As an undergraduate and PhD student, I was unsure of how to continue my career. Volunteering helped me to explore alternative career paths, find my niche and get ahead.
Guest contributor Roda Niebergall
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
For university graduates, volunteering is a great opportunity to gain some work experience. Even if you’ve already advanced in your career and are planning to switch fields, volunteering is a powerful tool to convince your future employer that you’re serious and enthusiastic about changing your profession. Many PhD students and postdocs quickly realize that they either do not want to or cannot continue their career in research. There are many exciting alternative careers out there, like science management, teaching or publishing. But when applying for these jobs, researchers cannot solely rely on skills gained in the lab.
In my experience, alternative activities like assisting with the organisation of a scientific meeting or public outreach events can make an application stand out. A few years ago, when I was still a PhD student, I established a student’s association at our institute together with fellow colleagues for which I was also serving as president a year later. Our association consisted of roughly a dozen PhD students and thanks to the financial support of the head of our institute, we were able to organize some training courses, go on a student´s retreat to discuss the progress of each other’s research projects and invite speakers from industry and academia. At the same time, I was involved in the organization of an international summer school for undergraduate students. While this meant I had to spend most weekends in the lab to move ahead with my research, both activities were very beneficial when I was applying for my first job in science management.
But how do you switch field if you have no clue where to go next? Again, volunteering could be a great tool. It can connect you with a diverse group of people from all walks of life and a range of professions. You never know who you’ll meet, what wisdom they’ll have to offer, and what impact they may have on your life. When I offered to assist with the organisation of a career pathway series, which introduces scientists to alternative career options, I had the chance to work with a great colleague. Talking to her and benefiting from her experience inspired me, and definitely helped me to find a path – both in work and life. One of her most valuable pieces of advice was that it doesn’t matter which job you have, but what you make of it. There are a lot of ways how you can increase your job satisfaction or even create your dream job.
Through volunteering, I also discovered new interests. While working for the scientific director of a research centre, I was looking for additional opportunities to take advantage of my training. I started teaching at the life science learning centre on campus, which runs laboratory courses for high-school students. Although it was challenging to combine this activity with my fulltime job and my daily three-hour commute, it was also great to leave the office from time to time to get back to the lab. Moreover, I realized how much I enjoy inspiring and guiding the next generation of scientists instead of solely working with established researchers. In my current position as an international relations manager and lecturer, I can finally combine science management, teaching and advising. I believe that without volunteering, I would have never been able to arrive at this point.
I don’t want to deny that volunteering can be very time consuming, especially if you have a fulltime job, a family, or hobbies you need to make time for. But give it a try – it might be a great investment in your future.
Roda Niebergall studied biology at Freie Universität Berlin and received a PhD in biological sciences from the University of East Anglia/The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich. She is currently working as an international relations manager and lecturer at the University of Münster.