I vaguely recall hearing about activities of a graduate student association when I was in graduate school, but I never participated in their meetings or events. I didn’t believe I had enough time to be involved and thought that participating would distract me from my research, which I saw as the key to landing a tenure-track position at a university. As one mentor put it (jokingly, I think, but not without a hint of truth), “These are the best years of your life. You should be spending them in the library.”
Today, I serve not as a tenure-track faculty member but as director of professional development in the Office of Graduate Education at the University of Texas at Dallas. A component of my job involves advising our campus’s new Graduate Student Assembly. It is work that I never thought I would be involved in, much less find to be one of the most rewarding parts of my job. One important lesson I have learned is that graduate professional development and graduate student associations intersect in important and interesting ways. I believe this lesson also extends to postdocs.
Ever since the Graduate Student Assembly was established at the university one year ago, I have marveled at the impactful work their student leaders have accomplished for their fellow graduate students. I have especially admired the leadership experience that those involved have gained through their participation. These remarkable individuals have begun building a strong sense of community among graduate students, and they have even organized very popular career, professional, academic and social events based on input from their own members.
Now that I have seen graduate students gain leadership and professional experience by being involved with the Graduate Student Assembly, I am convinced that if I could do graduate school over again, I would join my graduate student association. Graduate student and postdoc associations provide opportunities for developing leadership, initiative, networks and skills that are valuable for any kind of career. Joining and becoming involved with graduate student and postdoctoral associations provides many benefits, both professional and personal. For example, you can:
Implement initiatives that matter to you. Graduate student and postdoc associations provide an outlet and an infrastructure for bringing new initiatives into existence. In addition to financial and intellectual resources and possibly access to facilities for meetings and events, you may also find a community that shares your interest in developing new initiatives for graduate students or postdocs. In just the one year since the Graduate Student Assembly at my institution came into existence, I have seen numerous ideas take off due to the initiative of a single graduate student with a great idea.
One student recently proposed that the assembly should host a forum where graduate students could talk about issues that mattered to them, such as stress, time management, depression and other mental health issues. After some thoughtful planning, what emerged was a collaborative workshop series with our university’s counseling center. Experts from the counseling center were brought in for a two-part workshop series, broadcast live for those who could not attend or did not feel comfortable attending in person, that addressed the issues.
If you have ideas for resources you would like to see at your institution, perhaps you can propose them to your graduate student or postdoctoral association. It is likely that other members of the organization will share your interest and help you bring your idea to fruition.
Acquire resources and visibility. At many institutions, graduate students who organize and register through an official channel are eligible to receive funding for new programs and events. Postdocs also may be able to receive financial support through existing infrastructures for employee resource groups. In either case, organizations may also be eligible for an annual operating budget. If your institution does not already have an organization for graduate students or postdocs, consider starting a new one. Information for individuals interested in starting new organizations is available at the National Postdoctoral Association and the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students.
In addition to financial resources, recognition through an official channel at your institution increases your organization’s visibility. For example, as soon as the Graduate Student Assembly at my institution became a registered organization, their members were called upon to serve in important forums -- for example, as members of university committees and speakers at important institutional events. Such opportunities to be included are not merely symbolic. They are real opportunities to share the perspectives of graduate students or postdocs during consequential conversations. Without forming and registering their organization, such opportunities might not have been possible.
Grow your network. Ph.D.s and postdocs from all disciplines have in common that their day-to-day work limits their exposure to people outside their research area. Whether in the library, the lab, the field or elsewhere, Ph.D.s and postdocs spend a lot of time in one place with the same people. Consequently, the graduate students and postdocs I work with often ask for more opportunities to meet people from other disciplines.
Being involved in a graduate student or postdoc association is an excellent way to expand your social and professional network. Connecting with scholars from other disciplines is important not only for your own intellectual growth but also because it allows you to practice communicating the value of your work to others with different intellectual backgrounds. After all, that is one of the most important skills Ph.D.s and postdocs can acquire.
Along the way, you will make friends and develop a support system that will enrich your time as a graduate student or postdoc. While it is vital to cultivate positive relationships with members of your cohort, it is just as important to have a network that extends beyond your field.
Build relevant skills. The graduate students and postdocs I consult with often ask me for ways they can build relevant skills for the multiplicity of career paths available to them. Authors of this “Carpe Careers” column regularly argue that your training as a graduate student or postdoc provides you with numerous important skills that are valuable in many contexts. Participating in a graduate student or postdoc association, particularly in a leadership role, will not only add new skills to your portfolio, it will also add depth to those you are already acquiring during your training.
Here are some valuable skills I have watched graduate student leaders acquire through the Graduate Student Assembly at my institution:
- Strategic planning. Leading a graduate student or postdoc association requires the ability to envision how near-term decisions will help the organization grow in the long term. Leaders may have authority over the organization’s structure, how resources are allocated and how the institution and the public view the organization and, more broadly, graduate and postdoctoral training.
- Project management. Graduate student and postdoc associations routinely involve projects that must be envisioned, planned and executed in order to optimize efficiency. Managing a project like a workshop or event involves collaborating with students, faculty, staff and/or outside stakeholders; developing marketing; tracking registration and attendance; and dealing with logistical arrangements such as space, refreshments, travel and the like.
- Communication. Leaders of a graduate student or postdoc association learn to be excellent written and oral communicators in both high- and low-pressure environments. Whether drafting the organization’s constitution or bylaws, building consensus among colleagues, presenting in front of faculty and senior administrators, or simply asking for help, communication is an important skill that organization leaders can cultivate and possess.
- Adaptability. Serving as a leader in a graduate student or postdoc association requires the ability to commit to your vision and adapt to unforeseen obstacles. Excitement for the organization among your members may wax and wane. Participation may dwindle or, conversely, your events may be met with crowds that surpass your expectations. Members may suddenly drop out, speakers may be late or members may have strong disagreements. Graduate student and postdoc association leaders learn to be quick thinkers who can quickly solve problems and evolve.
Joining and leading a graduate student or postdoc association is an excellent way to enrich your training while also raising the profile of the causes you care about. Regardless of what kind of career you are preparing for, being involved with your graduate student or postdoc association will provide you with the opportunity to gain leadership experience and build important skills that will make you excel in your future career.