the best source of information on whether the formal duties align with the actual practice of the position, and they can tell you what factors might affect the time commitment for you.

Service accumulates quickly over time. It can be easy to overlook, or simply forget, the relatively small or informal service commitments that you might have agreed to do, say, during a hallway conversation. Therefore, we would recommend keeping a running tally of all your professional activities electronically on a single document as soon as you start the tenure-track, including the various service tasks you take on.

As we noted up front, early-career scholars will generally be presented with more service opportunities than they should accept. Deciding when you should say “yes,” however, can make it easier to say “no” to service opportunities that are better left to your institutional and disciplinary colleagues.