Volunteering & Career Development

Are you are searching for a way to add interest and diversity to your week? Or perhaps considering a new career? Volunteering can offer you insights into a new way of working or a new line of work.

Volunteering expands your skill set

One of my volunteer gigs for a professional association required that I attain basic functionality with the web development platform Drupal. I’m no expert but being able to perform basic functions in Drupal means that I can update websites and speak a certain kind of language to developers. Basic familiarity with a development platform or programming language also indicates that you can probably advance your skills through some basic self study–an attractive attribute in both volunteers and new employees.

Working for an organization outside of your institution also flexes different social muscles. If you spend most of your time in your office (or in your cubby in the library, or in the grad student lounge, or writing alone at your desk), you might yearn not only for human connection, but for that connection to want to talk about anything but your research or the progress you’re making on your project. Bring on the volunteer gig! The social justice organization you work for 3 hours per week will demand that you talk logistics or scheduling or envelope stuffing or document formatting or whatever. The the employees and your fellow volunteers value you for your reliability, affability, and ability to get the job done–not for your ability to explain your research methodology.

What if your skill set is tightly circumscribed by the kind of work or research you do? Keri, a librarian, started out in a small organization that offered her minimal possibilities for promotion or career growth. She began volunteering with her professional association, both to give back and for the opportunity to do different kinds of work: “I got to expand my soft skills and work on projects of interest which had real, tangible results and made a difference in my library community.” These projects and the skills and connections she developed volunteering on them have played a large role in her subsequent career growth.

Volunteering advertises–or uncovers–your talents

For many people, a volunteer gig can turn into a job opportunity. My weekly hours at the local YWCA led to a part-time project coordinator position. My managers saw how well I edited documents and wrote summaries and this contributed hiring me to write the final report for a federal grant project. Keri took her experiences as a distance ed student and her graduate school pedagogy training and leveraged them into an opportunity to create online training series that is a revenue generator for her organization. These projects got her recognized and hired.
Another Jennifer started out volunteering at a grocery co-op and now works there part time. She says, “Through volunteering, I was given the opportunity to demonstrate my skills, especially pertaining to communication, written and verbal, ability to be organized, and complete the required work.” Working as a volunteer gives you and the organization opportunity to see what you can offer and what the organization needs. If they match up, it can be to your mutual advantage.

Volunteering expands your network

One of my goals in volunteering was to connect with members of my community who worked outside of the university. By volunteering for a women’s organization, I connected with an amazing group of women who share my commitment to improving the lives of girls and women locally. I also found out about events in the community that I might not have seen had I just stayed on campus: public readings, job fairs; refugee welcomes, etc. I am discovering opportunities to share my expertise and to learn from others every time I come in.

Volunteering is more than occasional excursions outside of the ivory tower. Working in new contexts with different people allows you to see your academic work in a new light–its value and its limitations. If your work could use a re-charge, check out volunteer fairs in your area or pick an organization whose mission you support and get in touch with their volunteer coordinator. Both you and the organization have a lot to gain.

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