In graduate school I have found that along with being a producer of good research, fellowships/post-doctoral advisers/faculty search committee are also often interested in what one has done outside of research (or teaching/TA-ing) as well. Examples of such activities include (but are not limited to) volunteering with younger students in science, organizing a journal club, mentoring undergraduate researchers, etc. In some cases, the importance of these activities is immense: for the NSF CAREER award, for example, having outreach is a substantial part of the application.

However, clearly, spending all of one's time on these activities is not the best idea, since then no research gets done.

So, my question is:

What is the optimal fraction/amount of time to spend on "outreach" activities like those mentioned above, which are explicitly not research or teaching activities, for someone looking to pursue a career at a research university?

  • 2
    I suggest rephrasing the question. In its current form there might not be an actual answer insofar as 'optimal' time varies from person to person, and depends on many variables such as skill, experience, history, etc.
    – OK-
    Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 4:34
  • 7
    Optimal in what sense? Optimal for your happiness? Optimal for getting tenure? Optimal for making the world a better place? Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 13:25
  • Would you consider changing the question to "How do I know if I'm spending too much time on volunteering/leadership/organizing vs research?" - I think that might make it more answerable (and I really want to know the answer :))
    – ff524
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 2:44
  • Yes, I guess in some way that is my question too, but I also am not sure if it's answerable.
    – Danny W.
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 4:18

4 Answers 4


I believe the optimal amount of time spent on these other activities is as little as possible.

Graduate students are notoriously overworked and underpaid. In essence, they are trying to see how much work they can get you to do for them, for free. In situations like this, where they attempt to get you to prove how much of a 'team player' you are by essentially providing them valuable work without them having to pay for it, you need to be on your guard and make sure you aren't taken advantage of.

You will need some of these 'extra-curricular' activities. But they are a means to an end. Essentially you must demonstrate your willingness to go 'above and beyond' the explicitly listed duties of your job without neglecting the official duties. It can be a tight balancing act.

There isn't a hard and fast ratio, like 70% research/ 30% leadership. Instead, you will need to be skilled at determining your peers/superiors expectations for you in this regard and meeting/exceeding them, and this will vary from institution to institution and individual to individual. A lot of potential feedback is likely to be of the 'you must read between the lines' variety.They are unlikely to say "You aren't going to get the position unless you do more work for us for free". Instead they might hint "you are doing great in your research, but it would be very nice if you would take more initiative and perhaps be more of a mentor to younger students" - indeed, anything phrased as definitively as that is equivalent to being posted in bright red flashing letters.

In general you will be pressured to spend more time on these activities than you can afford to, or is necessary for your career. Finding out where that level is (somewhere between 'nothing' and 'everything they ever ask you to do') may be a matter of trial and error.

I would spend time on the research unless you get the distinct feeling you are not meeting expectations in the extra-curriculars department.


Short answer: You should spend "some" time on volunteering and leadership activities.

Unlike an undergraduate student, a graduate student is primarily focused on research, so you don't want to spend "a lot" of time elswhere. Even so, proficiency in other activities is something of a "tiebreaker" against another candidate with comparable research activities that doesn't have "outside" activities.

This is in contrast to undergraduate work, where "leadership" is the "whole game" for some students (for later life)--provided they pass their courses.

  • 2
    See, actually this is what I disagree with. I have applied for numerous fellowships/grants etc. where the volunteering was explicitly NOT a tie breaker, but was required (and these were big money, multi-year science grants). But, graduate school is often sold as being about only research. So I'm really just confused.
    – Danny W.
    Commented Sep 29, 2014 at 17:27
  • @DannyW. The problem with tie-breakers is, if you can count on many people being really good at the primary selection criterion, having good "tie-breakers" becomes mandatory. (and if those were reputable grants / fellowships, you can assume that most applicants had grand research CVs)
    – xLeitix
    Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 8:30
  • @xLeitix So, it's hard to call them tiebreakers, in that case. Maybe "The criteria formerly known as tiebreakers"?
    – Danny W.
    Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 12:53

It has to factor in what your goals are for 5 years from now. Are you truly interested in the field in which you are doing research? Or do you actually need to think about changing tracks to make some of the volunteering your career? What would give you joy in daily work?

If you are committed to the research field, then think about the relevancy of the volunteering. If your goals include highly competitive academic positions, you will need to be publishing 2 solid articles per year to survive. Solid research even now is the foundation without which nothing happens.

The volunteer work should be meaningful ideally to both you and those who hire you either academically or in industry. Joining too many organizations with little contribution may make you feel you are doing something but won't add to your credentials. Focusing on perhaps at most 2 and rising to some official capacity or being able to document accomplishment is deemed essential according to many who have succeeded.

What kind of "cake" do you seek to make out of your work life? Volunteering is frosting for which you feel good. But you need to work on the cake foremost.


One point I'm missing in the answers so far is that you learn skills with many such activities that you need later on. As a postdoc, people will expect that you can teach and supervise a small group as well as doing research on your own. The same is true if you want to become a group leader in industry.

So unless you're the natural born group leader and teacher, you'll need to put in a certain amount of time to try out how these things work. When and where you do this is maybe less relevant*: I learned a lot of this volounteering in a student group as an undergrad. You may also convince people that you learned teaching by fincancing your studies giving private lessons.
I have learned more about group leading looking after students doing research practicum, and after students doing their bachelor/master/diplom theses. In terms of getting research done, research practicum students typically require a multiple of the time I need to do the work. (And I find it important to be clear about that beforehand, and also to communicate this clearly to everyone, in particular to supervisors and students.)
In terms of learning how to formulate a decent research project, how to find someone capable and willing o work on it and how to supervise such work, I don't see many alternatives to putting in the effort.

I'm less enthusastic about looking after a 101 labwork practicum. I do get out a thorough update on my general professional knowledge, but the time put in to knowledge gained ratio is really bad. You can still learn skills like teaching and grading, though.
Note: during most of my PhD I've not been paid for the research, the wage I got was for looking after a labwork practicum. However, this was non-negotiable in the sense that while I could have refused the contract, I'd still have been assigned as TA. So at the end of the day, there wasn't much volounteering about this. It was part of "everyone has to make their contribution to keep the institue alive". Where I'm now, teaching practicum is officially required during the PhD in some faculties.

* With the exception that starting to learn these skills as a postdoc is very late.

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