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Getting involved: extracurricular activities & leadership positions


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I am a first grad student and wondering how, if at all, other students manage "extracurricular activities and leadership positions" (I can't think of a better descriptor, but I'm referring to things like getting involved in graduate student union or similar activities that are beyond a service to your program/profession)? I am someone who is several years out of undergrad now and a common thread through my undergraduate years was being involved student government groups; in my years post-grad this has taken the form of community boards. I am struggling because I want to get involved in something that is larger than my program yet I am already finding that I have limited time. For those of you who have been in similar positions, how did you decide to get involved? Do you have any tips for managing these extracurriculars with the other demands of grad school? Besides the personal fulfillment, have you found external motivations for being involved?

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Delegate, and know when to let go.


In my MA program, I tried to found a graduate student alliance.  Or, more accurately, I did found it, but I didn't find that anyone really wanted it and was willing and interested in meeting regularly.  So I did my best to delegate things to other people, follow up with them, etc.  But ultimately I realized that I was going to be graduating, and there wasn't anyone to take it over.  Thus, I just sent an email, let people know, and shut it down.

So, find people to whom you can delegate things, and - if nobody is interested - know when to let go.  At least in my case, it made more sense to let it go than to keep trying to force it.

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This is from personal experience, so take it with a grain of salt as what works for me might not work for you.

As you probably figured out from being in school and reading all the posts on this forum, grad school is stressful and requires a huge time commitment (I'm in my second year). A professor of mine said there are 2 extreme types of grad students:

1) The one who wants to be involved in every extracurricular and social activity, both inside and outside school (and ends up not having time to do their research) 

2) The one who isolates themselves completely to truly focus on their research and never knew there was a world outside their lab (and burns out very easily)

Both are not the best way to approach school.

Personally, I try and be smart about what I do "outside the lab." Besides the more "expected" things like attending talks and colloquia, I try to only generally get myself in activities that / where:

1) I feel is a good investment in terms of time and career

2) I feel I can make an actual contribution in, and not one where I show up because everybody else shows up (just because it works for others doesn't mean it works for you!)

3) If within the academy, my supervisor knows about and "approves." (it is extra, extra stressful if your supervisor is constantly berating you about the "useless" work outside the lab that you are doing)

4) If outside the academy, only things I am truly invested in. This can take different forms for everyone. Like some invest themselves in a cause they really care about (e.g., women's rights), or things they find helps them regroup and return to the lab refreshed every week (e.g., yoga).

Currently, I serve on one university committee that is broader than my direct and immediate area of research (i.e., I work in Neuroscience, and I serve on a committee that serves the whole Faculty of Medicine) and do outreach / workshops relating to that, I mentor students in my area / field, and I "intern" every couple of weeks at a research institute that is also broader than my area of research. I also volunteer at a local community health care centre outside school. They all take time, but not so much that I become the grad student who is never in the lab missing deadlines and/or is always being reminded to do her work.

The first two are service to the profession and academic community, the third is just for my own professional development, while the fourth is for my own personal fulfillment.

I found it takes time to figure out what you are passionate about, and how you think you can nurture that passion while still taking care of yourself. The key is to not burn out (very hard to do!). And that starts with thinking about the direction of your future career and/or life goals and then picking your battles.

I (think) am like you. I was involved in several simultaneous activities and events as an undergrad, both inside and outside school. But grad school is no longer about being that queen / king social butterfly. It is more about (for me, anyway) learning how to be a colleague, peer, mentor, professional, and learning how to give back to the next generation and what you want (or think you want) your future life to look like. And I personally think that holds true whether you decide to go into academia or not.

FWIW, nobody expects you to do it all. And it is okay to change your mind when you realise it isn't working and/or that you are spreading yourself too thinly. Also, as I learned recently, having a mentor, friend, and a network like this forum who has/have gone through the process to give you perspective about expectations, norms, and reality helps tremendously.

Give yourself some time to figure it out. Grad school, and life, are marathons (triathlon, really). You don't want to sprint like mad in the beginning and realise you can't move after a short while. (Orange turtle r.e.a.l.l.y. needs to remind herself about this constantly as well)

Good luck!

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Orange turtle gave really good advice. I spent a lot of time in my undergrad with student groups and while I didn't do much in my first year of my PhD, I was really involved in grad student government and other student groups on campus in the other 4 years. The first year I was just starting out so I didn't do too much. The second year I took on a major leadership role and it was a very good experience but I was realising I was becoming the type of student orange turtle mentioned where I was losing time on research. So the 3rd and 4th year followed the rules orange turtle laid out. I still did a lot of non-research work though. Probably 5-10 hours per week for student groups on campus and 5 hours per week volunteering for outreach and related activities in the community. This was important work to me though and I'd rather spend those hours on these things instead of having free time (but that's my personal choice, not saying it should be that way for everyone).

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Thanks so much for your helpful replies. I especially appreciate the part about making sure your advisor "approves." I hadn't thought to have this conversation with my advisor since it's an activity outside of research. But you're right, it would ultimately impact my time to contribute to other research activities. 

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