For many psychology professors, serving on a department committee or in other volunteer positions can seem like just another task on a never-ending to-do list. Reviewing curriculum changes, hashing out office space issues or fine-tuning budgets can be a nuisance when there’s research to conduct and classes to teach.

Such service may not light your intellectual fire, but, say leaders in academia, these "good citizenship" activities are essential, not only to professors’ careers but to academia at large.

"Governance and citizenship are where many faculty rights, autonomy and freedom rest, and it’s important for people to be engaged," says M. Ellen Mitchell, PhD, dean of the Institute of Psychology in Chicago and chair of the Council of Graduate Departments in Psychology. The decisions you help make may shape your department or university for years to come, she says.

That’s why many schools — ranging from small liberal arts and community colleges to larger, broad-based and technological universities — place a significant focus on service during annual faculty reviews and tenure and promotion decisions. "We’re small enough that [no one] can rest on their laurels if they have a lot of grants and publications," Mitchell says. "We really expect people to be full participants in all aspects of the university."

So how can professors stand out as good citizens, all while keeping up with their research and teaching obligations? Senior professors and department chairs offer these tips:

  • Play detective. Find out how much your university values service by reading the faculty handbook, says Randolph Smith, PhD, psychology department chair at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. This resource should provide information on the school’s formal tenure-evaluation system and what the typical weightings are for research, teaching and service. Next, talk candidly with your dean and department chair about the expectations regarding service. "Sometimes, what’s on paper is not always exactly the way things work," Smith says. Then, check in with fellow faculty — particularly those who recently completed the tenure-review process — to determine how typical evaluations play out.

  • Combine your workload. Once you know how much service is truly expected, maximize your time by aligning your service, research and teaching activities as closely as possible, says Lonnie Yandell, PhD, psychology professor at Belmont University in Nashville. Too often, he says, new faculty simply react to citizenship opportunities as they come up, rather than selecting service activities that fit with their goals and interests. "We shouldn’t view service as something that’s divorced from our other activities," says Yandell, who has incorporated his citizenship work with his interest in developing computer-based and online teaching techniques. He conducts basic research on teaching technologies, publishes on the topic and serves on departmental committees, college-wide groups and national organizations that focus on teaching with technology. "This way, it’s all part of my overall career development," Yandell says.

  • Make yourself indispensable. Assess your strengths and weaknesses to figure out how you can best serve the department. Many junior faculty, for example, come into departments with more experience with technology than their seasoned colleagues, Smith says. If that’s the case, volunteer to train other faculty in a new technology or serve on a committee that’s assessing technology purchases. Another way to win admirers is by teaching a class no one wants to teach — see it as a learning opportunity, Smith advises. "Having worked with many faculty over the years, it’s invaluable to have people in the department whom you know you can count on," Smith says.

  • Write it down. Keep a log of all of your service and citizenship activities, Yandell says. That way you’ll have an easily accessible list when it comes time for your annual evaluation or tenure review. Track your service and citizenship hours in a Word document, and review it quarterly to see what you can add to your CV, he says. Don’t forget to include less obvious citizenship activities, such as student recruiting, taking part in university assemblies or other campus events as well as any professional association activities you take part in, including APA events. "It’s difficult enough to do these things, and to not get credit for it is a shame," Yandell says.

  • Know when to say no. As a new faculty member, you’ll also need to learn to walk the line between being a good departmental citizen and being a doormat, Smith says. Politely decline when you are ill-equipped for a task. At the same time, you need to avoid being labeled a shirker, so when you do say no, ask for an equally challenging responsibility that is better suited to your expertise. In cases where you truly are overburdened and it’s negatively affecting your research and teaching responsibilities, seek advice from your chair, Smith says.

"A good chair will have your best interests at heart and can give you a more unbiased reading on workload responsibilities within the department," Smith says. "If the chair does not see you as overworked, then it is probably time for you to ‘suck it up’ and rearrange your priorities."

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.