Monday, August 23, 2010

Grad Service

Thanks to Wendy P for bringing up an important issue: How much institutional service should graduate students do? (and who should decide this?)

I think it's great if there are graduate students with the maturity, perspective, time, and time-balancing skills to serve effectively on departmental or other committees, providing their insights and, in some cases, gaining valuable career experience. As long as the time commitments are not onerous, graduate students (and everyone) can benefit from their participation in committees that oversee/organize graduate programs, hiring, seminars, and other activities related to the operation and governance of academic units.

It can be good preparation for a later career if a graduate student successfully serves on such committees and gains the respect of those involved; such service can also result in a useful line or two in a reference letter about the student's 'broader' activities beyond their thesis research ± teaching. Faculty have to do service work, so it can be useful for a graduate student (or postdoc) to get experience with it early on, especially for those contemplating an academic career.

But what if a student gets involved in more time-consuming institutional service, including committees beyond the department? No student should be compelled to do more service work than is the norm for their department, but some students want to be involved in graduate student organizations and committees at the university level. Others are asked to be involved in committees at the institutional level. These activities can benefit the students and it might even be important for their future careers to have such experiences. I suppose that if a student finds that s/he enjoys service work more than research, that can be important information..

Nevertheless, the first priority of the student and adviser is to make sure that time spent on these activities does not unduly slow progress towards degree. If the student's research progress is demonstrably slowed by participation in service activities, everyone needs to have a talk about priorities, funding timelines, research deadlines, career goals, and so on. It's not worth it to anyone if a student's funding runs out because of time-sucking committee work, even if the work is important and interesting.

It sounds like that is exactly what Wendy P has done with her group. I'm always impressed when I hear about an example of good communication between advisers and students, working together to find the right balance of time and focus. In that particular case, it's possible that the administrators inviting grad students to participate in university service activities might not be aware of the impact of the time commitment on the research progress of the students. Perhaps the administrators are so removed from research (particularly lab-based science research) and the realities of grad student life these days that they aren't aware of the negative effect that time-consuming university committees can have on their student members (and others).

In the case of significant time commitment for university-level service work, potentially resulting in a prolongation of a graduate student's time-to-degree, the adviser's choices are: (1) ask the student to quit the committee(s) or at least scale back the time involved, if possible; (2) compel the student to quit the committee(s) (because funding will run out otherwise); or (3) get institutional commitment (department or beyond) for at least some financial support of a student who is devoting significant time to the institution while being paid from the adviser's grant.

Has anyone used any of these options -- or others -- when a situation arises in which students devote a significant amount of time (that would otherwise be spend on their thesis research) on service work?


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Although some of my students have done fairly substantial service work (one was department rep for grad student association and student rep on campus transportation committee), I've not seen any evidence that it slows progress towards degree. Students who claim that their service work is slowing progress are just looking for excuses. Faculty who remove students from service commitments are likely to find that they end up with unproductive students who are doing neither service nor research.

engineering girl said...

When I was an undergraduate, I served on committees where students offer input to faculty in charge of designing the curriculum. It was a great experience, and I got to see how a university is run.

In graduate school, I chose not to get involved in many committees. I met the students involved in departmental committees and they were all pretty low key from what I saw - just had the responsibility to organize student seminars, etc. It seemed like the service made them more connected to the department, whereas those who did no service kind of got lost and distanced from their fellow students

In some ways, the issue isn't that much different from extracurricular activities during undergrad. They can be a very important part of personal development and learning, but your number 1 priority is still school. I was heavily involved with research as an undergrad but if my grades slipped, well I know what would have been my first priority. There is one important difference though - graduate students are paid to do a job: research. Undergrads don't have an obligation to a research advisor, who may be "entitled" to a certain amount of a student's time. This may spark a whole debate about time vs. productivity...but if you had a normal 9 to 5 job, you can't just take time out of your day to volunteer somewhere. And that leads me to another question...If a student has a fellowship, should they be allowed more freedom to do time-consuming service?

Anonymous said...

In my experience the best grad students are nearly always active in service, while mediocre students may or may not participate in service activities.

Alyssa said...

As a graduate student, I also coordinated two outreach programs. These did take up more time than the average grad student spent on extra, service-related, work. My supervisor and I discussed the costs/benefits, and he was happy for me to continue as long as my research was not suffering.

I really appreciate his confidence in me, because my involvement with the programs led me toward my current career path in education/outreach.

I also finished my PhD in less than four years (4-5 years is typical in that department), so my research did not suffer.

Wendy said...

Thanks for your thoughts, FSP.
Gasstationwithoutpumps: One of the service jobs one of my grad students is doing is serving on the academic misconduct panel. They hold hearings pertaining to student conduct. These hearings last 3+ hours and are scheduled during the daytime, often in conflict with previously reserved instrument time on or off campus. The choice is to not serve on the committee or to not collect the data (or send another student to do the data collection, likely compromising the data quality for lack of experience and specific knowledge of the experiment).

No one here is making an excuse.

plam said...

The MIT Corporation includes recent alumni as explicit member category. The nominees for these positions have all done prodigious amounts of service. I can't actually imagine doing that much service.

Steph said...

I served on the grad student government of my Uni for 2 years and it was an enlightening experience. I'm very glad I did it. However, I found it amusing that, in my physics department with insane male to female ratios, the committee and other service work was dominated by women. Does that continue into the faculty years? It wasn't a matter of tokenism, it's just that the women would volunteer (out of guilt when no one else was) and the men wouldn't. I suppose that means we are getting more of a say in how things are run on campus.

Alex said...

Every grad student goes through at least one unproductive spell. During that time, some students remain engaged with the research group and/or department through service tasks. I've seen fellow students who went through spells where zero research got done but they were administering computers and maintaining the lab or doing stuff in the department to "look busy." At the time I didn't think too highly of them, but in retrospect I think that they dealt with their dry spells far more productively than the ones who spent their dry spells on video games and sports.

So I don't see grad service as a problem. For the most productive students it's another feather in the cap. For the students in dry spells it's a way to stay engaged.

Anonymous said...

I had a serious discussion with a PhD student about running for a campus wide office as graduate and professional student representative. I did not forbid this, but pointed out: 1) the time and energy commitments that were commensurate with the salary he was earning from my grant, raising the issue of whether he'd be able to do both "jobs" effectively, and 2) the impact this other task would have on his project and his progress toward graduation. He ultimately decided to pull back from taking on this new task.

I would note that I only heard about this accidentally--I would not have been happy had he taken on this commitment without at least mentioning it to me.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

It seems like many grad students will be involved in service activities (primarily recruitment and departmental service like grad student associations etc) in the early part of grad school, but then scale this back during the "meatiest" part of the dissertation research (e.g. the 3.5-5th years). At least that's what I've done. It's probably a bad sign if a student is still involved heavily in service beyond the 4th year.

Anonymous said...


I've also seen that pattern of female students volunteering more. I can never quite decide whether I should tell the male students to step up to the plate and do their share, or be glad that the female students are running the show and hope that visible role models bring in more female students.

The cynic in me breaks the tie by saying "This is a nice broader impact statement. Be grateful and don't disturb it."

Anonymous said...

If I see a student has any service as an undergrad, I will not accept them to work with me in my lab. Once a student government dork, always a student government dork.

Janus Professor said...

I tended the University bar twice a week during grad school. Now that's service!

Anonymous said...

How involved should this grad service be before it can be stated on a CV? E.g. what if it is service on a planning committee for a university-wide event that only takes place over a few months, versus a continuous appointment on a department-related committee?

Februa said...

Im pretty heavily involved with a number of service type activities, including serving as an executive on a National group, running a Grad student group on campus, participating in animal care and use committee, and was on an ad hoc committee for the development of a new BSc degree. I also have a significant volunteer commitment working with some local raptors (specifically peregrine falcons)that takes a good 10 hours a week - much more during fledging season.
Im more in agreement with the person who said that students who claim their service commitment prevents them from progress are just making an excuse. In the example by Wendy, if theres a committee with ZERO notice for 3 hour meetings, then Id compel a student not to be on that committee. Its RIDICULOUS for any group to demand a lengthy meeting like that with no warning. All my commitments are either regularly scheduled at the beginning of the term (eg. Teleconference 9-11 first mondy of month), or Im given at least a weeks notice, which is more than enough time to make sure I dont book the confocal then. Such a committee I think is the exception, really, that seems really disrespetful to everyone on that committee to not let them know in advance of meetings.

AnonProf said...

Of course serving on a committee delays graduation! Any time spent on the committee could have been spent on research.

The question is whether it's worth it. Face it: our academic community relies upon people to be community-minded, and to give to the community, out of altruism (rather than out of personal interest). Yes, this can create dysfunction. Yes, this can put altruistic people at a disadvantage compared to selfish people. I'm not defending it, I'm just describing the way this works in real life.

Helen Huntingdon said...

I've seen professors tell students they're getting too involved in service work.

I've found it useful, myself, to simply state that any requests for my time must be cleared with the owners of my time. Some requests my adviser approves, with caveats, and with the suggestion that if I'm asked for more time than I want to spend, I am welcome at any time to refer people back to him. It's a marvelous time-saver, especially since everyone wants a token woman and there aren't enough of us to go around.