It happens every spring. Some hapless graduate student--usually last year's representative to the departmental oversight committee--stops by my bench. With a broad smile, they say, "We need a student representative on the admissions committee next year. Would you be willing to serve?" My mind begins to churn frantically, thinking back to all the times I've heard faculty members complain about committee assignments and how much time they take up.
Perhaps you've found yourself in a similar situation. But before you make up some lame excuse to get out of a committee position, consider this untold secret of graduate education: Professional development does not only occur in the classroom or the laboratory. And serving on a committee is a tremendous training opportunity. Many of the skills you will need as a scientist, no matter what your career goals may be, involve interaction with other people. Committee work gives you the chance to develop a toolkit of skills, like negotiation, teamwork, group problem solving, self-confidence, and empathy. Moreover, serving on a committee will also help you extend your professional network, and you can formally note your committee experiences on your CV. Career hunting aside, committee work also provides a behind-the-scenes look at the politics and logistics of academic science in action.
The exact benefit of your committee experience will depend to some degree on the type of committee that you serve on. Some academic departments reserve a spot on every standing committee for a graduate student and/or postdoctoral representative, a practice that offers you a veritable banquet of opportunities. For example, serving on an admissions committee gives you experience in evaluating other peoples' skills, valuable if you ever have to hire someone to work for you (an entirely likely scenario for anyone with an advanced degree.) Serving on a search committee for a new faculty member will let you see what skills are considered marketable in the academic world, at least within your department. And you can learn lot by watching what the applicants do and don't do--and how their actions are perceived.
By contrast, a position on a departmental oversight committee will reveal how the decision-making process really works. Don't be surprised to find that politics play a role here, as scientists are not immune to subtle or not-so-subtle power plays. So, observe how the most successful scientists influence others, and learn from their approach.
Many departments host a regular seminar series, and a committee is often charged with organizing all the invitations and logistical considerations. Serving on a seminar committee may allow you to have valuable access to visiting scientists from other institutions, and the nuts-and-bolts organizational stuff always looks good on a CV. Coming armed with good suggestions for potential speakers will demonstrate to faculty members that you keep abreast of the current trends in your field and can evaluate which speakers will be most interesting.
If your department doesn't have opportunities for graduate student participation on committees, don't despair (although you might suggest to your chairperson that it would be a good idea to start a new tradition.) You can also find opportunities for participation in university-wide committees. For example, you might serve on a committee charged with a specific task, such as improving graduate student education within your division or school of the university. Sometimes there are task forces that oversee the creation of a new institute or department. This is a rare chance to see a large project begin from the ground up. Many schools have campus-wide graduate student organizations that interact with upper-level administrators to address issues such as graduate assistantship salaries and benefits, tuition credit policies, training programs, and funding issues. Serving on committees such as these allows you to voice the concerns of graduate students and extends your interpersonal network across disciplines.
Finally, don't feel you are limited to your local campus. Many professional societies need members to serve on organizing committees that plan annual conferences, maintain and promote membership, or conduct educational outreach. If you are a member of a professional society, this is worth checking out. Try looking at the Web page or newsletter for your society to see what standing committees exist, and don't be afraid to contact committee chairs for more information. By participating in these types of committees, you will get the chance to meet more senior scientists from other institutions. Such contacts can be invaluable when you come to conduct job searches in the future. And informal conversations about research during these meetings can lead to new insights and possibly even new collaborations.
As beneficial as committees are, though, you need to be prepared to step up to the plate when you join one. The ideal committee member arrives at meetings on time, is aware of the issues at hand, participates in discussions effectively, can be entrusted with confidential information, and carries out assigned tasks. Just as outstanding committee work can be a boon to your professional development, a poor showing can have a negative impact. So, evaluate carefully the time and effort involved, and make your commitment deliberately.
In short, committee work is an underrated secret. It will help you hone some of the finer points of interaction and teamwork that are so critical to the execution of science. And there is another benefit as well: the satisfaction that occurs when a group of people gathers to serve the needs of a larger community. Personally, my graduate experience has been greatly enriched by service on admissions, oversight, and seminar committees at my institution. The lessons I've learned in these activities I couldn't have picked up in the classroom or lab. So, committee work isn't just about giving up some of your time. It's about giving back--and receiving valuable expertise in return.