Graduate Student Citizenship – what and why?

I recently attended my sister’s wedding and, in accordance with experiences I’ve heard from many other graduate students, I spent most of my time trying to explain to family members what exactly it is that I do. After I described my class and teaching schedule, almost every person would say something along the lines of “Wow! You must have so much free time!” Of course, I don’t but explaining this is difficult because, although our course load does not usually make for a full schedule, graduate students spend a lot of time doing other things that we feel a sense of responsibility toward.

If you are currently or were at some point a graduate student, you know what I’m talking about, but let me provide a short list of a few examples: meetings, reading groups, colloquia, seminars, lab/field work and conferences. With the exception of meetings and lab/field work, you could probably make it out of a master’s program without doing a single one of these things. So, if they aren’t required, why should we spend so much of our time participating in these seemingly auxiliary activities? I can’t speak for all graduate students but, in addition to a healthy sense of obligation, I personally see immense value in them.

I would argue that all of these activities make for a well-rounded graduate experience and set us up to advance our careers. In some ways, I would even say that they make up the core of what we do. Here are just a few ways in which I have found active participation in these things to be valuable:

  1. They provide networking opportunities. I find this particularly true of conferences. There are not many other times when the bigwigs and up-and-comings of your field are all gathered in one place.
  2. They provide opportunities to get valuable feedback on our work. It’s no secret that bouncing thoughts off of your colleagues helps your ideas blossom into something great. Someone with an outside perspective may catch something you never noticed before.
  3. They allow us to expand our range of thinking beyond what we normally read, discuss and think about. This sort of ties in with my previous point. We can all get a little one-tracked when we throw on the blinders and focus on our specific sub-field/system/question. It can never hurt to look at things a different way or learn about something new.
  4. They give us opportunities to think critically. Analyzing the work of others is the best way to hone those skills so you can apply them to your own work. It helps us figure out what works and what doesn’t in experiments, presentations and writing.
  5. They keep us up-to-date on advances and emerging ideas in our field. In a constantly moving field, it is vital to stay on top of the latest information.

We all have busy weeks and times when we are tired, but I believe that graduate students who invest their time in such activities will ultimately reap the benefits. Of course, if none of that is enough to interest graduate students, free food will usually do the trick.

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