Giving and receiving through volunteer work

12/15/2017 4:16:51 PM

It’s the winter-holiday season, filled with holiday parties, too many (but, oh, so good) calories and gift-exchange galore. By the way, if you’re still looking for a present for a special scientist in your life, check out the ASBMB Today annual gift guide for some cool and perfectly nerdy ideas.

But during this season of giving, I want to talk about a different kind of giving  — volunteerism. I actually stopped giving presents some time ago to focus on charitable contributions, and I previously have written about my giving list in the ASBMB Today. (Some people, like my family members, may call me a Scrooge, but to that I gladly reply, “Bah Humbug.”)

In all seriousness, volunteering is like the perfect gift-exchange setup. You exchange your time and skills to help an organization advance its mission, and, in return, you learn new skills, gain relevant work experience and network with other professionals (not to mention all the warm, fuzzy feelings for doing a good thing). 

So, you may be thinking, “How is volunteering going to help me land a science job? This is a careers blog after all.” Well, I’m glad you asked. In anticipation of that question, I ran a very informal, nonscientific Twitter poll (n=26) this week and found that a majority of respondents benefited professionally from volunteer work. The results include:

  • 35 percent of participants reported gaining new skills and/or job experience;
  • 19 percent reported that they networked and/or learned of jobs by volunteering;
  • 8 percent (two people) actually were hired where they volunteered.  

You don’t have to take this poll as the only evidence. There are many jobs where unpaid volunteer experience is known to count toward work experience. For example, federal-government agencies consider relevant volunteer work toward specialized experience required for a position. (Be sure to watch the video “Make your volunteer experience count” by for some great advice on how to present your volunteer experience on your résumé.)

Anecdotally, I have serendipitously connected with several new clients through volunteer work. And, as I mentioned in a previous post on getting started in science writing, I wouldn’t have been hired for this blogging gig if I hadn’t volunteered for ASBMB Today and made that professional connection with my editor years ago. 

How can you get the most of your volunteer experience? Erica Siebrasse (@ericasieb), postdoctoral affairs specialist at the Van Andel Institute (and former ASBMB education and professional development manager), offered some valuable advice on Twitter. In summary, she recommends:

  • Determine your overall goals for volunteering (philanthropic vs. skills acquisition);
  • Be strategic about the kind of volunteer work you take on, especially if you are looking to gain skills;
  • Be accountable and reliable in your volunteer position;
  • Don’t sell yourself short, because volunteer experience is real experience.

Here are some examples of the types of skills relevant to science careers that can be gained through volunteer experiences, along with ideas on where to find out about opportunities.  

  • Mentoring. There’s always a need for mentors to support the next generation of young scientists. Mentoring is an important skill if you’re interested in a research or academic career. You can check with university- and community-based STEM education programs to see if any mentoring initiatives are in place. There also are virtual mentoring programs (e.g., MentorNet and National Research Mentoring Network) seeking online mentors.

  • Education and outreach. Many opportunities exist to get involved with education and outreach. You can learn how to design effective programs, gain hands-on teaching experience and improve overall science-communications skills. Reach out to your local science groups, museums, makerspaces, libraries and community organizations (e.g., Boys and Girls Club) to see if there is a need for a new program or to get involved with an existing one.

  • Grant writing. Nonprofits depend on grant funding and always have a need for volunteers to help with fundraising research and writing grant materials. Researching and writing grants certainly are transferable to the science world. Many granting agencies also need volunteer grant reviewers, and this is invaluable experience in understanding how proposals are evaluated. I have found out about reviewing opportunities by keeping track of STEM education groups on social media.

  • Leadership and policy. You can join the boards or committees of nonprofit organizations, professional societies and local governments to gain experience in strategic planning, public policy and related leadership skills. For example, many municipalities have open calls for advisory boards (e.g., environmental quality, public health) on an annual basis.    

And here are some additional resources for finding volunteer opportunities:

Finally, here are some ways you can get involved as a volunteer with the ASBMB (not that I’m biased or anything, but I do highly recommend working with this proactive organization that has your interests in mind).

  • Start or join a student chapter to advocate for professional-development needs at your institution or create an outreach program in your community. There also may be opportunities to join an ASBMB committee, so stay tuned to member news alerts about open calls for nominations.  

  • Get involved with science-policy campaigns and organize local efforts. The ASBMB Policy Blotter blog lists out active campaigns that volunteers are needed for (e.g., remove the graduate-student tax from the tax-reform bill).

  • Gain more science-communications experience by writing for the ASBMB Today and other publications or serving as an official blogger or tweeter for the ASBMB annual meeting and other online events. Contact the editor of the publication you are interested in or Angela Hopp (ASBMB’s communications director) to inquire about volunteering.

Donna Kridelbaugh is the ASBMB careers blogger. Connect with her on Twitter (@science_mentor) or at her website (