This is a guest post by Kaitlin Gallagher, a PhD student in Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo. 

As an undergrad I didn’t get involved in extracurricular student societies for two reasons. The first was that I felt like I didn’t have any free time to spare (a thought shared by many students, I’m sure). The second was that the idea flat out terrified me! I felt like my introverted nature would prevent me from making a difference and my ideas would never be heard.

Jump to my doctoral degree and I was applying for a scholarship that required a one-page description of my leadership roles. For me, this page was virtually blank. I panicked. I realized that people would notice this obvious gap on my CV and it would affect me negatively in the future. Around this time, vacancies on our department’s graduate student association executive opened. Although getting involved made me very nervous, I signed on for the role of Communications Rep. From what I had seen in the past, being the Communication Rep involved sending department wide emails and maintaining the website. That seemed simple enough and (lets be honest) it would begin to fill that hole on my CV.

Eight months in and I’ve realized that my time as the Communications Rep has been more than just an entry on my CV. At its core, this experience has provided exposure to situations that I’m guaranteed to face once my degree is over. Here is what I’ve learned:

  1. New faculty members are required to volunteer on committees. Its inevitable. Whether it’s the library or faculty council, exposure to typical meeting logistics and agendas is invaluable. As a new assistant professor you will already be stressed out; why add inexperience with committee meetings to the mix?
  1. Its a networking opportunity. I’m quite shy and soft spoken, but almost everyone knows who I am now because I regularly communicate with the department on behalf of our association. I think of it as a low stress way to network with my peers.
  1. How to contribute. When I began my position I read our constitution to determine what the position required versus what I had seen people do in the past. Upon reading it, the Communications Rep was to publish a newsletter three times a year for students, faculty, and staff – something that had not been done for years. I now act as editor and gather information from other students about research experiences, recently published articles, and recap events from earlier in the term. Our first issue was a success and I’m happy that we can communicate and celebrate the successes of everyone in our department.
  1. How to ask for help. This isn’t easy and I still struggle with it. At times, an association needs external help to hold events or purchase equipment so it is important to learn how to effectively ask for external resources or funding. For example, for our upcoming holiday party we looked for donations from the community for a charity raffle. I had NO IDEA how to do this. Who was I supposed to talk to? What do I say to them? Wait, I need to give them a letter too? So I prepared myself by asking around and doing some research online, went across the street to a store, felt completely awkward, and got a donation! This may seem trivial to some, but for me this meant learning a new skill and doing something I used to be scared of doing. Another example is that our executive recently renovated our 1970s-esque student lounge after asking for additional funds from the department and a university wide graduate student endowment fund. Our department now has a new student lounge and our executive gained valuable experience on how to implement a project.
  1. CONFIDENCE. As researchers, we’re required to constantly propose and execute novel ideas. Since most of us at one time or another deal with negative thoughts or Imposter Syndrome, we need outlets to reassure ourselves that we know what we’re doing. The most valuable lesson that I learned was that I have ideas that will have an impact and I’m fully capable of executing them. Along with the newsletter, I organized a scavenger hunt during orientation week for the new students. We usually have a hard time getting first-year graduate students to come out to events early in the week. This year, we had about half of the new students participate and the event was a huge success. I was so nervous it was going to be a bust, but after this experience I feel so much more confident about presenting my ideas to the group and leading a project.

I know what you’re thinking: I HAVE NO TIME! I’m still selective of what opportunities and roles I take on; I do have a degree I’d like to get done in a reasonable amount of time. So I feel to get the most out of any experience you still need to be selective. In the end, make sure you enjoy it and have a passion for making a difference. Whether you decide to enter the world of academia or not, the bottom line is to GET INVOLVED. Don’t pass up the opportunity to learn invaluable lessons that will help make the student-to-career transition a less rocky one!

Have you ever had similar graduate volunteer or leadership opportunities that provided you with an experience you weren’t expecting?

[Image from Flickr user Moe and used under Creative Commons license]


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