The idea of getting involved in administrative duties - actually, the idea of getting involved in anything other than your PhD - might seem crazy. You have enough to do, what with reading, research, writing, and you can just about manage sleeping and eating, right?
But, if you plan on becoming an academic, doing research and writing is not the only thing you're going to need to become skilled in. In your career, you will be part of the university environment, and this is an ecosystem which relies on certain levels of bureaucracy to run smoothly. It's important to understand it, even if you don't always like it, and for me, the best way to understand something and the reasons for its existence is to get involved.
In the Research Week at the end of my first year, my colleague and friend the Viking and I were elected as student representatives for the PhD community. This duty, at our department at least, is as onerous or easy as you choose to make it. I suspect we made it hard on ourselves.
This is a short list of the things we chose to do during our tenure.
Research Committee: a monthly meeting between the research members of the Department, raising issues relating to research activities to be fed into the research committees of the university. I attended these meetings, and I learned a huge amount about the structure of the university, the jargon its administrative people use, and how research is viewed, honoured and supported within the academic system.
SSTLC – Student Staff Teaching and Learning Committee: these meetings happened every couple of weeks, and were designed to allow students to air concerns, issues and report on the life of the community, and for staff to respond. My colleague chaired these, and I learned a lot from watching her do so. I also learned a lot about diplomacy.
Thinktanks: these were extra-curricular sessions that we ran for the MA students in our department. Because there were no undergraduates in our School, it was hard for us to gain teaching experience. The Thinktanks had originally been set up by previous PhD Candidates to fill this lack, and we resurrected them to form what is now a vibrant series of workshops and extra tutorials. I'm proud of this.
Social Responsibility: Administration is not just about bureaucracy. It's about people, helping them to feel more comfortable and creating an environment in which they can work and be happy. Whilst I wouldn't say we organised many events, as we were naturally a fairly sociable unit, we did try to ensure that people were content and that any issues they had were resolved as quickly and successfully as possible. One of things we had to do, however, was to help the new students who arrive throughout the year. We tried very hard to make this work, to make people feel comfortable and enjoy themselves in their new environment. It's never an easy thing to do.
Doing a PhD is often seen as a lonely task. But that doesn't have to be the case if you take some responsibility for the department in which you are housed. A PhD is something you do for yourself - but by getting involved, you're doing something for other people as well. I learned a lot, and I feel that I will be a better academic, because of the work I did as student representative. I learned diplomacy, compromise (an important skill for an only child), I learned how to help and manage people, and I learned how to manage myself. I've learned how to teach, how to organise projects, and I've learned some important things about the environment which allowed me to do a PhD in the first place. It has given me skills for the job market that I hope will, eventually, serve me well.
It is so easy to get wrapped up in your own head whilst doing a thesis. But doing this kind of work is a way of coming out of that shell, and, more importantly, of ensuring other people can do so too.