Becoming A Well-Rounded PhD: The Role of Service

By Marc Brettler
Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor in Judaic Studies


Marc Brettler

Marc Brettler

In my 35 years of teaching, I have seen many changes in the profession. In the “Good Old Days,” most universities cared only about research. Soon thereafter, teaching ability and experience also became important, and the successful candidates for a college job needed a teaching portfolio along with some sort of credential showing that they completed a teacher training program. Today, tenure and advancement are rarely based on research and teaching alone. The third component considered is university service. For Ph.D.s not teaching at universities, service is even more important.

Let’s face it—many of you who are enrolled as Ph.D.s are introverts—you love spending time with your books, with your data, in your lab. Indeed, part of the attraction of the academic life is that it is quiet and does not interfere with your solitary lifestyle. At least outside of the sciences, you will complete most of your academic work alone—you will be the sole author of your books and articles, and that is how you like it. You will learn to protect your research time jealously, and writing your dissertation in total isolation will be perfect practice.

But in most places, research alone will not get you tenure—and great research typically will not advance you outside of university positions. Even superlative research plus excellent teaching—two largely competing goals that you will spend your initial years, if not your entire career, attempting to balance—will not get you tenure. You will also be judged on service.

Three Types of Service

If you have a university job, this service will be in three categories: service to your department, service to the university, and service to your profession.

Service to your department involves becoming a member of departmental committees, attending departmental events, and actively and constructively (!) contributing to departmental meetings. Most departments have a variety of committees that meet from several times a year to once a year (or via email as needed). My department, Religious Studies, has the following committees: Curriculum Committee, Majors and Honors Committee, Personnel and Long-Range Planning Committee, M.A. Committee, Lectures Committee, Computing and Media, and the Graduate Program Executive Committee. Other Duke departments have similar, though not identical structures.

The university has a large number of committees—such as the President’s Art Advisory Council, the Academic Council, the Sexual Misconduct Task Force, and the Library Council—that welcome graduate student members. The time commitments for these committees vary widely. Also, service to the university does not only involve committee work. For instance, writing this column is part of my service to the university.

Service to the profession is typically accomplished through your professional organization, such as the American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association, the American Psychological Association, or in my case, the Society of Biblical Literature. It is crucial to join these scholarly societies (they typically have reduced dues for students) and to consult their websites often. This will help you prepare for your job search. Even in your first years you should look at job openings, so you can get a sense of the field. (You may want to do this after a drink, or may need a drink after you do this!) Even if you need to pay your own way, and sleep in a quad room with your friends, it is crucial that you attend their annual meetings as early as possible, even if you are not giving a paper. These meetings are as much about networking and understanding the profession as they are about new scholarship.

What You Gain from Service

Excellent teaching leads to better research, and excellent research leads to more exciting teaching. In the same way that teaching and research are mutually reinforcing, the insights acquired from service aid in both teaching and research. I have learned about new approaches to teaching by serving on committees with colleagues from my department and other departments and institutions, and my teaching and research have been broadened and even changed by getting to know these colleagues, who have sometimes become academic collaborators. Serving on the board of directors of two professional organizations has introduced me to wonderful new colleagues and has offered me a general view of the profession that is relevant to everything I teach and research.

As Ph.D. students, try your best to find opportunities to serve your department, your university, and your professional society. Many departmental committees allow graduate student participation; discuss these opportunities with your chair or DGS. Encourage your department to have graduate student representatives who partake in (relevant parts) of faculty meetings and faculty searches. Find out about university-wide committees and how you might be able to join them. Seek out the occasions that many scholarly societies offer for graduate students to become committee members and to serve in other ways beyond reading papers.

Participating in such activities is not only a matter of CV building. Your involvement will allow you to understand academic life much better and will help you make a stronger impression during searches and interviews. In addition, you will also be much better prepared for your (inevitably difficult) first-year teaching. Finally, it will give you an opportunity to actively shape the university.

Such participation will also show potential employer that you are not a complete introvert, that you are able to work with others. Although scholarship is often solitary, teaching at a university is not. You may be asked to co-teach; you will be on committees; you will try to be a good department and university citizen. Your potential employers of any type will, of course, like to see more than just a track record that shows your initiative and your desire to be a fine researcher and a successful teacher. They will also want to see that you have tried to socialize yourself into the profession and that you have a good sense of what you are getting into.

I do not want to be misleading: In most high-powered research universities, service is third among the three aspects (behind research and teaching) considered for reappointment, tenure, and advancement. But even there it is important, and at many colleges, service is as important as teaching or research. Many senior scholars are burned out from years of service and are looking to hire junior colleagues who have experience and interest in department- and university-building, and who one day might be able to direct a program or chair a department. Thus, attaining experience in this area is certainly helpful if you are hoping for an academic career. It is likely even more important if you are not seeking an academic position, since these typically involve working cooperatively, in teams. Significant service experience as a Ph.D. student will convince your potential employer that you are not an ivory-tower academic, but a well-rounded Ph.D. who likes working with others and has done so successfully.