So, where is the line on volunteering?
I think if you look at the standard in biology, you’d probably think that volunteering is just something people do to pump up their CVs until they have enough experience on paper to get the paid gigs. That’s an unfortunate mindset, and one that possibly devalues our entire field, since it’s become the standard to have a “starting salary of zero” (credit to my friend Gustavo for phrasing it so succinctly.) The reality is that too many jobs require applicants to “volunteer”, and that’s not really volunteering, is it? True volunteering, as I see it, is the act of doing something for the sake of the thing itself. It’s not some all-encompassing blanket that means “unpaid work”, but rather it’s the extra time spent doing the things you’d want to do anyway. It’s the space for weekend citizen science initiatives, less formal forays into new fields, and the rare passion project.
I’ve always come to volunteering as a result of two rules I have for myself. The first, and to me the most important rule, is that I don’t consider how something will impact my CV before I do it. This was also the most controversial thing I said when brainstorming this post with some more experienced colleagues. I’ve found that, by doing the work that interests you, and by pursuing opportunities to refine and advance those interest, you’ll naturally build a CV that becomes increasingly tailored to the positions you want anyway. I’d also say that building a great CV is mostly about how you represent your experience anyway, but that’s another post.
My second rule is that I don’t wait to do the work I want. By which I simply mean that if there’s something I feel is worth doing, and I’ve got the time now, I’m going to do it in whatever capacity I can instead of waiting around for something less certain. Often times this means that I would fit my volunteer work into my schedule however I could. As an undergraduate, I spent the downtime between lectures volunteering to prepare specimens for LSU’s Museum of Natural Science, because I found it more valuable to spend my time soaking up knowledge from the ornithologists there than to take whatever random student job the department had on offer. I spent two years’ worth of Saturdays volunteering at my local bird banding station. First and foremost because it was a fun way to spend a Saturday, but also because it was the easiest way for me to learn those skills and stay in touch with local initiatives in science. The rest of the time, volunteering involves doing work which isn’t required of me, simply because it’s what I’d be doing anyway. To a degree, that’s what I’m doing now. The University of Konstanz doesn’t require master’s students to join a lab or participate in independent research until the start of their theses. But I came to this university to work with specifically with a select group of researchers, and I see no point in waiting until the last 25% of my time here to start working with them.
And so, I’ve come to the position I’m in now, having spent the last year as essentially a volunteer researcher in the Department of Collective Behavior at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, and it’s been time well spent. I’ve been a part of multiple experiments that have taught me a variety of new skills, I’ve designed independent projects, and I’ve learned more through being a part of this lab than in all my classes combined. There’s even a little bit of money starting to trickle my way, but it’s far from what I’d call a salary. A little money for my work is much appreciated, but I’d be doing this stuff anyway.
I guess that’s where I see the value of volunteer work in a field which relies too heavily on volunteer labor: as way to get things done on my own schedule, or in my free time. I am also fully aware of the fact that a lot of young scientists just can’t afford to work without pay at any scale, and that I am lucky enough to be able to afford my impatient (and slightly hypocritical) approach. So, I’ll try to close with of a bit of advice. For the young researchers out there who can afford to spend time volunteering: make sure you’re volunteering for the right reasons and not simply allowing someone to exploit your inexperience for labor. And as a broader message to our field as a whole: we need to have a better understanding of what to expect out of our volunteers, and we need to make a better effort to compensate young scientists, lest we devalue our own labor as well.