When I was a graduate student, I was voluntold into joining the graduate student government for my university. I grudgingly agreed to participate because no one else was willing to serve as a representative from my department, and we needed representation with the institutionwide council. I did not expect to like the experience at all. I thought I should be using my time better—in service of my research instead of participating in graduate student organization meetings and committee work. I decided that I will be involved just for that year and planned to convince someone else to take on the role the following year.
To my utter surprise, once I started participating, not only did I thoroughly enjoy being a part of the organization, but it also turned out to be an extremely valuable experience. It helped me acquire new skills and insights that serve me well in my present role supporting the career and professional development of graduate students and postdocs. I developed such an appreciation for the work of graduate student governments that I continued to be a part of the organization for many more years to come, and I still stay connected with the graduate student organization at my current institution as a staff member.
Because of my own firsthand experience, I encourage those of you who are graduate students and postdocs to become active with your own graduate or postdoc organizations. You might share some of the same concerns that I had as a graduate student: it would be uninspiring work, it would take time away from your academic responsibilities or it would generally not be a value addition to your life.
I want to address each of those concerns, because I think as graduate students you miss out on a great opportunity when you pass up on the chance to be involved with your graduate student government. I’ll present some of the major benefits of it, and while I will mainly focus on graduate student organizations because of my personal background, most of what I will discuss is also applicable to postdoc organizations.
Make an Impact and Get Your Voice Heard
As a graduate student, I was not fully aware of the breadth of work that the graduate student organization at my university engaged in. I had imagined long and boring meetings concerning matters that impacted me only tangentially.
In contrast, I learned that graduate student organizations often play an integral part in weaving the fabric of the graduate student experience at an institution. They represent graduate student interests and voices at various levels with the university administration. For example, as part of the organization, you might choose to advocate for issues that impact graduate students at the departmental level. You could also serve as a graduate student representative communicating with the president and the Board of Trustees for the university.
The scope of issues that these organizations engage with is expansive, ranging from social or cultural events to shaping the policies and procedures governing graduate student life and the institution as a whole. Although the specifics will vary depending on individual institution, you can get the opportunity to serve on work groups or committees on numerous topics as part of the graduate student government.
Let’s say you care about sustainability. You can probably volunteer to participate in the institutional energy and sustainability committee to learn and contribute to the university’s strategy related to it. Maybe you are passionate about advocating for the needs of veteran students or international students or want to help resolve parking issues on the campus. You can find out if a specific work group is grappling with those issues and join it. If not, you can propose to start a new committee to discuss matters related to those concerns.
In addition, administrators often seek representatives who can share the graduate student perspective on various forums. You can contribute to the committee discussing the university’s budget or join the faculty council. You might even get the opportunity to serve on the hiring committee for a new provost search. The knowledge that you glean from participating in any of those opportunities would be very valuable irrespective of your discipline.
Regardless of what your interests are, you can probably find or design some engagement opportunity that motivates you in the context of your graduate student organization. By becoming involved with it, you have the chance to contribute at the institutional level and make an impact on issues that you find compelling.
Develop Professional Skills and Competencies
The value of engagement in graduate student organizations goes beyond the many benefits of advocating for something you care about. It offers an excellent opportunity to develop additional skills and competencies.
Graduate organizations perform various functions in the context of the institution and student life. They need support with all kinds of tasks, whether planning a marketing strategy or managing budgets. By engaging with those groups, you not only gain leadership experience but also a number of other competencies. If you are interested in gaining certain skills that you are not able to acquire in pursuit of your degree, you can often turn to a graduate organization to get some practical experience with it. For example, as a part of a graduate student organization, you will need to interact with people across different disciples and backgrounds, including administrators, faculty members and graduate students in other departments. It is a great way to sharpen your collaboration and communication skills.
Many of the competencies you acquire by engaging in these organizations will be valuable in careers across different sectors—and both within and beyond academe. Involvement in graduate student organizations also demonstrates to an employer that you will be an engaged member of the community. It signals that you have taken time to invest in your professional development outside the confines of your domain knowledge. Oftentimes, your involvement with these groups also provides you with life experiences that make for good examples to share in response to interview questions on any number of topics—whether about taking initiative, managing conflict or balancing different priorities.
Invest in Personal Wellness
Many graduate students are concerned about the time commitment required to get actively involved in graduate student organizations. The way to think about the time that you might devote to serve on graduate student organizations is best understood as investment in your professional and personal growth. I’ve just described how it is related to professional development; now, let’s explore how engagement in graduate student organization can also lead to improved personal well-being.
Being a part of the graduate student government can help you find a community of passionate and motivated people. If you join a graduate organization, you are likely to meet other graduate students and postdocs who might be going through a very similar journey and grappling with issues you might be able to relate to. It is a great way to meet new people and make friends. Getting involved in these groups can help foster a sense of belonging and fellowship among graduate students. Through my graduate student organization, I got to know some inspiring people. We shared resources and information, listened to each other, and supported one other in navigating graduate school the best we could.
In addition, people who are from diverse disciplines or have different backgrounds from you can enrich your life by exposing you to a whole new perspective on research or life in general. Finally, taking some time to immerse yourself with something other than your academic work or other responsibilities can help to avoid burnout.
In short, as I discovered, you can benefit in numerous and significant ways by joining such an organization. So go on and take a look at graduate student involvement opportunities available at your institution and get involved!