Volunteering: isn’t life challenging enough?

There is tension in academia between time committed to voluntary work and research pressures. Thorunn Helgason offers thoughtful advice and experience on striking the right balance as part of #VolunteersWeek 2022 in the UK.

Thorunn Helgason
Thorunn Helgason

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘volunteer’? You might see staff in charity shops, conservation volunteers or enthusiasts in heritage industries. What all these activities have in common is that people offer their time, without pay, to an activity they enjoy for an organisation they care about. It is also unconnected to their income.

Volunteering in academia

For those of us in research and academia, who make up much of the BES membership, volunteer work is rather different. It is so embedded into our work culture as academic ‘service’ or ‘citizenship’ that we barely name it as volunteering. These activities are a normal way to gain many of the professional skills and networks that enable us to develop and progress.

Research and academia is an intensely collaborative endeavour these days: success in publishing, grants and jobs depends heavily on how quickly you find ‘your people’ and on how you help those relationships flourish. You have to ‘opt in’ to opportunities too, because those connections can appear in the most curious ways – one of my most productive networks started over a pizza after a conference workshop, where a lively conversation during a power cut led directly to new ideas and a funded grant.

Striking a balance

Yet there is a tension. Some of this work may be explicitly recognised as professional development, or indeed as indicators of your academic standing in the research community. Who among us has not been told “this will look good on your CV”, as we look ahead to the next job application or promotion?

Many researchers, though, say that volunteering cuts into research time, and sometimes that they are pressured to focus only on research by supervisors and group leaders who are very invested in the outputs. For students and early-career ecologists moving towards careers beyond research, negotiating time out can be especially difficult where the activities are less obviously linked to your research.

Who among us has not been told “this will look good on your CV”?

It is challenging to deal with the time management and hat-switching these roles demand, and thinking about that cost-benefit lies at the heart of making the choices that are right for you.

Getting the right support

It is really important that supervisors and group leaders respect and support the choices of their team members. As a supervisor myself, that often means acknowledging what I don’t know about careers in industry and other disciplines, so that I can support my group members in getting advice from the right people.

I am fortunate that my employer recognises that my external-facing roles are important: to me, the discipline and the institution. To commit to volunteering roles, you need to define what matters to you and what you’ll get from it. Think about your values and interests, and what you can contribute. The rewards can come in many forms, such as the people you meet, the skills you learn and the non-financial perks that come with it.

Making volunteering work for you

The activities I do that are most obviously voluntary involve public engagement and widening participation. I’ve done public events showcasing women in STEM, and have spent a day talking about belowground ecology at several of the BES summer schools – who could turn down the opportunity for a day trip to Malham Tarn in Yorkshire? I have gone into schools to talk about careers.

But this overlaps with my day job: I worked in admissions for many years, visiting schools and colleges to talk about our degree programmes. Where does the volunteering end, and the mission of the University to recruit students begin? The boundary is not always clear.

Life is challenging enough so the extra things you do should be enjoyable

But you can use this to your advantage. You can identify roles in your department that also match your interests and aspirations. As Deputy Head of my department at the University of York, I allocate staff to academic jobs, and there is nothing better than volunteers who I know are genuinely interested in the role the department needs them to do.

It has to be fun

What makes it easier for me, is that the volunteering I choose to commit to is interesting and enjoyable. Equality and diversity is important to me, so a lot of my activities have that focus.

But I step out of my comfort zone too – I recently was a panellist at an event on an area of science fiction called SolarPunk, where I gave a scientist’s eye view of sustainability and climate change. It was a great opportunity to showcase the kind of research I do, and a very interesting challenge thinking about how to pitch it to fiction writers.

It wasn’t an obvious or easy thing to do, but it was great fun. And that is the bottom line: life is challenging enough, so the extra things you do should be enjoyable.

volunteering at the BES