Friday, January 14, 2011

The gift of declining service

On reflection, I feel like I should clarify yesterday's post a bit. I was mostly targeting the post toward early-career researchers (ECRs). I think a well-established researcher is in a great position to take on lots of service tasks, and at my current institution that is most certainly how things are done. This division of labor ideally frees the ECRs to focus almost exclusively on doing their research, which I think they should definitely take advantage of.

The problem is, as an ECR it can often be difficult to know in advance which service tasks will help one further their research agenda and which ones will just be distractors. One example of this is paper reviewing. The first time an ECR gets a request to a review a paper it's really exciting and flattering, particularly when it's a high-profile publication venue or high-profile editor/PC member sending the invitation. If the ECR is really new to the research world, they may not yet know what they are and are not interested in, they may not yet know the literature. It's also a great way to keep up with the field. So frequently saying yes to review requests is often extremely helpful at first. As the ECR progresses in their career they start to begin to improve at filtering the good papers from the bad; however, they may not have learned to start declining the bad ones. Bad papers often take longer to review than good ones, especially as an ECR who thinks they need to also copy edit the whole thing.

Conference organization is another example. At first, the ECR is flattered to be invited to help with conference organization. Great way to meet people, to network, etc. But then hours, and hours, and hours go by. Weeks and weeks of time sending emails, preparing budgets, booking rooms, doing all of these things that have absolutely nothing directly related to one's current research. In my experience doing this when I was an ECR, the very best thing that happened was that maybe three more people knew my name. It was fantastic to help out all the people I helped, but it did not help my research career. Who knows, maybe three years from now someone will say, "Oh, yeah, Ada! Didn't she order tables for our conference banquet three years ago? What a sport - let's nominate her for best paper award!", but I rather doubt it.

Mostly, as an ECR, you want to take advantage of this remarkable gift senior researchers are giving you - a chance to do uninterrupted research. A chance to present at and enjoy international conferences without having to do anything remarkable other than show up. It's hard to just accept this gift - you want to give something back. But the best way to give back as an ECR is to publish some kickass results. This makes everyone in your management chain look good, it makes your institution look good, it makes your funding agency look good, and it makes your research community look good. That's how you can best "give back" at this stage.

I'm not suggesting one says "no" to every service request - certainly many tasks are fun, rewarding, and worth doing. But it's ok to consider these requests carefully before accepting, and viewing them with a bit of a selfish eye for how a particular activity might be useful to you in the long run research-wise. For example, I know of people who do CS Education research and can turn outreach events into data gathering exercises, or HCI people who turn administrative meetings into studies of workflow and technology use. (Maybe this is harder if you're, say, a Compilers gal, but you never know). Anyway, it's just good to keep these things in mind, particularly for the tasks that suck up a lot of your time.


  1. This makes sense. Things are probably pretty different when you are still an early PhD student, as I am. I don't get requests to review papers yet, for example.

  2. I don't get requests to review papers yet, for example.

    Be careful what you wish for... :)

  3. After a 2010 in which I must've reviewed over 50 papers, I'm saying no to everything right now. But I'm giving the editors the names of PhD students that haven't done much reviewing yet. I hope they enjoy getting on the scene :)

  4. A useful rule of thumb is do not organise any event in which you are not showcasing your own work (could be as a discussant). If you are not showing your own work the natural inclination of most attendees is to think you are the secretary. Very bad outcome. But if you organise a good event AND show your kick-ass own work good things will come your way. It can be a way to create your own networks when mentoring is otherwise limited. At some point there has to be transition between passive selfish status and being ready to take on professional responsibility. But make sure you get something out of it other than a warm inner glow.