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Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For Your CV

Using the skills you learned in graduate school to take on a more active role in your local government.

March 17, 2019

Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.

This week we are going to focus on Graduate Students as active citizens, activists, and forces for change in their own community. Stay tuned to the blog for more posts or check us out on Twitter where we will being highlighting past posts on this topic.

Last fall, with election day approaching, I had the undeniable itch to take a more active role in government. This urge isn’t unique within the GradHacker offices, with Ingrid in particular leading the charge for grad student advocacy and participation. However, I wasn’t entirely sure how to scratch my particular itch. Like a lot of folks in my neck of the woods, I’m not a member of a political party so being identified as a viable candidate for elected office didn’t seem particularly likely. Additionally, I’m already a state employee and active partisanship, even when I’m off the clock, is tricky to pull off without raising too many eyebrows.

But, like I said, I wanted in and – in my humble opinion – I had something to offer. I don’t say this to thump my own chest; in fact, I think just about everybody lucky enough to have a graduate education has something to offer. We’re equipped, as a part of our training, with special skills and knowledge. We’re expected, as a matter of professional norms, to perform service. We’re advantaged, in our personal and professional development, by opportunities to develop experience and pursue our passions in new venues. Hell, a whole grad student-ocracy doesn’t sound that bad!

With the above rationale in mind, I now urge all grad students to do what I did: pull up the websites for the city and county you live in and see which seats on municipal committees, boards, and commissions are currently vacant. I ended up finding at least a dozen such vacancies and I’m confident you’ll see similar results. Even in college towns with highly educated applicant pools, it’s tough to find qualified appointees willing to take on unpaid, unglamorous work. After determining which vacancy best corresponded to my interests and expertise, I fired off an application and, a few weeks later, had the honor of accepting a seat on one of the county’s advisory policy boards.

The powers of my post are extremely limited; the pay and prestige nonexistent. That said, I’ve ended up really enjoying the position and think you should sign up, too. Here’s why:

1. Your CV will gain a new dimension. Serving on a government board or commission is, for a budding young academic, a relatively novel résumé item. The basic formula for turning an advanced degree into a career is relatively similar across disciplines and programs: some major research resulting in a publication or two, a little teaching or other professional experience, and a healthy dose of conferences and networking. As a result, entry level academic jobs tend to attract a lot of applicants with similar credentials and accomplishments. To this end, my fellow GradHackers have previously stressed the importance of making your application stand out by emphasizing a personal narrative or voice. An entry in your CV’s ‘professional experience’ or ‘service’ section mentioning that you are a petty government official adds an element to your application that others might lack and, if nothing else, demonstrates that you’d be the type of colleague willing to take on a little extra work for the benefit of everyone.

2. Your expertise will be valued and used. Graduate students, owing to the nature of their work, are at risk of becoming isolated by all-consuming projects which may not always translate for or be appreciated by people beyond your committee. Absent major efforts at public engagement, we risk shouting our contributions to poetry, Python, or planetary motion into the void. This is wrong; our work has value and a government policy board is one venue to show that. As an example, my board spends a significant amount of time addressing juvenile court procedures but, prior to my appointment, didn’t have a lawyer in the bunch. My understanding of even basic concepts and the authorities that govern them turned out to be a significant asset to the board’s policy recommendations, met with real appreciation by others who cared about the same issues. Imagine, then, what someone with a Ph.D. in history could do for the Historic Preservation Commission or the ways in which a genuine biochemist could help the Soil and Water Policy Board.

3. You will encounter new sources of inspiration for your academic work. GradHackers past and present have expounded on the importance of networking and building connections for graduate students with academic career aspirations. Government committee service has the benefit of introducing you to others who share an interest with you but probably don’t already run in your academic circle. Additionally, you’ll gain a new perspective on issues in your field and may even learn something that informs your research. Fresh inspiration is at a premium for anyone three or four years deep in a graduate degree program, so check out what the emerging playground concerns are in your community rather than waiting for the next Journal of Leisure Research.

4. You will be an ambassador for your school and for higher education in general. Far greater scholars than me have opined about ways to counter anti-intellectualism in American society, including through overt public service. Even if you’re starting on relatively neutral ground, it can still be difficult to bridge the cultural divide between academia and the civilian world. But volunteering your time and brain in public service is a great way to show the worth of graduate school to people who might not otherwise be familiar with academia. Lately, higher education could use all the spokespeople it can get.

5. Your community will improve. If you’re like me, then at some point you’ve probably read the news and thought that somebody should do something about all of the problems. Good news: you’re somebody and there is something you can do! While sitting on a municipal government board might not resolve global climate change, preventable disease epidemics, or your personal favorite existential crisis, it will make the world (or, at the very least, your immediate world) a better place.

Have you gotten involved with your local government? What are some other ways graduate students can enhance their communities? Let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Thomas Hawk and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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