Volunteering benefits grad students’ careers and lives (opinion)

March 11, 2024
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Despite implicitly knowing the value of building connections and community, many graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are very hesitant to actively engage in “networking,” especially outside their “typical” circles of classmates, lab mates or collaborators. They see the process of networking as extractive, transactional and awkward—which it can indeed be if handled poorly.

And while “networking” is a loaded term that encompasses many activities, including informational interviewing, I will focus this piece on the process of building connections with individuals outside your immediate work or professional network. In essence, I will discuss growing and diversifying your network and its importance in your long-term success and fulfillment.

Diversifying your network can pay big dividends. First, there is the practical matter that applying for a new position and listing anyone in your current work environment as a reference can be quite problematic if you don’t want to upset the status quo. Second, many of us often feel typecast and constrained in our professional roles. We often feel we aren’t able to show the diversity of our interests or expertise through the routine duties of our day job.

What if I were to tell you there is an introvert-friendly way to overcome these challenges, expand your network and, in the process, contribute to a cause or organization you care about?

I am talking about the amazing power of volunteering within a national or local nonprofit organization or society whose mission or members intrigue or inspire you.

And based on my own experience and the various conversations I’ve had with other people involved in nonprofit professional organizations, I can tell you that we need more of you to join us as volunteers. That’s in part due to the fact that, unfortunately, volunteer engagement is on the decline. In a survey of over 1,200 nonprofit leaders conducted in 2022, around 47 percent said that recruiting sufficient volunteers is a big problem for their organization. Those numbers have almost doubled from the 2003 survey, in which 29 percent of nonprofits saw this issue as a big problem. Furthermore, nearly half of nonprofit leaders believe that the lack of volunteers is a “big problem” to their organizations when it comes to fulfilling their missions.

Why is volunteer engagement a challenge? Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic hit many organizations hard and led to burnout and a resetting of priorities. Ironically, nonprofit, volunteer-driven organizations often offer an important service to those affected by the pandemic and living in its aftermath of a more atomized and virtual world. Feeling isolated and uncertain? Organizations that foster community, connection and resource sharing can be extremely important to you now.

However, taking advantage of a nonprofit organization’s resources or programs is quite different from helping to develop, manage and run them. The former is often passive and extractive while the latter requires effort and coordination with others to achieve a common goal. While developing and managing projects and programs can demand more of your time, such experiences build critical skills in project management, collaboration and prioritization.

These more active volunteer efforts could range from planning sessions or programs at your annual scientific or scholarly conference to helping develop a new project or program that the organization hopes to offer to its members. In either case, you are often working with other volunteers to accomplish a goal and, in the process, building deeper connections with those individuals. If you are engaging in such efforts within a scholarly organization, you are not only meeting others in your field but also demonstrating how you work with a team. If you venture out to volunteer in a professional organization related to a career field you are interested in, you are often working with professionals in that employment area and making connections that don’t focus explicitly around the issue of “I need a job.” It would be far easier to leverage your shared connection via a volunteer experience than a cold email to a professional working in the space when you are ready to explore employment opportunities.

In short, you can gain many ancillary networking benefits from volunteering. And the best part for the introverts reading this is that you are often working with others on a shared project and don’t necessarily need to worry as much about navigating small talk or generating a point for discussion. Rather, the topic of conversation is mostly about the volunteer work and deliverables, with perhaps just enough time to get to know others better at a personal level.

Beyond pure networking, you can use volunteer opportunities to work on skills outside your comfort zone and try bold things without your performance being tied to your current salary or stipend. Prototyping potential alternative careers can be very helpful as you explore what to do after your graduate school or postdoctoral training. Getting involved in specific activities that allow you to pursue a line of work you might be interested in will help you test it out as a potential career path for you. You can self-reflect during these activities, asking: Do I enjoy doing this? Do I need to hone some skill before seeking formal employment in this area? And so on.

You may discover you can build a fulfilling career out of the skills and experiences you exercise via these volunteer efforts that are outside your current role, combining them with your other strengths to do something you are both good at and enjoy. You can even begin locally by volunteering with your current institution’s graduate student or postdoctoral association.

When I joined Vanderbilt University as a postdoctoral researcher in August 2014, I was mostly focused on my research and the tasks I thought I needed to succeed as an academic. During that time, I also began engaging in activities outside my purely scholarly identity—slowly at first, by attending events organized by the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association. Upon meeting some of the association’s leaders, I was encouraged to take on a more formal role in it in the coming years, serving as treasurer and then junior co-chair, or vice president.

When I decided to volunteer in my first leadership role with the association, I didn’t really consider myself leadership material. I am pretty quiet and reserved but I realized this group was doing important work, including building a community of support for postdocs and linking them to resources on campus. Ultimately, that experience led me to pursue my current career path working in postdoctoral affairs.

Working with the association, I met many awesome people doing amazing things, including some postdocs whom I would never had interacted with if I stayed in my lab or only attended departmental events. The association leaders whom I worked with over the years took on a variety of roles after their postdoc including: data scientist, artificial intelligence product manager, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, assistant professor at the University of Florida and various project/scientific manager roles at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and AbbVie. I bring up the positions those individuals obtained post-postdoc to demonstrate that the leadership and teamwork experience one gains from working with a community organization or group looks great to potential employers.

You don’t have to get involved with your local postdoctoral association to find volunteer opportunities that can be useful for you both personally and professionally. But I do urge you to get involved in something you care about beyond your work. Studies show that people’s satisfaction with their lives significantly improves as a result of volunteer engagement.

In fact, it can be vital for your mental health to seek out activities beyond your lab/research work (or any work, really). Volunteering in local organizations can provide you a broader community of social support and sense of accomplishment that is independent of how things are going in your graduate or postdoctoral work. Engaging in volunteer or community efforts diversifies your identity and allows you to not seek all meaning from your work. A bad day in the lab doesn’t have to derail you if you have that community organization or nonprofit meeting to attend or project to contribute to later in the week.

I encourage anyone reading this to think about how you can help jump-start volunteer engagement efforts in societies or organizations you care about by taking the first step of getting more involved. Perhaps you can set up a meeting with a leader of a subcommittee or group within an organization to learn more about their work and whether your skills and interests could contribute in some way. Such conversations—and your continued involvement in an organization—will ultimately help you widen and broaden your professional network.

Furthermore, you can often develop new skills in interpersonal communication, project management and leadership by becoming involved in a project or initiative within the organization. If you are helpful and provide value, people around you will notice and could ultimately serve as excellent references for jobs you may apply to in the future.

In closing, volunteering helps you professionally and also helps the organization accomplish its mission. It is the ultimate win-win. So, what are you waiting for? Get involved today!

Chris Smith is the Postdoctoral Affairs Program Administrator at Virginia Tech. He serves on the National Postdoctoral Association’s Board of Directors and is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.



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