New PI: Welcome to Committee Work

Part of the “Self Reflection” series by and for early-career researchers

-OK, so you just got a job as a new PI where you are busy setting up your lab (a big challenge) and teaching your first course (another big challenge), BUT wait there’s more…

“We need you to be on this committee, and also that committee”. Then you just got asked to be on a graduate student committee. In no time you will be chairing committees.

Welcome to committee work!

You are likely to be involved in a lot of committee work as a faculty member. While the cartoon above may seem crazy, I have been in the meeting to form the committee to form the committee, and it is often an essential part to organize the activities of several busy faculty at once.

-Before we go any further it is probably best to define a committee. For this blog, I looked up the definition of a committee and I got that it is “A group of people selected to represent a larger group in order to perform a specific function” with “Brain Trust” as a synonym.

The synonym immediately made me think of the line in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? When Pappy O’Daniel says “these boys is gonna be my brain trust.” And Delmar says “What’s that mean, Everett?”

Hopefully what is described here helps with “what that means” in relation to being a part of a group of 3 to 10+ faculty or others assembled at a specific meeting time to perform a specific task.


So, here are some different Committees Types you are likely to be involved with, as well as Best Practices for committee work.

Committees Types

While this likely varies by position and institution, I think there are three basic categories: Institutional UnitGraduate Student, and Job Search Committees.

Institutional Unit Committees –

Department level – Most things related to departmental administration are handled by groups of faculty on committees. Committee functions are usually self-explanatory by name: Curriculum (thoughts and design of courses for a major), Seminar (who to invite and host), Awards (who to give awards to). Others may seem obvious, but have key functions behind them: my department’s Graduate Studies committee covers everything regarding graduate students. This includes admission and awarding of assistantships. Other places have a separate Admissions committee to handle that. An Executive/Planning committee might sound exclusive, but really covers the general planning or administrative procedures to run and maintain a department. This could include everything from who is assigned to what committee to what future directions and hiring that the department should do. Tasks on these committees are often as varied as their names, but what you are asked to do should be clearly outlined at the first committee meeting you attend.

Tip: Being on any of these takes time, but it is part of your job. This includes time invested in both learning the tasks involved and then performing them efficiently. Why this takes time is because it is important that you do a good job at whatever you are asked to do. Remember – this could be the largest interaction that you have with some faculty, especially if you are in a big department. These are the same faculty who will later vote on your promotion or tenure.

College and University levels – This often doesn’t come at first, but there is a wide, and I mean wide, range of committees across your institution, including everything from Biosafety to Parking. Otherwise these are like departmental committees. Participation on these committees is important to being a functioning part of your whole institution. Most people end up on one of these.

Tip: If you find one of these committees that you like without a huge time commitment, then you might want to be on it for as long as possible, because being on one committee often helps keep you from being on another. Remember – you are usually representing your department or whole unit when you are serving on these committees. Your performance on them not only reflects on you, but your whole unit.

Graduate Student Committees –

These are the basic advisory faculty groups that help guide a graduate student through their degree. We have all been on them working toward our own PhDs, but not as faculty members or as major professors. The good news is you have at least seen how this committee functions, even if it was from the other side.

If you were like me, the only committee I had really been an active part of before I became a faculty member was my own PhD graduate committee. I definitely wasn’t calling the shots there.

The good news is you are often invited to be a member of graduate student committee for another faculty before you have to chair/lead your own student’s committee. This lets you learn the ropes and spend the time to see how the system works in your new department. Then when your own students have a committee meeting and people expect you to take the lead, you can go forward with best practices. That means this is one place where you really begin your mentoring role as a faculty mentor and perfect your mentoring skills (more on that in a blog coming later in this series).

Tip: Watch for faculty-faculty interaction dynamics. Some people play better with each other. Having those good interactors on a committee makes everything easier, even though some less desirable combinations can often not be avoided. Remember – Practice makes perfect. No one expects you to be perfect the first time you are on a committee or running it. If you have a number of students you will get a lot of practice and hone your mentoring skills.

Job Search Committees –

Often there is an attempt to spare you from being on these at the beginning. However, these committees are among the more important positions that you will have. Remember, new hires “like you” really shape the future direction of the your department. Again, the good news is that like the graduate student committee you should have at least one experience seeing this work since you were hired in a faculty job search, albeit from the other side.

For me the insight into seeing a job search from “behind the curtain” was truly revealing, both about the process and your faculty colleague’s natures. My overall thought after serving on my first faculty search committee was “I am amazed that I made it through that process and got the job”. In part this is because on this committee you see tons of CV and job packets from really qualified applicants. Sure I saw a few of these from my colleagues when I was applying, but not this many. People are really doing great work everywhere, but not everyone is the best fit for any given position or department. Job search committees try to sort that out, initially from submitted material, then from phone/video interviews, and eventually on-site interviews. What makes a good fit varies a lot from committee member to committee member. The broader the position title/description is, then the more open the fit is. If your committee is broadly looking for a “Geneticist” is that an epigenetics or population position, a plant or an animal position? Often the position is left broad on purpose to get the best people and sort out the fit later. Who’s the best fit? That’s up to you the committee. As a plant biologist, I would always like to have more “plant” people as part of my broad biology department, but I put that aside on the committee. I want the best scientists that I feel mesh well with existing members of the department, and have a strong possibility of success.

-The Tips from both the other committee sections fully apply here again. Remember – What comes out of this committee is a faculty colleague that will be part of your department for (hopefully) a long time to come. As such this is one of the most important committees with which you will be involved.  

Committee Membership vs Committee Chair –

Being a member is what you will do at the beginning of your faculty position. This part has some relatively simple rules: Show up on time and Do your job as asked by the committee chair. Membership is on-the-job training to be chair. As chair, you run the show, have to coordinate several busy faculty or staff, and lead the meeting (set the tone, length, set goals to be done and things to be assigned (delegated), and keep everyone on track).  As committee chair, I have had meetings to schedule meetings as noted above. I used to think that was bonkers, but sometimes these meetings can be essential for the smooth running of the committee.

Tip: As chair, save everything you write or send out. This is not because you really need to keep track of everything, although sometimes that is necessary. Rather it is because if you did it right one time, all the e-mails, notes, schedules that you made can be the template when you are asked to do it again.

Best Practices / Advice

Most of this is pretty straightforward, but this advice is often still worth stating

–        Ask others how any particular committee works. Remember none of us were trained to do this.

–        Use common sense (do unto others) and be your best self.

–        Keep your eyes open and remember what worked and what didn’t. **Remember you will have to do this someday when you are Committee Chair**

–        Reports and Summaries (keep it short and simple). In Olympic terms, there are not a lot of extra points for increased degree of difficulty, but the strong completion of a simple routine can, and often is the most highly rewarded.

–        Not all committees are equal in time usage. Sometimes being on one committee is a great way to keep from being on another one.

–        You can still say no, like in many other early faculty commitments. When you are on zero committees this is very difficult to do. When you are on several committees, this is easier to do. People will (or should) fully understand this.

–        Bring a notebook. At the beginning, I just showed up to committee meetings. Usually there was nothing to write down, but sometimes there was and then I was stuck looking unprepared. The main reason to bring a notebook is to show that you are interested and busy. You may be writing down a list of what you need to pick up from the store, but no one can see that, they just think you are interested. Also, great if the meeting you are in goes long or off the road to bored town. A little list or doodle can occupy you and keep you from making “I’m so bored” eye contact from others that are really into it.

–        Practice makes perfect, just remember to keep practicing.