Degree In Sight

Organizing a community

As a graduate student, your to-do list may seem never-ending: Meet your thesis proposal deadline, fix that research design hiccup, scale a mountain of reading, study for the test. Just thinking about it can be overwhelming.

Joining a graduate student organization may sound like one more task you don't have time for. But, for many students, these groups serve as an oasis of like-minded peers, helping them replenish their energy and creativity, according to Jude Butch, the assistant director of student activities at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Student organizations are important for graduate students because they help connect people with similar interests who may not have previously had a chance to meet, says Butch.

There are two kinds of graduate student groups, says Butch, and graduate students can benefit from joining both. Department-specific groups generally have an academic focus and offer such programs as lectures and brown-bag lunches where experts discuss such topics as publishing, professionalism and networking. Cross-departmental groups tend to focus on social activities and campus advocacy efforts.

These opportunities help students stay connected to one another and give them a voice with the administration. For example, many campus-wide groups have a seat on the faculty senate and can provide feedback to professors, says Butch. As a result, they can help secure such perks as extra funding to attend conferences and even secure special study lounges for graduate students. But perhaps most important, cross-departmental groups give students an opportunity to network and make friends with fellow researchers in many fields, says Brandi Pritchett, a counseling psychology doctoral student at Western Michigan University who chairs the school's Graduate Student Advisory Committee. That's why she organized a professional mix-and-mingle where 100 students munched on gourmet appetizers and heard presentations on networking, interviewing skills and professionalism before having the opportunity to chat with fellow students, faculty and administrators.

In addition to giving students a break from research and coursework, these kinds of events help students build personal and professional networks, adds Stacy Ogbeide, a clinical psychology student at the Forest Institute in Springfield, Mo. "We all get bogged down with coursework and other academic obligations, but when people take the time to get involved, they often find the time to stay involved," she says.

Joining a departmental group can also help build your network and friendships, but perhaps the greatest benefit is that they can help you focus your research goals. For example, students at Forest Institute's Integrated Health Care student organization meet twice a month to present their thesis or dissertation ideas to other students for feedback. The group often brainstorms ways to improve the project, says Ogbeide, who chairs the group. Her group also hosts potluck dinners and movie nights.

"School should be about more than a degree," says Pritchett. "It should also be about whom you meet and how you grow while you're there. These organizations are critical to that."

Creating a group

Smaller schools or new departments may not have grad student groups. But starting one is easy and well worth the effort, students say. It helps to make these groups official, they add. While anyone can meet informally outside of class, receiving formal recognition from your school opens up communication with administrators, access to meeting rooms and even thousands of dollars in funding. At George Mason University, students who want to form a university-recognized group must only enlist seven members, write a constitution outlining the group's goals and rules, and fill out some paperwork.

To grow your fledgling group into an active organization, start by offering events that speak to students' academic interests but that don't require a large number of attendees, recommends Butch. Consider hosting a brown-bag lunch where students present and get feedback on their current projects. Butch also recommends hosting a monthly lecture series where professors speak about a hot issue. Provide snacks afterward, so students can meet one another, he says.

Whatever events you choose in your organization's early stages, don't be afraid to fail, adds Pritchett. "Try something and if it doesn't work, try something new," she says. But if it does work, she adds, there's no reason to stop a good thing.

Pritchett followed her own advice as she continued an existing bowling night for all Western Michigan University graduate students and their families. The event works so well, with so many people signing up, the committee has to rent out the entire bowling alley for the event each year.

Another key to success is regularly soliciting feedback from your members, says Ogbeide. Send them surveys, e-mails and chat with them at events about what works and what doesn't.

Keep members informed by using e-mail listservs or Web sites. You can also create a group Facebook page where people can exchange ideas and provide feedback, improving the community, Ogbeide says. But messages regarding upcoming events should also be conveyed by an e-mail system that reaches all the students in a department so that no one gets left out, she says.

Also, be sure to ask your university administrators whether your school provides money for your program or will even pay for snacks, says Butch.

George Mason, for example, has earmarked funds to pay speakers and provide food at events. The university also provides student organizations with $1,000 per year for travel to academic conferences. That's free money for your group to decrease the cost of airfare, lodging or food while attending a meeting such as APA's Annual Convention in San Diego, Aug. 12–15.

"These groups have helped me forge lasting connections while also providing a break from my studies," says Pritchett. "And I'm not going to lie: Meeting people at events has given me some pretty sweet networking hook-ups as well."