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A topic that repeatedly arises from my meetings with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows about their professional development is that of extracurricular activities. Those students and fellows regularly ask me, “Do I add them to my CV or résumé? Do they count?” Such questions are great starting points for them to reflect on what matters to them, what inspires them.
If you are considering the next step in your career and have similar concerns, ask yourself, “Why did I participate in this activity? What kind of impact did I make during this experience? What core competency skills did I develop that I can highlight for my potential employer?”
For example, a student who met with me wondered if the volunteering experience they’d had at a hospital before the pandemic mattered for obtaining a job in data science and should be included in their one-page résumé. I asked them a few questions, and here’s how they responded.
Q: What were your duties?
A: I was expected to help with the registration desk to make sure the patients had all their information and directed them to the right resources if they had questions.
Q. Did you notice anything that you helped with?
A: I did notice that every Friday a music group would perform live in the lobby, but some patients who were confined to their beds could not attend. I asked my supervisor if I could invite some of my music friends to perform for these other patients in their rooms, if the patient wanted.
Q. And then what happened?
A: They really liked and supported my idea, so I invited my music friends, and they came in every Friday for an hour to perform for the patients who could otherwise not attend the lobby performance.
Q. How long did this go on for?
A: For the whole time I was there—about four years.
Tell the Story of Your Engagement
All the student had written on the résumé was “volunteer at hospital,” but their response to the specific questions I asked brought a meaningful experience to light. With those prompts, the student crafted a story, and changed what they’d originally written on their résumé to a CAR (context, action, results) statement: “To provide accessible wellness programming, initiated and coordinated weekly live music performances for a dozen patients resulting in enthusiastic and positive feedback.”
Is that statement pertinent to a job in data science? If the job description is asking for “excellent teamwork and shows initiative,” then most definitely. The mere act of volunteering will not give you an edge on your résumé, but initiating or supporting meaningful engagements and showcasing their impact on your résumé as it pertains to the job can make a difference. This student’s story highlights that they can think outside the box beyond what’s expected of them and make distinct contributions to their employer.
Other examples of student stories of engagement include:
- Nara starts working in a lab and realizes that the members are not recycling as optimally. Nara researches green lab techniques and implements strategies to decrease waste by 35 percent.
- Dayo’s experience in performing and teaching violin enhances teaching techniques for mentees in the university environment.
- Sam’s lifelong participation and leadership in swimming and experience in immunology helps land a role as an adviser for COVID protocols on a national swim team.
- Jun initiates an interdisciplinary thought group for postdocs and finds a new collaborator, which results in a joint publication.
- Adel joins an Ultimate Frisbee group and, through the sports network, meets a future employer and a mentor.
Finding the Right Engagement
Does this mean you need to be volunteering at hospitals and starting new clubs? No, it does not. Further, discovering the right engagement for you doesn’t start with all the options out there—that would be too overwhelming. Colleges and universities have hundreds of clubs. How can you choose?
The optimal way to find the right endeavor is to identify something that resonates with you, that you care about, that you are good at and that you love to do. If you reflect on and brainstorm about those topics, you can determine the types of activities best suited for you—and may even find an already existing and relevant student group that you can contribute to. Such an engagement could be a new collaboration, a new protocol that you optimize for other lab members, a blog you organize with peers interested in outreach, a finance group to discuss the monetary aspects of being a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow, or a wellness or EDI (equity, diversity, inclusion) initiative that incorporates your love for the arts.
In my case, I fell in love with the piano and singing during my childhood, and I’ve been involved with several musical groups throughout my life. I am also an avid figure skater. In addition, while working toward my Ph.D., I was part of the student council and really cared about mentorship and helping people plan their career options.
During my postdoctoral days, I started an a cappella singing group, continued skating and was active in postdoctoral professional development. From my singing group, I found someone to collaborate with on a publication. Through my skating community, I met other people to mentor and to learn from about skating techniques. In the postdoc group, we created the first feedback form to improve communications between postdocs and their principal investigators.
Later, as a biotech scientist, I regularly spoke at career events. Through that, I merged my industry biotech experience with my continuing interest in career development and in engaging with other mentors and stakeholders. That paved the way to my current role as a director of graduate professional development. My “extracurricular” interest of many years in professional development had now become a central component of a career.
More recently, I have pursued my songwriting interests by taking classes, meeting other mentors in the music industry and posting my compositions for friends and family. It is something I inherently love, and it has provided a wellness retreat for me, especially during the pandemic.
How has music been interwoven into my current professional role? For starters, I speak to many students who are stressed. If they know how to play piano and are open to it, we’ve had impromptu piano duets on my office piano (or did before the pandemic), which has added a lighthearted moment to their day.
In addition, in remote classes and workshops, I invite students to play their instruments during our class breaks. It has been a delightful icebreaker and community-building tool during these virtual months. I also collect music suggestions from students and play them during class breaks. And I coordinated a video series collection, Scientists Showcase the Arts for Wellness, featuring our graduate students and their dance, visual arts and music during the pandemic.
Those activities are not part of my job description. They are what I care about and love to do; the creative process and their implementation are the results of the inspiration within.
Where does the figure skating fit in? It provides much-needed exercise for me, so I feel more energized, and it has also inspired new music compositions and new ideas for work. Scientific research, professional development, music composition, figure skating—all these activities make me uniquely me and have inspired my career development.
Finding Inspiration With Other People
All these inspirations for new ideas for my own lifelong development have been made delightfully possible through my own reflections and with the essential help of my colleagues, peers, mentees and mentors. They have helped me create new ideas for courses, workshops and student initiatives. They’ve also helped me brainstorm ideas on my book, articles and new programs. Their joy and love for our works together bring me motivation and the energy to create ideas for future projects that have yet to be invented. I am eternally grateful for my community of supporters. You know who you are, and I thank you.
For the readers of this essay, I hope your mentors and cheerleaders from all your work and extracurricular activities bring you much inspiration, as well, to help create the unique you that you bring to the table in all you do.
Be inspired. Build your community of support. Create your career path and your meaningful life.