How volunteering can support you and your research

While life as a scientist can be incredibly rewarding, day-to-day life at the bench can at times feel like a drag. In this post, Katherine MacInnes tells us how transformative it can be to find an extra passion that provides short-term rewards for the soul to keep us healthy and motivated in life.

5 min read
How volunteering can support you and your research

One of the biggest motivators for scientists is the potential to have a positive impact on the world. However, the scientific journey can be long and winding, and it often takes longer than expected to finish a research project or to see its impact. As a graduate student, I've experienced the ups and downs of research first-hand , but I have found a great complement in volunteer projects.

Getting involved with a volunteer project has given me an outlet with visible, direct positive effects on my community, while my research has the potential for greater benefit but in the longer term. Moreover, seeing these short-term positive results has boosted my confidence and motivation, which further feed into my research project.

Like many others, I had to overcome difficult challenges and unpredictable experimental outcomes during my PhD. Chatting with colleagues around the world, I learned that this is normal and that I was not alone in my occasional sense of inadequacy. Of course, these conversations can be reassuring but don't completely stop you from having those feelings.

As an early career researcher you can feel especially powerless when it comes to your academic or work life. You’re not prominent in your department, you’re not well-known in the field (yet!), and you’ve got a lot of pressure to publish your work quickly. You’re also still in training: you will make a lot of mistakes (that’s OK!) and you need to learn from them without letting them permanently dent your self-confidence. Some people call this stage ‘conscious incompetence’ – you know what you’re doing wrong, but you haven’t yet learned how to overcome it.

Chances are, you’re going to be left with some imposter's syndrome. However, chances are that you’re not that far from finally finding the answers. It's often a matter of motivation, which is something you can certainly get from volunteering.

Volunteer power

Outside of science, I run Bristol Science Film Festival as a volunteer. The festival's main event is a short film competition for science fact (documentary) and science fiction films that are under 10 minutes long.

I started volunteering with the festival when I moved to Bristol for my PhD in 2017. Now, I head up everything to do with the competition, festival publicity, festival screenings and long-term business strategy.

Taking charge of the Bristol Science Film Festival has supported my development as a person and researcher by giving me confidence and security in myself, as well as allowing me to develop a ton of transferable skills beyond academia. It helps with all that niggling self-doubt that characterises early career research.

For example, I’ve put myself in a position where I manage teams of up to 20 volunteers, where I manage a social enterprise and tight budgets, and where I get to meet and network with cool people both within my local community and all over the world.

It’s such a fabulous challenge, and one where your hard work always pays off.

Why ECRs excel in these roles

ECRs have a lot to offer communities. Most of all, we relish a challenge! In a way, spotting problems is our superpower (ever been told you’re too critical?!) Luckily, we’re also good at offering solutions, which is invaluable for any volunteer project.

One of my favourite things in leading the Film Festival is using lean thinking. This is an entrepreneurial strategy that involves collecting data on your business or product and making iterative improvements based on the data you’ve collected, just like the scientific method.

For example, after the first virtual Film Festival in 2020, we received audience feedback that the chat feature was a nice addition the festival, but that a couple of audience members had had tech issues with the livestream. Based on that, we prioritised keeping the chat feature but simplified how we streamed the Festival and increased communication on how the streaming worked to avoid these issues.

This way I can test out different ideas and see what our audiences think. Then I can either improve those ideas or cut them from the next Festival if they weren’t well-received. I’m improving the Festival each time I run it based on the data I gather.

Fostering compassion to support your mental health

Not only is volunteering amazing for skills-building and having a positive impact on your community, it also has huge potential for serving your own mental health. Many ECRs struggle with mental ill-health, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is a growing body of evidence that developing self-compassion and compassion for others boosts your mental health and wellbeing. A volunteering or community-based project is a constant act of compassion, often for complete strangers. Moreover, the gratitude that you get back from fellow volunteers or the community you serve is really mood-boosting, which gives you a huge sense of purpose, self-respect and positive feelings.

It’s also a way to get yourself out of the academic bubble for a time and build links with the local and international community. “For the first time I was exposed to other filmmakers like me who were interested in science and passionate about their ideas,” Dr Joshua Chawner, winner of the 2020 Science Fact Amateur film prize, told us. “It was really fun to take part in an event like this and feel part of something larger, particularly during lockdown when life was quite isolated.”

Building social relationships and sense of community is also really important for mental health. Many ECRs will have to move cities – if not countries – every few years at this stage in their careers, which makes building links in your local or global community even more necessary.

Finding an opportunity to get involved

Fancy getting involved in something similar? Here are a few ideas:

  • Check out the volunteer centre at your city or university. These advertise volunteer opportunities from a range of organisations.
  • Get in touch with any charitable organisations/campaigns that you like the work of and offer your time
  • Get creative and submit a film to the Bristol Science Film Festival! You could team up with others in your department or get in touch with film students at your university to get your project started
  • There are often great opportunities in your department to help with science outreach. These tend to be advertised in your university/academic newsletters and can be amazing bonding opportunities with your colleagues

Managing Bristol Science Film Festival has been a truly rewarding endeavour for me. Just like the festival, there are many wonderful volunteering opportunities out there! I hope I’ve inspired you to use your ECR superpowers to go out and make a difference in your local or global communities in your own unique way. Your efforts won’t just benefit others, but will also benefit yourself. I know I will forever treasure the experiences that the Film Festival has given to me!  

About the authors:

Katherine MacInnes is a PhD student and Research Associate at the University of Bristol, UK, and Director of the Bristol Science Film Festival. Follow Katherine on Twitter.

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