[Published originally in the November 2006 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 18/No. 5]
Good Service: A Surprising Secret to Academic Success
By David Patterson
Conventional wisdom is that service runs a distant third to research and teaching in academia. It is certainly sound advice for larval professors. If it applies to senior faculty as well, then only idealists would volunteer to serve, for example, on a National Research Council study panel, on the CRA Board, on a professional society leadership council, or in a government funding agency.
Hence, when I congratulated Janie Irwin for winning the CRA Distinguished Service Award last spring, I was applauding her unselfish spirit. I was surprised to learn it was her fourth award that year, as CRA’s DSA was also my fourth award in 2006.1 It struck me as odd that in our 30-year careers we would win eight awards simultaneously. Although we both have good reputations in research and teaching, our service records were likely the most distinguished (so to speak) from many faculty.
Could conventional wisdom be wrong? Could good service actually help a career and the lack of good service impair an otherwise successful career?
I decided to investigate if service is correlated to career success. Of course, success has many definitions in academia: contributions to humankind’s knowledge, influence on other researchers, impact on commercial products, success of former students, salary level, and so on.
One way to measure career success is by awards received. As an independent assessment of contributions, they act as the Consumers Reports of academia. Indeed, universities celebrate them to demonstrate the quality of their faculty, and many have a list of faculty awards just below their masthead.
Election to the National Academy of Engineering is one such prestigious award that universities brag about.2 According to NAE, “Election to membership is one of the highest professional honors accorded an engineer.” The award is given strictly for one’s impact on engineering research or products; service is not mentioned in the qualifications for election to NAE. There are about 200 members of the Computer Science and Engineering section of NAE, and about 75 of them are active academics. With about 5,000 CS faculty in the United States and another 1,000 in Canada,3 roughly 1 percent of faculty in North America are members of NAE. Even if we limited the population to the top 36 U.S. departments, only about 4 percent are NAE members.
To test for good service, I used the Distinguished Service Awards from ACM and CRA. ACM looks for activities that “emphasize contributions to the computing community at large” and CRA recognizes service that has had “major impact on computing research.” These general service awards were closer to what I was looking for than a “lifetime service award” from a single organization.
The table below lists recent winners of the Distinguished Service Awards from ACM and CRA who are members of NAE. It also highlights two Turing Award winners on the list.
Rather than 1 percent or 4 percent, since 2000, 75 percent of academic winners of these two service awards are members of NAE! The list of recent ACM Turing Award winners includes many people who do tons of service, including two winners of CRA’s DSA above.
How can good service, which according to conventional wisdom is (if anything) negatively correlated, instead be so positively correlated?
When faced with this data, one colleague proposes that people with distinguished research records serve because they are comfortable with their research contributions. He supports his observation that while DSA awards are given close to the service point, NAE generally recognizes contributions that are a decade or more in the past. Another colleague suggests that some people are good at everything they do, so of course good service is correlated to awards where service is not a criterion. While the second theory is flattering, as I reflect upon my experience as a member of several award committees and the NAE member selection committee, I have a third theory.
To explain my theory, let’s examine the award selection process. First, there are nearly always more well-qualified candidates than can be honored with awards (indeed, several of us have been working to increase the number of NAE slots for CS&E). Second, awards like NAE are not limited to a single sub-discipline, so selection committees are necessarily broad. As a member of the committee, you carefully read the nomination and letters of reference, and listen to the discussions of the strengths of the candidates. Every awards committee I have been on ultimately selects the winners using some form of ballot. Hence, committee members must vote on candidates without any direct knowledge of their technical expertise.
My theory is that, assuming a candidate matches the award criteria, the addition of good service may give the candidate an advantage in a multidisciplinary election. Serving directly with people in other subfields allows you to form an opinion of their intelligence, knowledge, dependability, effectiveness, judgment, fairness, leadership, creativity, and so on. Even if you haven’t served with candidates directly, a candidate’s strong service record may have a significant positive impact and may shape your views. Assuming that the rest of the case is strong, such views may influence your vote and tip the balance.
If my theory is correct, then it’s not simply the number of committees one serves on, just as research awards are not given for the number of papers written. In both cases, you are judged on the quality and impact of your contributions, not the quantity.
Although I have been using awards as a measure of success, positive opinions formed because of an individual’s good service record lead to job opportunities as well as awards. I have seen many effective committee colleagues move on to greener pastures. (While Janie and I have stayed put, our administrations do try to keep us happy.)
To non-larval professors, I pass on my recently discovered, surprising secret for academic success. The reason for performing significant good service is not just altruism; it is enlightened self-interest as well, for it can give you a competitive advantage in garnering recognition of a successful academic career.
Dave Patterson (pattrsn [at] eecs.berkeley.edu), Professor of Computer Science at UC Berkeley, was a long-time member of the CRA board, serving two terms as its chair. He recently completed a two-year term as the President of ACM.
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