to volunteer or not to volunteer: doing something extra in academia

Dr Michael P. Weir is a research associate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, at The University of Sheffield. His blog is Science on Toast and you can find @scienceontoast on Twitter.

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”. 

– J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of The Ring (voice of Gandalf)


Successful time management could well be the most critical challenge for research staff trying to forge ahead in the early stages of their careers. Gandalf’s words of wisdom may well have been about dealing with the looming threat of cataclysmic evil, but I don’t think many post-doctoral researchers today feel too far away from the cutting realities of the ‘publish or perish’ academic world. I’ve certainly been reminded enough times that a healthy publication record is a huge part of securing that elusive permanent academic position.

This train of thought leads me to one conclusion: close the blog post you are working on, step down from your committees and get that research manuscript submitted. Your sole job is to produce research, and everything else pales into insignificance. Right?

Actually, I would argue that a small and considered amount of ‘extra-curricular’ activity, e.g. volunteering on a committee, engaging in outreach, or even teaching (if that’s not already an integral part of your job), can greatly boost the rest of your research life.

It’s certainly true that as a research associate (like me for example) working on a grant for a principal investigator (PI), it’s more that likely that you are very deliberately employed to produce research as your main job. Relationships with bosses, and perspectives can vary a lot, making it more or less difficult for some of us to engage in activities outside research. It’s certainly the culture of some bosses to expect an almost unerring commitment to research, to the exclusion of other activities. However, some contracts allow for a small amount of flexible professional development, and it may be worth checking yours and your funding body’s rules for clarification if you are not sure. For example the RCUK owned Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers stipulates 10 days per year professional development activity for each of us – how you interpret, negotiate, and use that is up to you.

This is the point at which I ask myself, “what sort of researcher do I want to be?” Your profile as a researcher, at any level, depends on how you engage with others. Although writing scholarly articles is one form of engagement, and one that connects us with a global community, I suspect there is a large part of our profile that comes from those extra things we do closer to home.

Professional development is a vital part of the make up of any successful researcher, and the skills we’ll need as young Lecturers, or independent Research Fellows (or whatever we would like to be doing), in the future are relevant right now. Take part in a measured amount of ‘voluntary’ work outside of the normal route of your research and I believe you will develop these skills and meet some brilliant people along the way.

For example, apart from attending thrice-yearly meetings of the Faculty of Science Researcher Development Group as a post-doc representative for Physics & Astronomy, I have also become involved with organizing an Away Day for post-doctoral research staff. This has been an eye-opening experience, not least because of the great people I have met from parts of the University where I would never have ventured to tread; our team now spans several departments and crosses faculties. These fantastic, motivated people have inspired me, whilst also showing me a fresh perspective on the research life of the University – I have quickly learned things are by no means done in the same way in different parts of the institution. Organizing an event ‘by the post-docs, for the post-docs’ has allowed me to think about what it is that I want from my role. For example, our Away Day theme this year is about communicating your research, and in devising activities and inviting speakers based on this theme, we as organizers have all found examples of good practice that we can apply in our own work. Not to mention experience in managing a mini project and a budget.

Going back to the quotation, getting the balance right and deciding “what to do with the time that is given to us” is the hard part, and I’ve no doubt that at times we will all wish to dial down our voluntary activities and concentrate on our research. There might not be as simple a balance as we expect, though: US science writer Jennifer Ouellette (@JeanLucPiquant on Twitter) explained in a recent talk (for the American Physcial Society) that the normalized research output of academics has actually been shown to increase when subjects took on a small amount of engagement or outreach. Those who took on too much, however, saw their productivity fall again. So while it really is about balance, it may not be the case that it’s in the best interest of our research to minimize all other activity!

One thing that I am certain about is that we are all different, and success is about finding the balance that works for you and your career.

All the best to you in experimenting with the formula.

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