How to sit on a committee

I first sat on a proper, grown up committee just months after I started my first postdoc. I hadn’t yet graduated from my PhD and was generally feeling pretty sheepish about my professional skills. Nonetheless, I was asked (/volunteered/gently told) to sit on a university-wide committee.

I enthusiastically agreed but rapidly regretted my youthful exuberance. It turned out I would be representing the voice of the physical sciences amongst a panel composed of professional experts and high-level academics. I had no experience of working as an academic and sparse networks within the university to engage with. Worse still, I had no idea how a meeting worked. I didn’t know how to read agendas, meetings documents, minutes or terms of reference.

The committee turned out to be great, achieving the rare feat of working together and accomplishing our goals. But it took a lot of work from me to feel part of this success. I had to learn how to committee and how and when to speak up. Nowadays I am willing to admit the unpopular and confess that I like sitting on committees. Here are some tips for getting the most out of and putting the most into committee-sitting.

Lead with your heart.

It really helps to enjoy committee work and to contribute positively to a group if you feel passionate about the stated objectives. If you are exclusively passionate about data reproducibility, you are unlikely to get much out of or put much into a committee focused on improving racial diversity in your department. If you aren’t interested, it is better to politely decline an invitation and offer a more appropriate suggestion of a new member. Everyone is busy and important, so there are no excuses for saying yes to an offer because you see an easy line for your CV.

If there is something that you are particularly interested in, don’t be afraid to let you colleagues know that you are keen for opportunities and to nominate when something comes up. It is more than likely that your colleagues will appreciate your go-getting attitude.

Ease in.

I really don’t recommend jumping into a university-wide, national or international level committee without some experience and associated confidence. If you have stacks of industry experience or expertise in an area, you might be able to make this jump and contribute to a group. If you don’t, I suggest easing in, with your first experience being on a student organising committee, or as a student representation on your department executive group, for example. This will allow you to learn by watching and pick up the rhythm and tempo of meetings and committee work. These are excellent skills to have and will serve you well when you graduate from your PhD.

Make notes of different meeting styles, and approaches that you find conducive to productivity. Some committees are formal, with strict terms of reference or constitutions. In this case, meetings are often highly regulated, with actions, motions and voting. Other meetings are loose conglomerations of people that get together to discuss issues. The Chair of the meeting might indulge a conversational approach or instead might take on a sheep dog style and tightly round up the discussion, dishing out action items to the herd. Pay attention and build up your experience in different environments. If that doesn’t help Google can help you wade through words like quorum and Ex Officio.

Don’t warm the bench.

If you agree to sit on a committee, get thoroughly involved and don’t be a bench-warmer. Make sure you are always prepared for the meetings by paying attention to meeting dates in advance. If you can’t make a meeting, send an apology. If you are available, make sure you read over any meeting documents in advance of the meeting time and are up-to-date on any actions items that are assigned to you. Read through the agenda and make sure you are ready if you are required to give a written or verbal report to the group.

If you are the Chair of the meeting, make sure you (or anyone acting in a secretariat role) send out an agenda and meeting documents well in advance. Be respectful of everyone’s other work and don’t let the meeting run over time. It is also your job to ensure that someone is taking accurate minutes and that discussion isn’t dominated by the loudest committee member. Step up and Chair like a boss.

Know when to give up.

On occasion, you are passionate about a committee that fails to inspire others. I chaired a committee some time ago where I worked hard to get the group up and running and working towards outcomes I felt were useful and important. I was having a difficult time juggling other commitments and when my term expired, I had no choice but to step down. I was disappointed that nobody was keen to take my place and that details dropped off, with meetings becoming infrequent and minutes not being recorded properly. My hard work (and meticulous note taking) had gone to waste!

While I still believe the purpose of the committee was very valuable, I can also see that a one woman or man committee isn’t a committee. If you don’t have everyone in the group working hard, then your committee is likely going to become work for the sake of work. In this case, it’s fine to move on and leave it to the next generation.

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One thought on “How to sit on a committee

  1. Best advice I got from my VC when I was a postgrad rep on Uni Council was “You’re part of the ‘loyal opposition’ and not the ‘government’ (ie the university administration, led by the VC himself), so you need to use all the formal processes of meetings to get leverage.’ After that I made sure I moved motions, called on debates, ensured the minutes were accurate, etc. Lesson: you have role to play, so play it.

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