The value of volunteers for Associations – Volunteer Week 17-23 May

We would like to share this article written by Heather Penney and featured by IMCC5 (The International Marine Conservation Congress).

I am finishing my PhD in biology. Throughout my career I have volunteered with several conferences, both by convenience (several were held in my town, hosted by my university) and by passion. As a grad student, I have gained unparalleled experience and networking opportunities from volunteering conferences, and I have had benefits that I did not expect. I haven’t volunteered at every conference I’ve been to, but volunteering helped me stay afloat in the sea of people and maybe it could help you too! The following are my person positive experiences that I hope will convince you of how great volunteering can be!

1. Networking

Peers: I have met wonderful people, who ended up being very good and probably life-long friends through volunteering. I have met people from all over the world, gained new Twitter followers and people to follow, and I know some folks have had some unexpected collaborations that have resulted in publications simply from sitting down for a coffee or beer with a person whose work they found interesting and met through volunteering. Our peers are potentially our future coworkers, and it’s hugely beneficial to connect with them! Volunteering is an excellent way to meet other grad students, both those who are also volunteering and those students that ask questions because they see the ‘volunteer’ on the back of your shirt.

Conference organizers: Planning a conference is a LOT of work. I have established relationships with many professionals (including government and faculty members) that I would not have otherwise had the opportunity to work with, and this has also resulted in collaborations and importantly, reference letters! They get to know you and your work ethic, which is key at the start of your career. For some folks these collaborations have resulted in jobs, graduate positions, and post-docs, simply because they helped the conference organizers with the conference. Talk about a boon to your career!

People you really wanted to talk to: Volunteering can be a great way to break the ice. You have an excuse to talk to people, and they have an excuse to talk to you. Talking with giants in your field can be very intimidating, just walking up and saying “Hi my name is…” is often difficult, for some of us, and volunteering can give you a reason, and the courage to go introduce yourself!

Conferences are often a sea of unfamiliar people. Volunteering is a great way to help you break the ice and make all kinds of new friendships (© Matt Tietbohl)

2. Developing Different Skill Sets 

I don’t know about you, but my Master’s degree was entirely focused on science and writing. These things make a good scientist. However, there is more to conservation than just science! In my PhD, I have made a conscious effort to further develop into a well-rounded citizen, in addition to improving my skills as a scientist. The following are some additional skills I have developed from volunteering:

Administrative duties: No matter what kind of job you get after grad school, there will inevitably be administrative aspects. Conference organizing has a lot of administrative requirements like scheduling, budgeting, and advertising. There are not many other times in grad school that you get these opportunities, which can make your CV more competitive when you apply for jobs.

Communication: Often volunteering to help organize a conference means that you are asking people for things. Maybe booking a room, finding out something for a conference guest, or emailing about fundraising or donations. Cold calling or emailing someone is in fact a skill. Writing emails or having telephone calls can be awkward, and one way to get better at it is to practice doing it. Having an excuse and a reason to do it, i.e. the conference needs you to find out something, is excellent practice and can help you conquer some anxiety associated with awkward social situations – I know it definitely helped me!

3. What would a conference look like without volunteers?

Most academic conferences run on volunteers! Conferences need people to organize them, often beginning years in advance. The heavy lifting is usually done by professionals already involved (like professors, government scientists and NGO employees), but the fact is those professionals delegate at least some of their workload to graduate student volunteers, and they keep everything running smoothly.

If we had to pay people to do the work that volunteers do, no academic conference would ever happen because it would simply be either a terribly organized conference or it would substantially more expensive, likely prohibitively so! For example, most of us have tried to schedule a meeting with our supervisory committee, say 3 to 5 people. Sometimes trying to just schedule that meeting is a juggling act. Now imagine, 50 people at a conference, with registration desk, talk scheduling, food and beverages and social activities. Now imagine 600 people! You can see how volunteers quickly become more and more important, and honestly make these meetings happen.

4. Financial incentives

We all know conferences can be expensive between flights, accommodations, and the registration fees. More often than not conference organizers are able to provide discounts for their volunteers, which makes attending conferences possible. Over the course of my PhD, I have attended 5 conferences that had a registration fee. Of those, my supervisor only had to pay the full registration fee for two of them (which I didn’t volunteer at), because for those three ‘free’ conferences I volunteered my time and I got at least a partial discount. Without volunteering I would not have been able to attend IMCC4!

My department has an Annual Biology Graduate Symposium. It has remained free for everyone, students, staff and faculty for the last 11 years because graduate students volunteer their time. Subsequently, that is 5 more presentations that I would not have done otherwise, because without volunteers that symposium would not happen. So stuck in a bit of a financial rut? Volunteering could be the difference maker.

Volunteering makes conferences happen.