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Career Advice

Why early-career academics should join a board

Academics working with a board have the opportunity to grow their personal network and gain greater perspective which informs future research directions.


Early-career academics have innumerable priorities vying for their time. In addition to frequently having to navigate a new city and a new institution’s culture, they have teaching responsibilities, an ever-important research agenda and sometimes a family in tow. Becoming a board member may be a low priority and seemingly offers few tangible personal and professional benefits that lead to securing permanent or tenured employment. However, sitting on a board of directors can be fulfilling work.

What is a board of directors?

These collections of six to 20 or more elected or appointed people are tasked with giving advice, providing guidance and, depending on the type or organization, helping with projects, fundraising and day-to-day operations. Organizations with boards can be found everywhere from publicly listed companies to governments to charities and all manner of non-profits.

Broadly speaking, there are two main types of boards: working and governance. Both hold great responsibility within the organization and advocate for the work therein. Being part of a working board means getting your hands dirty, so to speak. These organizations are volunteer intensive and board members have dual roles providing guidance but also helping with projects and operations. In contrast, governance boards are not generally a part of operations (this is the job of staff or management). Members are mainly responsible for organizational strategy and its financial well-being. Every board is unique, requires different levels of commitment and needs varying skills from members.

Why get involved with boards?

A common thought is that boards are for mid-to-late career professionals who come from for-profit business. They are also thought to involve serious work undertaken by serious people in nice suits who meet in tall office buildings with floor to ceiling views of large cities. While this is true for some, a large number are quite the opposite: non-profit in nature, meeting in community centre basements or government buildings and undertake fun, interesting, grass-roots work.

Personal fulfillment: One of the main benefits to becoming a board member is partaking in work you believe in. Helping a local charity, non-profit or government agency achieve their goals can be both fulfilling and make a lasting impact on stakeholders. This meaningful work helps early-career academics hone their governance and strategy skills (as well as skills for sub-committees such as audit or finance, marketing, fundraising etc.). Many academic fields do not require these skills on a day-to-day basis but they could be translated into future career opportunities where such experience is integral, such as working as a dean, institute director or an executive position.

Community enhancement: Along with being life-long learners, academics hold a vast amount of specialized knowledge in their field. Using this to enhance a board has wide-ranging benefits for the organization. Despite great progress being made in board diversity as of late, still more can be done. Boards need experts from a wide array of backgrounds who can analyze challenges, add to discussions and offer diverse outlooks. Boards thrive from a range of backgrounds. Early-career academics can provide this along with fresh perspectives, energy and passion for their work.

Creating a well-rounded portfolio: Board membership can have several positive impacts on an early-career academic’s work including: informing research, fulfilling service requirements and proliferating a personal network. Many academics study practitioners or publish research with direct implications for society whether it be in management, education, health or other areas. As more is learned about their field, academics working with a board gain greater perspective which informs future research directions.

Early-career academics also often have service requirements as a part of their permanent or tenure file. This is committee work in the department, faculty or greater institution. However, many institutions also value service to the greater community – academic or otherwise. Thus, becoming a board member for a local organization, a scholarly journal, a granting body etc., could help fulfill service requirements all the while contributing to the community.

Lastly, board work can quickly grow an academic’s network, especially outside the professoriate. This could be essential when moving to a new city and new institution. Networks inside and outside academe serve to bolster an early-career academic’s knowledge and could be beneficial when future employment opportunities arise.

Early-career academics have a lot on their plate. Adding a board position takes time and resources but has numerous personal and professional benefits such as fulfillment, commitment to community and career progression. These positions are by no means only beneficial in the early stages of a career, but they can help set an academic up for great success in their lives and careers. Take the step: learn from it, enhance your skills, progress your career and most importantly, have fun doing it.

Karl Schwonik is associate dean in the arts, education and business division at Medicine Hat College.

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