Professional Development

Making the most of your graduate student association

These campus groups advocate on your behalf, offer professional-development programming and sometimes even provide funding to those in need
Courtney Chandler
July 15, 2022

During most of your experience in school, you’ve probably been aware of student government groups — whether it was class presidents in high school, student groups in college, or something else. In graduate school, it’s no different: Meet the graduate student association, or GSA. 

What is a GSA? 

Although sometimes they go by other names, GSAs are generally groups of graduate students from throughout the university. Most of the time, their core function is to act as a liaison between the graduate student body and the higher powers at the university. GSAs should present the opinions, problems and ideas of the graduate students to the faculty and administration, and (in an ideal world) the administration should reciprocally consult with the GSA when making decisions that affect grad students. 

GSAs also organize student activities, plan professional-development programs, provide travel awards and otherwise promote opportunities for graduate students. GSAs can vary greatly by school, and some graduate students are even unionized (more on that in an upcoming article), which changes the way they operate. Today, I’m mainly going to be talking about my experience with the GSA during graduate school, so keep in mind it may be different at your school. 

Through my involvement with the GSA, I got to see firsthand how these groups advocate for graduate students. Members of the GSA got to meet with the president of our university and deans and administrators on a quarterly basis to discuss upcoming issues that related to grad students and to communicate our successes or concerns about existing problems. Most of the time, these meetings were productive — we successfully advocated to prevent an increase in student fees for several years. Sometimes, we were not successful, and the administration made changes that we didn't recommend. Regardless, we got to have our voices heard, and it was a great chance to meet and interact with university leadership. 

Additionally, GSA members often serve as graduate student representatives for the universitywide student association to ensure our specific needs and interests are heard. This is a great way to meet other students and learn about what is going on at the university as a whole. 

What else do GSAs do? 

Beyond representing grad students, GSAs often plan activities for them. At my grad school, the GSA planned the entire new student orientation week in the fall and also planned a graduate research conference in the spring. Additionally, the GSA occasionally hosted socials for students, which was a great way to mingle and meet new people in various grad programs. 

Many GSAs also host volunteer events. Ours would typically run a coat and cold-weather clothing drive in the winter, but many groups try to organize off-site events for students to volunteer in the community as well. 

Outside of events, some GSAs offer funding. My GSA offered travel and professional-development monetary awards. If there’s a school or work-related trip or conference you attended that wasn’t covered by lab funds, you could apply for a travel award to help ease the cost burden. Likewise, if there was a training opportunity (say an online course) that you could benefit from, you could apply for a professional-development award to help cover the cost. Student groups could also apply for funding every semester to help support their missions. These award opportunities would most likely be listed on your GSA’s website, or you could try reaching out to one of the board members. 

Should I get involved? 

When I started grad school, joining any type of student government wasn’t on my radar. I had never been interested or involved in anything like that before, and it didn’t seem like something I would enjoy. Our monthly GSA meetings were open to everyone, so I agreed to tag along with my roommate a few months into grad school (read: I wanted the free food). I’m glad I did. I ended up liking being in the know about what was happening in the graduate school and met a lot of great people and friends. I stayed involved until my last year of graduate school and gained a lot of valuable leadership and communication skills (plus a few résumé bullet points). I would recommend going to a meeting if you have time — you may find it to be something you enjoy and something that will add a positive element to your graduate school experience. 

If you don’t have time or if it just isn’t your thing, that’s totally fine too — there are other ways you can benefit from your GSA without being actively involved. See if your GSA offers any of the funding opportunities mentioned above. At my school, any graduate student could take advantage of these opportunities even if they had never been to a meeting. 

Additionally, you can attend any social or professional-development events hosted by the GSA even if you aren’t a member. Our GSA hosted socials, volunteer events and conferences. The conferences were normally smaller than national conferences, so there was a higher chance of getting an oral presentation. All participants also received judge feedback if they wanted it, making it a constructive way to improve your presentation skills. 

Being an active member of the GSA may not be for everyone, but GSAs are there to serve their student body and represent the best interests of grad students. Even if you don’t attend meetings, keeping an eye on GSA events and funding opportunities can be helpful.

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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