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When I had joined the program last year, I was assigned an advisor who was the one I'd wanted to work with. However, due to things not working out (because she thinks I lack the background), I have had to start looking for a new one, and that's what I was working on all summer. I'm still in the process of finding someone by working on small projects with some faculty (in order to show them I can do the kind of research they do). This kind of puts me a bit behind my cohort. In my department, most PhD students have an advisor within two quarters. While a lot of other students I spoke with told me that it is perfectly normal to be finding an advisor a bit later than year 1, I'm very much embarrassed about being at this stage.

So anyway, my department's academic advisor just sent out an email saying she needed someone to take up the role of President of the grad student organization of the department, and I really want to go for it. In the past, I've enjoyed working with people and organizing stuff; I really enjoy talking to people and putting forward people's problems and finding solutions to them, especially the seemingly small ones that actually do make a difference.

My question is, would faculty members consider it strange on my part if I ended up as President when I don't even have an advisor and a research project going for me? I mean, would it look like I don't have my priorities set straight? I wouldn't want to do it if there's even the slightest chance of it creating a bad impression.

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It very much depends on the quality of your PhD work. If that looks good, it can be a boost to your CV. However, if your work is middling, this may appear like escapism (or perhaps a political career is what you should pursue instead of a PhD).

This is always, as @user3209815 said, your decision. What is unlikely to work well is to take up this job and getting even further behind on your PhD work.

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    Totally agree. It's OK to be behind if you can show you're trying your hardest. It's less OK if you are doing all sorts of voluntary activities on the side as well. I don't at all think this is 'fair' - but that's just the reality of the situation you're in. – Wetlab Walter Sep 1 '16 at 12:57
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would faculty members consider it strange on my part if I ended up as President when I don't even have an advisor and a research project going for me?

I think the better question would be whether or not the faculty would care to correlate those things. And the answer is, probably not. Faculty members, especially senior ones, are used to balancing multiple roles (PI, adviser, various department positions, etc.), so your's wouldn't stick out.

Further, in my experience as an undergrad and grad student, students that take on such responsibilities usually fall into one of two categories:

  1. they are a kind of superhuman, and while fully being dedicated to their president role, they also find the time and energy to not let their studies suffer
  2. they fully dedicate themselves to their role and are unable to focus enough on their studies

Interestingly, though again as my observation, the lower administrative roles (e.g. a member of the student parliament) tend to to "favor" the second category while higher roles (e.g. a student union president) fall in the first category more often. This obviously depends on the person, but persons who are elected to functions tend to be motivated (like you are) and also tend to exhibit political qualities, like being charismatic, communicative, "good with people". So, if you get elected, you could find yourself with more contacts and opportunities to talk with people (faculty and students). It could get easier for you getting to know faculty members, as you would be obliged to meet with them on "organization business". If you are good at those things, you could probably even help yourself find a more suitable adviser.

The other side of the story is, that you would probably also take longer to graduate. But again that is a sacrifice you should be prepared to make, when you apply for the experience. And also, no one would blame you for taking a bit longer to graduate if you held such a position.

would it look like I don't have my priorities set straight?

It could also look like you were an ambitious student who is capable of battling on two fronts. There will always be people who will think that you don't have your priorities set straight and others that think that you are ambitious and capable, and also a whole spectrum of opinions in-between. That shouldn't matter if you are passionate about something. But, it is always advisable to ask for advice from some faculty member who you trust. However, keep in mind that their opinion falls somewhere in the above spectrum and it is ultimately up to you to make your decision.

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It's my impression that how activities that don't directly pertain to your PhD research are perceived depends entirely on the individual.

My adviser often "tsks" and shakes his head when my job comes up. I'm sure he understands that I need to work to support myself now that my stipend support period is over, but he's still always reminding me to focus on my research. One of my other committee members, however, is nothing but supportive and thinks my job is great experience.

What does this mean to you? In my opinion it means you absolutely avoid taking student government activities on. You don't yet have an adviser, and you need one soon. There's a chance this could be an obstacle, so don't do it. Justified or not, some people will judge it as a lack of comittement on your part to your PhD work. They'll think undergrad is the time for this sort of thing, and now you have to show you're serious about your research.

Again, I'm not making a judgment claim here, but the chance that some people in the department will seems like a near-certainty to me.

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This is a question about politics so I would approach it "politically?"

The academic adviser is someone to take notice of, so a big question is, will she take notice of you? Maybe she will help you resolve your personal adviser problem if you do this for her. Will others take notice in a negative way? (Perhaps not.)

Who do you stand to impress by taking the student body profession? Who do you stand to turn off? Which group will likely have the greater impact on your program?

In high school, I was a Student Council officer who had a chance to run for class president as a "favorite." I turned down the opportunity in favor of my studies, and deeply regret it even today, over 40 years later.

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