By Tymèle Deydier
Over the course of my PhD, I got involved with multiple Loughborough-based and external societies and committees: Action (volunteering section of the LSU), the PhD Social and Support Network (SSN), the Loughborough Women’s Engineering Society (WES), STEM Learning and the national Women’s Engineering Society (looks like she is an engineer…). I did so for multiple reasons:
- I wanted to make the most of my university experience
- I wanted to do something different
- I wanted to contribute to the local community
- I wanted to meet new people
- I wanted to develop my skills and learn new ones
Now, let me get that out of the way, this is a very personal experience, and I am not saying that everyone should do what I did. Not everyone can or wants to. And that’s totally fine. In this blog, I just wanted to highlight the benefits of getting involved with extracurricular activities, based on my own experience. Some of you might simply not be interested in it, while others would love to but it’s just not an option because of other commitments, and that’s obviously completely valid too.
So, here are my top 5 benefits to volunteering outside of your PhD:
1. Meeting new people and the unexpected opportunities that can come from it
Of course, one of the major advantages of getting involved in extracurricular activities is meeting new people, whom you might have never met if you had stuck to your research group or department. And spending time with people you might have very little in common with (apart from what brings you together as a group, e.g. music if you join an orchestra) is going to benefit you in ways that you cannot always imagine and contribute massively to your personal growth (wow that was deep!). Not only that, but you would be surprised at the number of opportunities that can directly or indirectly come from extracurricular activities, mainly by expanding your network. When I joined the Women’s Engineering Society, I was inspired by the determination and talent of fellow engineering students, undergraduates and postgraduates alike. I was also able to meet and work with incredible professional engineers who offered invaluable personal and career-related advice, support and guidance. And it all started with attending events organised by the local Loughborough WES group, where I got inspired by the committee, and especially Jennifer Glover, to not only join the team but to eventually get involved with the national WES University Groups Board, that I ended up chairing for a year. And I’m now helping with internal projects for WES national. Never would I ever have believed this would happen! And all of these opportunities resulted, in part, from meeting one person in particular who wasn’t from my research group or even department but with whom I shared a passion for engineering and gender equality.
2. Working in diverse teams
Ok that might sound a little cheesy, but I can’t stress enough the value of working with people of various ages, with different educational and life backgrounds, from different countries, with different disabilities etc. The diversity of the teams I was part of taught me to be more patient, considerate (e.g. be more mindful of the language I use and the way I speak to fellow team members), empathetic, humble (e.g. admitting to not knowing or not having thought about something), inclusive (e.g. make sure that flyers are colour blind and dyslexic friendly) and basically kept reminding me about the complexity and diversity of human beings. And that was amazing. Because, although some PhD projects involve collaborations with external companies or charities, other universities or other groups within the same university, most PhD students spend the vast majority of their time working on their own (and that certainly was my case). And this kind of isolated environment is definitely not ideal when it comes to developing social skills, which are not only important for your future career but essential in your personal life too. I can confidently say that all these new learnings from working in diverse teams not only ended up serving the different projects we were working on together but also greatly benefited my PhD project and personal life too.
3. Insight into the world outside of the university bubble
When you went straight from an undergraduate to a masters’ degree and finally to doing a PhD (which is my case), you do end up with a PhD degree at 25-27 years-old, but with very little to no industry experience. Which might make your life a little harder when looking for jobs if you, like me, don’t want to stay in academia. So, joining professional institutions or societies (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Institute of Administrative Management, Women’s Engineering Society, The Historical Association…) or social groups (sport teams, orchestras, theatre groups, volunteering groups…) will widen your horizon in terms of what life outside of the university bubble looks like, how working in industry differs from being an academic and thus how you need to change the way you sell yourself when job hunting, but also, how life outside of your own personal experiences (outside of your own country, social bubble…) is like. Perhaps someone in your football team or your book club works in a similar field or for a company you would actually love to work for too. Why not asking them what a typical day at work looks like, or the thing they love most about their job? Informal settings often make it easier to talk about work related matters. That being said, we all like to switch off from working mode (which is often the very reason we join these groups in the first place), so make sure not to be too insistent and to get to know the person on a more personal level before asking about work (you’re playing football, not networking at a conference). And this relates back to my previous point: you never know what opportunities might arise from knowing people in different settings. I mean, you might be playing tennis with the person who is later on going to refer you for the job you’ve been dreaming of. Or perhaps help you get the job that is going to give you the experience you need and get you to meet the right people to then land your dream career.
4. Organisation and time management
I mean, organisational and time management skills are must haves for a PhD. But when you’re adding extracurricular activities on top of it, it reaches a whole different level… It’s an extra layer of commitment, that, I’m not going to lie, can be hard to manage sometimes. Organising social, sports and academic events, leading outreach activities and making time for meetings on top of dealing with broken equipment and long experiments in the lab while trying to maintain the active social and life that I love wasn’t always easy. But my days did it contribute to making me the organisation queen that I am today (*little pat in the back*)! I knew that if I didn’t want to compromise on my PhD, volunteering or personal life, then I had to be highly organised and make the most of my time. My diary, sticky notes and Outlook calendar with its colour code became my best allies. And being organised and knowing how to manage your time can make your personal and professional easier and a lot less stressful (I said easier and less stressful, not easy and stress-free).
5. Mental health benefits
While a PhD can make you feel very much in control of your own project and boost your confidence, it can just as well make you feel totally desperate, question why you even chose this for yourself in the first place and make you doubt your own worth. This will depend on factors such as how well your project is going, your relationship with your supervisory team, your personal life etc.
As Nathan mentioned in his blog, starting a PhD can also feel extremely lonely. And that was definitely my case. Having done my undergrads in France and my MSc in Cranfield, I was new to Loughborough and just didn’t know anyone. People in my department seemed nice, but there wasn’t any kind of welcome or anything going on really to actually get to know each other. And for a rather social and outgoing person like me, it was hard. Fortunately, that changed (by organising dinners, creating a WhatsApp group, having DR reps that would welcome first years…), and we try to create a rather nice sense of community in our department. But what also helped me, and contributed to my overall good experience as a PhD student at Loughborough University, was the people I met and the projects I got involved with with Action (and I will never thank Amina Hamoud enough for introducing me to it, again meeting that one person that is going to have a massive impact on your life), the PhD Social and Support Network and the Loughborough and national Women’s Engineering Society. On those days when everything went wrong in the lab or when there was a lot going on in my personal life, knowing that I was going to play football with a team I adored and made me laugh so much I could barely play or spending time playing with kids or cooking food for people who aren’t sure where their next meal is going to come from, helped me put everything into perspective. I met some of my closest PhD friends through events I organised or attended. And feeling like I was part of something and having those close relationships definitely contributed to my general wellbeing and happiness.
Loughborough has so much to offer when it comes to societies and volunteering, and it’s probably going to be your last time as a university student, so I highly advise you to consider getting involved too if you can!
This year, both the LSU Sports Bazaar and the Societies Bazaar will be online on Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th October and Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th October respectively. It’s your chance to get to know about what the LSU has on offer for you! More info at: https://lsu.co.uk/events.
If you found this article helpful please let me know in the comments below or by email at T.M.P.Deydier@lboro.ac.uk 😊