Thursday, November 3, 2016

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: On balancing service with other academic responsibilities

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


Over the past few years, I've take on increasing amounts of service work, including paper reviews, committee work, presentations here and there, and internal service at my institution. The external service work is what I enjoy most, especially if it gives me a chance to work together with other scholars in my field.

Whereas I tend to be rather quiet during meetings (but taking a lot of notes on my tablet-with-keyboard), I tend to compensate by always volunteering when work needs to be done. Ask who wants to contribute on a document, and if I have the knowledge to do so, I'll raise my hand and put in the work. While I have a tendency to volunteer for all the things that look interesting, my main daily tasks are still teaching and research. An article I recently read that mentions that women tend to take on disproportionate amounts of service and (related or not, I don't know) tend to publish less than men, made me wonder if I am taking on too much service and neglecting my research and my publications.

Therefore, I've been thinking about good ways to balance service and other academic responsibilities. Here are some ideas that come to my mind:

1. Make sure you can deliver


Before you raise your hand for anything, or reply an email with an enthusiastic "I'll do it!", make sure you can deliver. Think twice and be honest with yourself. You don't have a magic time machine at home, and your week has only 168 hours.

For example, if you get a request to review a paper and need to submit your reply by a given deadline, check your calendar and see when you would have time to review the paper. If you find that you have time, and if the paper is of your interest, accept the invitation and put a time slot in your planner when you will actually do this. If you will be traveling or out for fieldwork, it is better to decline an invitation than to accept and not be able to deliver.

Along the same lines, whenever someone asks me if I'm available to help on a task, I'll check my planning and give a realistic estimate of when I can work on it. So far, this system has been working well for me, and it helps me in telling others what they can realistically expect from me.

2. It's OK to reject a request every now and then

There is not a single journal editor who will be very mad at you and never talk to you again if you decline a paper review request every now and then. If you won't be able to deliver, don't take on the work. You don't want to be forcing yourself to chew through a math-heavy paper at 11pm after a heavy conference dinner because you still have to submit your review of that paper before midnight.

While saying "no" is difficult (I can't remember if I ever declined a paper review request, unless there was a conflict of interest in my opinion - all that FOMO), declining a request every now and then is not a shame. I have declined administrative service tasks within my institution in the past (admittedly also because I quite dislike mindless administrative tasks which could be done by support staff), and this action has not affected me.

3. Plan for spending time


If you want to find those open spots in your planning to actually reserve time for your service activities, make sure you have some blocks reserved in your weekly template for service work. I have a time block on Sunday to read papers. I either use that time to catch up with recent publications, or to review papers that I have received. Smaller tasks, such as writing coordination emails and the likes, go in my daily "email and admin" time block. Working on collaborative documents is something that goes into my research time. While this task might not involve actual new research, it often involves compiling recent research and writing.

4. Avoid very large responsibilities

Bruce Wooley in his presentation on "Service in Academia" brings up an important point: don't take on a large, ongoing time commitment until you are mid-career. Such a commitment might include being conference chair or journal editor. For these tasks, you will need some administrative support. He adds that being guest editor for a single issue is good. Along the same lines, you can chair a mini-symposium or paper session at a conference, that is manageable if you are early career like me.

5. Set clear goals and dates

For paper review requests, the request will almost always be paired with a deadline. For other commitments, such as working on collaborative committee documents, the deadline might be some time far into the future. The farther into the future, the more abstract the task becomes. Therefore, it might be good to set clear goals when taking on a service commitment. A typical goal would be: we want to have achieved X, Y and Z by our next meeting. If you are meeting infrequently, consider organizing conference calls or video conferences every month or every other month to follow up and set tasks for the next call. This procedure will enable you to again, see what you can commit, and when you will work on it.

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