When To Say Yes & When To Say No in Academia


An assistant professor of philosophy writes in with an important question that I imagine a lot of academics spend time pondering:

As I begin a new tenure-track position, I’m seeking guidance on how to respond to various requests and opportunities, including: requests to serve on departmental and college committees, opportunities to present work at conferences, invitations to contribute to edited volumes, suggestions that I take part in profession-wide service, appeals to start or take part in reading groups, temptations to sit in on colleagues’ courses, and so on. I’m not looking for advice like “only do things which will improve your chances of getting tenure.”  That won’t help me decide whether, for example, to spend time preparing for and attending a small invited conference with some of the luminaries in my area (instead of something else research-related) as it is too general. But also, it is too narrow: I don’t want to sacrifice a rewarding intellectual and personal life for the sake of the tenure scramble. I’ll have lots of choices about how to spend my time and energy, and I’m looking to hear from others about the decisions they have made that they have been happy—or unhappy—with.

Readers, please share your thoughts.

Anselm Kiefer, "Eisen-Steig" (detail)

Anselm Kiefer, “Eisen-Steig” (detail)

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Dale Miller
5 years ago

Your best resource in getting questions of this sort answered should be your department chair. Without knowing anything about the sort of university at which you’ve landed, we don’t know anything about the amount of service to the institution that you’re expected to take on, the quantity of research that you’re expected to do, etc. Your chair will have that local information, and your chair should be very invested in your success. With that being said, try to do as much service to the department and college as necessary to be considered a good citizen, and no more. Do go to as many conferences as you can; other benefits aside, this is how you make connections in the field. In a few years you’re going to need to give your chair a list of potential external reviewers for tenure, and you’ll want these people to have some idea of who you are. Don’t plan to spend too much time sitting in on other people’s courses or attending reading groups; I wouldn’t do a reading group on any book that I wasn’t going to read in the near future anyway. Take your teaching seriously, but try to maximize your opportunities to repeat courses (and don’t feel like you need to remake a course from scratch every time you teach it).Report

Ruth Groff
Ruth Groff
5 years ago

My advice is to try to do the things that are the most interesting to you; they are likely to be most helpful re: tenure-getting anyway. I loved sitting in on colleagues’ seminars (for a while there, lots of us were doing it and it was really nice) & being part of reading groups. I am lousy at schmoozing, but am always eager to make genuine intellectual connections and friendships. As it happens, the latter are not only more fulfilling, but more likely to help you be a better thinker.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
5 years ago

When it comes to service jobs, find out which ones you enjoy because they cater to your strengths or because of the people you’ll work with. Seeks these opportunities out rather than wait for them to be offered, if you can, because I’ve found if you can choose your service obligations, they’ll be much less onerous. I’m happy to be director of undergrad dissertations for my dept., because I find it incredibly satisfying helping students towards the right topic/advisor: I don’t care that it can be a time-consuming position as a result. Likewise, I’m happy to keep on the roll of dept. ethics officer as long as I can, because my primary duty — attending the faculty-wide ethics meeting once a term — is much less onerous than it could be because it’s populated by people who are happy to let a 2 hour meeting take only 30 minutes if we only have 30 minutes worth of business to get through. So scout out what you would actually like doing in terms of admin, and be proactive about getting those appointments. Then when something else comes along, you can have an easier time saying No, you’re already at your quota — or, saying Yes, because your other admin duties are not burdensome, and so you can afford to be generous.Report

Charles
Charles
5 years ago

Why did you chose to illustrate this post/question with a picture of the train tracks leading up to Auschwitz-Birkenau? Is this meant to be ironic?Report

Ashley
Ashley
5 years ago

…. Which ones do you want to do? I love smaller workshops and conferences. I join committees on issues I’m passionate about.

But I love research, and so it’s easy for me to make sure that I’m not overloading my schedule in order to procrastinate re: my research. Start by making sure you’re blocking out enough time for research. And teaching. So long as you’re faithfully taking the time for those things, you can go ahead and add in anything else that you want, mostly letting your passions be your guide.

(I do a few things, like refereeing, or Dept colloquia, purely out of a sense of professional obligation, but most of my other professional activities are interest-driven.)Report