Why Service is a Crucial Part of the Graduate School Experience

Graduate school can be overwhelming. No matter where you are in your academic program, it is easy to feel like you are being pulled in too many directions. It takes time to learn how to balance academics, research, and teaching duties, all the while maintaining your mental and physical health.

With all of the competing demands on your time, one area of academia that often slips under graduate students’ radars is service opportunities. This piece will explain some of the departmental, university, public service opportunities that you can explore while in graduate school.

What is service and why is it important?

Service is a broad, catchall term for duties not directly related to either teaching or research. For faculty, service includes committee work, department meetings, and positions like department chair. Service opportunities are the lifeblood of departments as faculty members collaborate to set goals for their department. At universities with grad programs, graduate students are often asked to join the collaboration.

For example, representatives from the graduate student body are usually called in to help search committees comb through job applications and assist librarians in selecting database subscriptions. In essence, service is how faculty and grad students exert control over their department and university beyond the reach of the ever-growing university administration.

Getting involved in service opportunities allows graduate students to have a voice regarding department and university decisions. This does not mean that graduate students will be able to veto decisions—grad students are often non-voting members of committees—but they have a seat at the table for a reason. (Some democracy is better than no democracy!)

Equally important, getting involved in service opportunities allows you to gain valuable experience about how to operate and collaborate with your academic peers. This may come as a shock, but faculty members often butt heads about a department’s priorities (sarcasm intended). Observing behind-the-scenes dynamics as a graduate student can make it easier to traverse departmental politics as a faculty member. And your presence and input can help keep grad students’ interests on faculty members’ radars, especially as they butt heads over departmental decisions.

I want to stress that the main goal of graduate school is to complete your degree, whether that be an MA, PhD, etc. Do not delay your progress by spreading yourself too thin through service commitments.

Where to start?

Start small. Get involved in your graduate student organization. Graduate students often hold their own elections and need students to fill a variety of positions within the organization. Organize an event. Create a writing group. Serve as president, treasurer, or secretary of your department’s graduate organization. Manageable service responsibilities will give you experience working with peers in an academic setting. Not only can this strengthen relationships with your graduate student colleagues, but each service role is a CV line and an experience you can discuss in future job interviews. Service shows that you can work collaboratively and will be a collegial department member.

Once you feel comfortable adding more service opportunities to your schedule, consider working on committees with faculty members. Committee assignments are usually held via elections, but you’re more likely to be elected to your choice of committee if you make your intentions known to other grad students.

What committees should you choose?

All committees serve important functions and your choice may depend on your interests. However, certain committee positions may set you up for success when applying for jobs –informing your cover letters or diversity statements. While no single committee choice is going to act as a panacea for the ongoing jobs crisis, if you need to up your service credentials, this list can help you choose committee work you are interested in and that rounds out your exposure to different facets of academia.

  1. Graduate Committee
    Graduate committees are directly involved with responding to graduate student problems and setting goals for the graduate program. As graduate student representative, this may be your best opportunity to have a say over graduate concerns. Furthermore, graduate committee members may also get a seat at the table in full department meetings. If this is the case in your department, you’ll get to experience how debates play out among faculty and hone your communication skills as you work to contribute to these debates. Decisions regarding curriculum, new major/minor fields, joint faculty appointments, and hiring goals are crucial work for departments. If you do an academic job search, you can mention your experience in faculty meetings and you’ll have a sense of how department politics function.
  2. Affirmative Action Committee
    As the United States grapples with its racial past, departments are responding to their own shortcomings in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Affirmative action committees (whose name may vary by department) serve a vital function, and your presence on the committee is an excellent learning opportunity. You may get to contribute to updating your department’s diversity statement, for example. Or you might be tasked with writing surveys that gauge how well your department has tackled diversity and equity in the past.  You can turn these experiences into examples for your own diversity statement when applying for jobs.
  3. Professional Development Committee
    These committees aim to prepare graduate students for a career in higher education or alt-ac. On these committees, you’ll help faculty create and implement workshops that teach graduate students how to construct an effective CV, how to write a compelling cover letter, and how to strengthen your applications for grants and fellowships. Your voice on this committee can help ensure that the workshop topics are relevant and timely.
  4. University Service Opportunities
    Your service does not have to be contained to your department. There are often university-wide committees that need grad student representatives. I’m a strong advocate of getting involved in your local graduate student union because it’s another way to learn how to communicate affective. Furthermore, union participation shows the inner workings of the collective bargaining process, which you can use in an alt-ac career in labor organizing. If your university does not have a unionized graduate student workforce, consider getting involved in a unionization campaign.

Enjoy what you do.

Service should not be boring work. You can choose service opportunities that you enjoy or that help to foster a skill. If you want to improve your writing or editing skills, look for ways to work on an academic journal. Some universities are fortunate enough to house scholarly journals that rely on graduate students, and they can give you editorial experience. Not only will this improve your own writing clarity and familiarity with the process of publishing a scholarly article, but it may also open up career possibilities in the publication world. Undergraduate journals are always looking for graduate students to serve as peer-reviewers. This is another low-stress way to get involved and gain experience as a reviewer.

Look beyond the confines of your university.

Local history societies, museums, and archives are always looking for volunteers or collaborators. As scholars, we should endeavor to engage with those doing historical work outside of the academy. Of course, your service with these organizations cannot replace the years of training that archivists, reference librarians, and museum curators bring to the table. But these types of service opportunities can make you a well-rounded scholar—they can teach you how to translate your scholarly work for a wider audience. Service is a broad category with many opportunities to get involved and learn job skills you will need as a newly minted MA or PhD. Service is also a crucial way for grad students and faculty to re-exert control over academia. Grab a seat at the table, voice your opinion, and get involved no matter how small the job may be. When administrators, faculty, staff, and graduate students collaborate, higher education functions at its best.

Featured image from https://www.pngwing.com/en/free-png-yrpyo.

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