From the Graduate Center Office of Career Support
By Joel Muraco
Many graduate programs focus on developing scholars in three areas: 1) research, 2) teaching, and 3) service. While most graduate students will receive direct training and support for their research and teaching endeavors, less attention is usually paid to the service component. Over time, many graduate students join national organizations, and serve on university and department committees. While this sort of service work is rewarding, it maximizes interactions and relationship building with others in academia at the expense of networking with professionals outside of academe. Pursuing community engagement work, on the other hand, offers direct and indirect benefits while simultaneously enhancing one’s service work. Here, in no particular order, are four benefits one gains when engaging in community engagement work.
Boost Morale and Excitement for Our Scholarship
The work we do in academia is exciting, but over time we may begin to feel disconnected from the communities and populations our work is meant to support. That’s because the day-to-day work of being an academic can be a very solitary endeavor, and because the priorities and timelines of being of an academic don’t always align with the priorities of our chosen communities. Thus, community engagement work allows us to see firsthand the ways in which communities are resiliently overcoming challenges, the strategies they’re employing to create change, and the discussions they’re having in regard to long-term goals and objectives. These insights can broaden our perspectives, offer much needed excitement, and boost morale for the work we do as scholars and educators.
Build Our Network and Community
One of the most strategic things we can do for ourselves in terms of professional and career development is build a diverse professional network. One way to build a robust network outside of academe is to pursue opportunities for community engagement. Not only does community engagement work introduce us to professionals outside of academe, it helps us meet professionals in industries we wouldn’t necessarily have thought to network with ourselves. Some of the most exciting opportunities can come from the relationships we develop with professionals outside of academe. Beyond the potential career benefits, a robust network and strong sense of community is are protective during times of stress and may offer support that increases overall wellbeing and life satisfaction.
Diversify Our Experience and Work Products
Within academe, we are guaranteed to gain extensive research experience, producing empirical research, journal articles, book chapters, and presentations. We’re also likely to gain some direct teaching experience either as a teaching assistant or instructor of record. While these are invaluable experiences that develop many important skills, the products of these specific experiences are not often what employers outside the academy are looking for from prospective hires. Community engagement experience helps us to diversify our experience and often leads us to produce new products we can add to our portfolio of work. A diversity of experience, and in specific examples of work, can be exactly what one needs to stand out during a job interview.
Gain Diversified Perspectives
Working with professionals outside the academia academy not only allows us to build our network, it introduces us to different ways of thinking. These diversified perspectives can positively influence our scholarly and educator endeavors. As the issues we study are complex and multifaceted, so too must be our solutions. The more individuals we engage with and learn from, the more inclusive our work can be. In this way, community engagement may lead to direct changes to the research questions we ask, the measures we use, and the ways we interpret our data. Additionally, community engagement can enhance our abilities as educators, helping us bring real world examples and guest speakers into our classrooms.
Ultimately, community engagement experience ensures we step outside of our academic echo chambers, allowing us to meet new people, diversify our experiences and the products we create, and enrich the work we do. And while some disciplines lend themselves more easily to community engagement work than others, there are opportunities for all graduate students to do such work. For example:
- Many non-profit organizations have participant, program, and outcome data but not the expertise needed to make sense of it. A graduate student with data analysis experience would be greatly appreciated here.
- Many schools facilitate afterschool programs and are always in need of qualified educators to tutor youth or enhance the learning experience of participants. A graduate student with a passion for teaching would be greatly appreciated here.
- Many community organizations have online and social media presences, despite a lack of marketing and public relations professionals on staff. A graduate student with a knack for communications and social media marketing would be greatly appreciated here.
- Many jurisdictions rely on local constituents to do the work that needs doing, which can include program facilitation, needs assessments, data analysis and reporting, community organizing, communications. A graduate student interested in developing these skills would be greatly appreciated here.
- Why Academics Should Engage with Others in Community – Article about why and how Australia began evaluating academics on how well their research connects to communities and stakeholders.
- Engagement Toolbox – Toolbox providing a brief and practical guide to the major concepts, considerations, tools and strategies to develop an effective engagement effort.