Special Feature: The Other Parts of Your Academic Job

(Photo: National Science Foundation)

Scientists are a diverse lot, but they typically share one characteristic: When it comes to their research, they are perfectionists. Which is why some aspects of academic employment can be painful to the average scientist.

Consider institutional service, an activity that's widely reviled. Why is committee work so unpopular? Although there are some important committees, much work on committees seems like busywork, the participants seeking consensus on ill-defined issues about which few of the committee members actually care. For scientists who approach their work with passion and precision, it can be most unpleasant. Besides, everyone knows your committee work will count very little in your tenure decision. For that reason, some senior researchers encourage protégés to avoid committee work at all costs.

There's a problem with this strategy, writes Elisabeth Pain in Professional Service. Failing to take your service obligations seriously can lead to resentment among colleagues who may sit in judgment when you're up for tenure. Besides, Pain notes, there are perfectly good reasons for doing service work. Scientists have obligations to their profession, institution, and colleagues. Service to your research community--such as reviewing manuscripts and grant proposals, and doing it well--can pay real professional dividends. Taking on important challenges within your institution can, in moderation, cause your peers to think of you as the kind of colleague they'd like to have. Like the other aspects of a busy scientific career, service obligations cannot be ignored completely.

And then there's that other big part of an academic career: teaching. Teaching has a far better reputation than institutional service, yet it, too, can be a source of great frustration for perfectionist scholars, largely because your students don't share your high professional standards. Sure, those few, deeply committed students of rare ability are an unmitigated joy. But what about the rest? What about those who skip half their classes then show up for office hours the day before an exam, expecting you to teach them everything they've missed? How do you warm up to those who complain incessantly about grades that were generous in the first place? Even more common: the poor souls who try as hard as they can but are vastly unprepared or underpowered. When your own standards are high, the low standards--and low attainment--of your students can be a torment if you let it.

So don't let it, advises Siri Carpenter in Teach the Students You Have. Despite the ample opportunities for frustration teaching offers, the professors Carpenter spoke with express a very positive opinion of their teaching activities and offer much valuable advice. So take a scholarly approach, make your expectations clear, and spend your teaching-related time in ways that will yield the highest payoff, and teaching can become a deeply satisfying part of your career.

Jim Austin is the editor of Science Careers.

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