Your CV probably includes a variety of activities including your research activities, publications and presentations, teaching experiences, and honors or awards. While all of those experiences and accolades are valuable for preparing for your future career, it can also be beneficial to include some service activities on your CV as well.
If you are planning on a career as professor, you will have research, teaching, and service responsibilities. For many graduate students, it is easiest to understand and prepare for these research and teaching expectations. Dr. Greg Snow, a Professor of Physics and Astronomy who has worked with countless graduate students and postdocs, has observed that these service expectations can be confusing to graduate students interested in faculty positions because service can cover a wide range of possible activities. In his experience, "it can include serving on department or university committees, serving as an academic adviser for undergraduate majors in your department, communicating the excitement of your discipline to young people and the general public, and recruiting high school students and undergraduates in your department’s undergraduate and graduate programs." Since service obligations are an important aspect of many academic careers, it is important for graduate students to consider where and how you might develop and practice these skills now.
Ways To Get Involved
As a graduate student, there are numerous ways to get involved with your department or your field. First, look around your department or college; many have graduate student organizations for the department. These organizations may sponsor professional development events, organize social opportunities for graduate students, or even sponsor outreach events to neighboring schools or communities. Participating in these organizations demonstrates your interest in service to your field in general and your enthusiasm for supporting the development of students in your program or improving the department specifically. Some departments also have opportunities for graduate students to get involved with mentoring undergraduate researchers or to serve on faculty search committees. Academic positions often involve serving on university committees and prior involvement can be one way of demonstrating interest in this kind of work.
Furthermore, many professional organizations have graduate student committees or ways for graduate students to become involved with the larger organization or helping support new researchers in the field. If you are already a member, look to see if there is a group you could become involved with. This sort of service activity will help you establish professional contacts outside of your immediate department. It can also make it easier to connect with people at your professional organization’s annual conference.
In addition to these ideas, Dr. Snow encourages graduate students to think broadly about service opportunities, suggesting volunteering "to give a talk about your research area at a nearby high school, starting a book club or discussion group among the undergraduates in your department, or participating in ongoing outreach activities led by faculty members in your department."
Benefits of Service ActivitiesBeyond improving your CV, service activities may help you develop skills that could be critical to your future success.
Improve Your Leadership or Communication Skills
Many of these organizations provide easy opportunities to develop your leadership skills. Serving as a student leader provides occasions to work collaboratively with other students or faculty, practice organizing and coordinating events, and to communicate with diverse groups of people. Whether you plan to work in academic or nonacademic fields, these experiences will allow you to practice and develop many of the skills that will make you successful in your future career. Academic and non-academic positions often want candidates who can work collaboratively to accomplish goals or who demonstrate exceptional organizational or communication skills and you can use experiences outside of your graduate work to show your skills in those areas.
Learn About Your Department or the Job Search Requirements
Some departments will allow graduate students to serve on search committees for new faculty members. Through this experience, you can learn more about what applying for jobs in academia entails. When you then apply for faculty positions, you can then use that knowledge to guide your own preparation for job interviews. Working on departmental committees can be also an easy way to get to know your faculty members better. Remember, your faculty members are the people who will serve as references for you in the future. If they get to know you in some capacity outside of class or the lab, they will be able to provide much richer and stronger recommendations.
Share Your Passion
Undoubtedly, you are pursuing your degree at least in part because you are passionate about that subject and sharing your knowledge with others. There are often opportunities to volunteer at museums, schools, or other outreach programs to work with children or younger students to get them interested in and excited by your field. Sometimes these opportunities are organized as a part of campus organizations, such as the College of Engineering's Discover Engineering Day. Participating in these activities show that you care about sharing your knowledge with the general public and those outside your academic discipline.
If you work in a lab, it may not be unusual to find undergraduates working in your lab. Whether they are McNair Scholars, Honors students, completing an UCARE project, or part of the Summer Research Program, these are undergraduates who are curious about graduate school and are interested in learning more. Use this opportunity to work with them, share your experiences, and help prepare the next generation of scholars in your field. Mentoring students is a major responsibility of faculty members, so this is a great chance to practice mentoring and supporting newer researchers. Remember that much of your success today is because someone mentored and supported you, pass it on.
Joining an organization of other people in your field or discipline will allow you to build connections and network with other graduate students and professionals in the field. Working with others in the field you may learn about new ideas in the field or job opportunities. For people who are less comfortable networking at conferences, joining committees that are part of those professional organizations can allow you to form networks in a less stressful way. Forming these networks before the conference may even make those networking events more enjoyable since you will have a built-in group of colleagues.
Make New Friends
Lastly, being a member of these organizations or committees can help you meet new friends, especially those outside of your department. It is often easy for graduate students to find themselves interacting solely with graduate students or faculty in their department or lab. Making friends in other departments can provide you interesting insights that may influence your work. They may have advice about how to improve your teaching, based on experiences they've had in their classrooms. Graduate students in all departments have similar challenges and it may be that they have novel advice for how to deal with challenges you may have encountered in your work.
Final Words of Advice
Your time is limited. Choose wisely.
You still have expectations to complete your research, write your dissertation, and maybe teach. Any service activities should supplement your work, not distract from it. Before getting involved with any committee or organization consider:
- Is this a group that you are interested in and excited about working with? If not, don't join only to have it on your CV. It is far better to have meaningful, significant involvement in one or two organizations than membership in ten organizations where you are a member in name only.
- What is the time commitment? How much time do you have available to work with this organization? If they will demand a lot of your time, with minimal reward, you might want to reconsider whether it is worth your time.
Remember you do not have to be involved in every possible activity. Choose the ones that most appeal to you; those activities will ultimately be the most satisfying. Dr. Snow's final piece of advice echoes this sentiment: "You will find that a small investment of your time in service can have a visible and satisfying impact which will pay off in the upcoming stages of your career. You will not regret it!"