Finding time to volunteer can be challenging, especially if you are a PhD student. Whilst it’s important to note that volunteering is not for everyone, maybe due to personal responsibilities, family or financial constraints, it can be a very enriching and rewarding experience for doctoral students.
Here Hannah Cottrell, a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology, shares some of the advantages of choosing to volunteer and the positive impact this can have on you, your work and local communities. We hope this encourages more PhD students to seek out volunteering opportunities in the future.
1. Change of pace
Volunteering has the potential to offer something different, a way to break up your week and routine of time in the library or self-study. Volunteering is an opportunity to be social and meet new people whilst doing something good and contributing positively to your community. As a PhD student, you will spend a lot of time by yourself and structuring this time to be productive and efficient is important. It’s also important to note not every minute of every day can be spent writing or researching, nor should it be. Making time to pursue what interests you is very important and volunteering offers a way to change the pace of your week or day and offer an alternative space for thought and reflection.
One hugely beneficial thing that volunteering can provide is a grounding experience among a lot of theory – an opportunity to gain perspective. Whilst postgraduate study can be very stressful and overwhelming at times, volunteering can be a way of grounding yourself and gaining perspective on the problems and difficulties that you are facing in your academic work and life. It also serves as a reminder that to do a PhD is a privilege and one that not everyone has the opportunity to pursue. Don’t take your opportunities for granted!
3. Exposure to different working environments, disciplines and professions
Volunteering has the potential to provide insight into a variety of disciplines and work environments. The charity sector is a unique environment and volunteering your time with and NGO could be an ideal way to see if this is somewhere that you would like to work in the future, whilst also having the opportunity to work with professionals from the different sectors that collaborate with charities (e.g. NHS, police, local council, government, law, INGOs). It opens many doors and opportunities to network and meet people from these industries that you will come into contact with through volunteering related activities.
4. Gaining valuable experience with communities that can inform your research
Whilst your research may not be ethnographically informed, working in local communities can prove to be a great way to ground and inform your research. It also provides a way to see how things really work in practice, especially for those PhD students working towards generating positive social impact. For example, even if your research is focused on Latin America or refugee communities elsewhere, volunteering with those communities based in London could provide valuable insight and depth to your work and raise questions you never considered. Volunteering can add another dimension of understanding to current and socially relevant issues by engaging you with the individuals and communities that these issues effect. This can enrich the theoretical knowledge you already have in that area, improving your analysis and therefore your research.
5. Great way to boost your CV and make you stand out from the crowd
Volunteering can provide a rich and diverse set of experiences and the chance to develop new skills. These might be in communication and time management or thinking about what makes your work accessible to different audiences and its relevance. Volunteering is also a great way gain experience in the charity sector and an opportunity to boost your CV if this is a career you want to pursue in the future. Previous experience as a volunteer or working with charities is very important and desirable to employers in the third sector and plays a big role in securing jobs within it.
6. Never stop doing things you’re passionate about
If you’re committed to making positive social change it doesn’t only have to be through your research or academic contributions. Volunteering can provide a way to make an immediate impact that is rewarding for you and the communities or organisations you choose to dedicate your time to. As PhD’s take a considerable amount of time to complete from start to finish, it can often seem like a lifetime before your impact will be felt in the world, volunteering is a concrete way you can have immediate impact. If you’re passionate about ending homelessness, then helping out at a homeless charity or FoodCycle is a tangible way to make a small difference now while working on improving things for good in the future. Always make time for things you care about, and don’t let your PhD work become an excuse to not follow your passions!