Friday, September 30, 2011

The Benefits of Volunteering

Volunteering gets a mixed wrap in the job hunt.  There is one school of that that volunteering can help you build contacts and experiences to bolster your resume, and another that if you volunteer too much, people will wonder why you never got offered a job. Before we get too far into this, I think volunteerism of any kind is great, and taking the time to give of yourself to others is fantastic, regardless of whether it helps your career.  But  if you want to use volunteering specifically to help your career in someway, you might want to be careful about how you proceed.

I am currently volunteering at our Science Center.  I wanted to find something to get me out of the house while I am otherwise a full time job hunter, so I looked for opportunities that would add to my skills, while taking advantage of my background.  The science center is great for that, they love that I am a Scientist, but I predominantly provide "customer service."  Trust me, this was nowhere else on my resume.  But there is a real shift in attitude when you aren't just feeding figures and data to your boss with candor, but instead trying to figure out how to make people enjoy themselves more.  I am liking it a lot.  I also get to meet some really cool people, and don't get me started on how awesome it is to play with the exhibits all day.  This is good fit for me, because as great as the experience is as a volunteer, I think that it is pretty clear why I am not ever going to get a job offer from them.

In addition, as a volunteer, I have a lot of flexibility.  The science center has lots of volunteers; there are old folks who like to sit by the door to greet people and give them maps, and there are high school kids who like to do the demos.  Personally, I spend half my day walking the exhibit floors, and half my day working with the Girls Math & Science Program.  Right now, I am developing a big event to help introduce girls to careers in Chemistry.  I'm working out some demos, I need to solve some problems with rooms, I've got a budget and expect 100 girls in 6 weeks.  Again, this is experience that I don't have on my resume- but as a grad student who has had to juggle the logistics of scheduling committee meetings, experiments and teaching, I feel I have the skills to succeed here.

While I feel my experience as a volunteer is adding to my resume, I'm not really that sure it is going to be the magic bullet that lands me a job somehow.  I don't think anyone should approach it as if it would be.  But it is making it much easier to keep up my enthusiasm and stay creative about my job hunt, so I still think it is worth the time I spend.


  1. Hi,

    I think you are underestimating the experience you are gaining from this position. I know you are looking for a research job, but for a "researcher" looking for a non-research position, this kind of administrative, project planning, logistical, making s**t happen type experience is listed pretty much on every job ad. One of the things that you need to get used to when moving into industry is the spin you have to put on your experience. You call it (loose summarising on my part) customer service volunteering, I call it an internship as a customer liaison officer, an administration internship (more weight in that than you would think). People think of scientists in a fairly narrow way (nerdy, stuck in a lab types). You can now show that you can work ("liaise") with all kinds of people, work in teams, develop projects, have planning, organisation, coordination and time management skills, and probably lots of good examples for the all important interpersonal skills. Oh, and budget experience... that's very important.
    Good on you for the initiation.

  2. I agree, Minx, on both counts. Learning all those "non-research" skills is why I decided to do this. But I think I have to get better at selling it. Although I think I learned all those planning, coordinating, working in teams skills as a grad student, this is a chance to really highlight them. Which means, once I've done this, I'm going to need to work on how I choose to highlight it. You've got some great choices of verbs there, I might borrow from them. :)

  3. Selling yourself is the most important thing now. We both know we've got the skills to do pretty much whatever is thrown at us (lots of training for that during our PhDs!). Unfortunately, my weakness is making other people understand my capabilities. It's really tough as a scientist moving into industry to sell myself like everyone else knows how to/expects you to (I think we've already covered this topic!). And using language they will understand. It's taken me a long time to start to understand how to translate what I have done/the skills I have into words that will get me through the screening process. The evolution of my resume is almost embarrassing.
    A tip that may help (and that I only cottoned on to last week!): I saw an ad for a position I apply for regularly (Clinical trials assistant), and it had a really good breakdown of the key skills required. I know I have all those skills, but I had been using different (and substandard) words to explain that. So, where applicable, I used almost exactly their phrasing for key criteria to describe my skills in my resume. Example: Sourced project supplies from external vendors and managed the efficient running of project studies (under Administrative Skills). My resume said the same things (to my eye), but now using a vocabulary that the recruiter would understand (I didn't apply for that job though, because that would have been pretty obvious!). I feel like my resume is much stronger, and more industry-ready.
    Also, yes, while you probably already learned all those above mentioned skills during your PhD, it's really great to a "real world" example. I've been at an interview when they asked me to give an example of something and to use an example that didn't involve my university studies. People still don't get that a PhD is "real work". To them uni=study/courses. I try and avoid the term PhD studies now and use research/work, etc.

  4. I aspire to be an old person handing out maps someday

  5. Minx, I am totally with you on describing my PhD time as work. My resume lists research experience as separate from degrees earned, and I try to be careful to talk about it as a job.

    So, why didn't you apply for the job you tailored yoru resume to? If anything, I am starting to realize that for lots of these jobs, it is best to feed the exact working back for a job announcement (otherwise you have to reapply for jobs you qualify for, remember that?). It's safe to assume my resume will be first screen by someone who read the job announcement once, and then later go to my future boss, so it has to be written at both levels. I'm still working on how to balance that. It means I've carved out a lot more space for my publication record, and I have a section of "skills" that I swap out for each job announcement, usually borrowing from the text as closely as possible. It feels like plagiarism, but I think I am just showing them I read the announcement.

  6. Belated reply...

    I didn't apply for the job as I felt I had borrowed a little too strongly from the ad, and couldn't get in contact with anyone from the company to find out about the role (and I was writing a huge application for another (government) position). Anyway, 2 weeks later and I was doing a short industry training course, and the person who ended up sitting next to me was the person currently in this position and who the company was advertising to replace (she was being promoted to the next level)! I spoke to her about the position and she offered to put my resume in internally. So that worked out really well. To my further amusement I got a call this morning from the recruitment company who has put me onto their books asking me if I was interested in applying for the same position. So, I don't know, I think the universe is is trying to tell me something!