As a second-year biology student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) de Cachan in France, Cyrielle Barbot was planning on a research career when she felt "the desire to have a project among friends," she says. So Barbot and Mathieu Moslonka-Lefebvre, another ENS student, created a scientific magazine called Le Prisme à Idées . "We went to battle full of innocent enthusiasm, not knowing what it was like," Barbot says. "We really had to put ourselves in the shoes of an editor, go and canvass professionals, go and sell our project, go and create a layout." What made the project "cool and very interesting," she says, "is that we also learned things."
If you can make the time, you can gain skills -- influencing people, budgeting, managing projects -- that otherwise would be difficult to acquire until much later in your career.
Barbot's magazine is an example of the kinds of extracurricular initiatives some graduate students take on, in the interest of developing professionally, gaining experience, and having fun. Pursuing such activities, and balancing them with their formal training, allows aspiring scientists to gain skills they wouldn't develop otherwise and expands their professional horizons. Sometimes such projects end up being bridges into new, unplanned careers.
Programs that foster initiative
If you decide you want to get involved in some sort of science-related extracurricular activity, you could start from scratch, as Barbot did. But there are simpler ways. "Young scientists really should look for these opportunities, because they do exist. They're just not always that well publicized," says Jared Silvia, a final-year Ph.D. student in inorganic chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. In 2005, the American Chemical Society (ACS) Division of Chemical Education launched the Graduate Student Symposium Planning Committee project, which allows chemistry Ph.D. students to organize symposia at ACS national meetings. Silvia took advantage of the program earlier this year, organizing a policy symposium that took place at ACS's August meeting in Boston.
Here's another kind of opportunity: Some professional associations, including the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), encourage the establishment of local student chapters. "SIAM gives the whole infrastructure necessary, … [so] you only need to gather a group of students that want to do that," says Hermes Gadêlha, a final-year Ph.D. student in mathematical biology at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. But Gadêlha didn't have to start a chapter, because one already existed at Oxford. He took over the presidency of the Oxford University SIAM Student Chapter last July.
Silvia and nine other Ph.D. students gathered on the MIT campus following an invitation from ACS in the summer of 2008 and formed a committee. They kept the committee's structure flexible; "anyone could take on more responsibility as they wanted to, and at the same time, if someone became more involved in their research or they were traveling or something had come up in their life, then they could feed some of their responsibilities to the rest of the group," Silvia says.
At first, the committee held monthly meetings to discuss what had been achieved and to consider new issues. When, about 9 months before showtime, the pace started to pick up, the group held 15-minute, standup meetings every Monday morning. "That worked really well just to keep people moving and motivated," Silvia says.
A key factor in the success of any project is a clear view of the objectives. Barbot and Moslonka-Lefèbvre's vision -- of a platform that would allow young scientists from different disciplines to express themselves and exchange information -- took shape as they laid the groundwork, forming an association and writing the necessary statutes. Gadêlha and the Oxford SIAM committee planned the agenda of the events they will hold this academic year, including an induction day for newcomers, student seminars, scientific talks by professors, networking events, visits to industry campuses, and an annual conference.
Every effort requires leadership. As a co-chair of the MIT committee, Silvia's job was to "keep everyone aware of the deadlines, aware of their tasks and responsibilities. Basically just providing reminders, keeping the big picture in mind, and making sure that we were achieving all our goals," he says.
Such projects also require financial support. After several months of effort, the MIT committee found themselves with eight confirmed speakers but no confirmed funding. They shifted gears, from national funding agencies and corporations to their own institution. "The chair of the department was willing to fund us a few thousand dollars to get us started," Silvia says. "That was important because, when we had money, then we could go out and make more contacts."
"Basically, you are trying to sell a product that's very difficult to quantify and make this product important for them," says Gadêlha, who had to raise money to offset the costs of the food and drinks they offer at SIAM events and organizing the annual conference. When talking to prospective industrial sponsors, Gadêlha and the Oxford committee have emphasized sponsor benefits such as opportunities to gain exposure and be linked to the university. But above all, "most of them … want the chance to recruit students," Gadêlha says. Recently, the Oxford chapter secured £4500 (about $6110) from two companies, complementing the £300 (about $407) the national SIAM and the university's Mathematical Institute each gave them.
Searching for funds forces you to confront some practical issues such as setting up and running a budget. Preparing their first application "forced us to … anticipate printing expenses, ask and compare quotations, and think about how we were going to finance that," says Barbot, who won €1800 (about $2400) in seed funding from her host institution.
The potential advantages of such activities are offset by a big disadvantage: They take time. So far, Gadêlha has spent about 2 days a month coordinating the chapter, raising funds, organizing events, networking with other SIAM student chapters, and circulating job and funding opportunities to the chapter's 250 members. Silvia, who joined the MIT committee as a fundraiser, spent 10 hours a week on that task at its peak. As co-chair, he spent about an hour a day on the project during the 6 months leading up to the meeting.
That's time that could have been spent on class work or research. But had he not been forced to juggle these tasks, Silvia says, "I may not have developed that skill to be able to really home in on an experiment and make sure it's done right the first time." He became more efficient and much better at "keeping a diary, keeping a calendar, [and] keeping my thoughts in order," he adds.
No matter how valuable the experience, you still have to factor in your supervisor's opinion. Silvia says that he and his supervisor "had the understanding that as long as I was getting my work done in the lab and doing good science, that's what he cared about most." So, "go to your supervisor, tell them upfront that you're doing it if you think it's going to be an issue, and try to work out an agreement of some sort to make sure that you can still do the activities you want while understanding that you are responsible for your lab work first and foremost," he advises.
But if you can make the time, you can gain skills -- influencing people, budgeting, managing projects -- that otherwise would be difficult to acquire until much later in your career. All three young scientists emphasized the pleasure of teamwork. "Especially mathematicians, we work very independently," Gadêlha says. "It's a very nice experience just to be part of the group and try to solve different problems all together."
All three have also seen their professional horizons expand as a result of their volunteer efforts, though in different ways. "Since I want to stay in academia, the chapter is important for my research connections," Gadêlha says. Managing the student chapter has also given him an opportunity to learn about fundraising in a relaxed and supportive environment. Gadêlha now also feels "much more prepared for an interview for a job."
As he prepares to write his thesis, Silvia is weighing his professional options. He has become interested in working on applied projects such as energy research -- a topic that came up during the symposium planning -- either in academia or industry. Silvia is also open to nonresearch careers: His experience on the planning committee "really opened my eyes to the fact that I, as a chemist, have more skills than I realized."
Barbot's "career aspirations and what is going on in the association have been evolving side-by-side," she says. She learned that she enjoys managing projects and bringing people together to work toward a shared goal. And it "is not just by chance that our second issue [covered] urban ecology," she says. Upon graduating from ENS last June, Barbot abandoned her plans for a research career, training instead for a career as a civil servant in town and country planning.
Barbot expects Le Prisme à Idées to continue to influence her professional aspirations as she and her team explore new themes. She says, "This association is about opening your mind, about always having a lot of projects, and saying to yourself, ‘We don't know how to do it, but we may nonetheless be able to do it.' "
Your home institution and professional association will most likely have some training programs or funding in place to help students run side activities. Below are a few examples, most from national or international organizations. A couple of institution-level programs are included to illustrate what's often available locally.
The Society of Economic Geologists Student Chapters
The Association for Computing Machinery
The Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science Student Chapters
The European Wildlife Disease Association Student Chapters
The European Association of Geoscientists & Engineers Student Chapters
The University of Connecticut Division of Student Affairs offers support to student organizations, including leadership-training programs.
Boston University's Student Activities Office offers BU students support and training as well as advice on issues such as fundraising, ethics, and conflict resolution.
University of North Carolina graduate students may seek funding for student initiatives from the university's Student Activity Fee Committee, the Student Congress, or the Graduate and Professional Student Federation.
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.