Getting Involved in your Department: A Quick Guide
It’s November, so chances are that you’ve settled into university life quite well. You may have submitted some coursework and figured out the campus, so now it’s time to think about getting a bit more involved with the academic side of things. Lectures and seminars are part of your timetable, but did you know that there are a lot of other ways to get involved in your department? Aside from adding things to your schedule, it can lead to work and volunteering opportunities, as well as building relationships that may benefit you after you finish university. If you’re in second or third year, there is still time to make the system work to your benefit!
Once you’ve figured your way around and learnt who everyone is, look out for advertisements of opportunities that may be sent via email, your virtual learning platform, or through social media. With the world still as it is, a lot of seminar series, conferences and research days are still taking place online, which removes the travel commitment and costs associated with these events, which can often act as a barrier to some students. As a postgraduate, you may be required to attend a set number of events such as these, so keep an eye out for things that interest you. There may be specific, optional activities aimed at undergraduates specifically, and these are often a mixture of social time and workshop activities to help with writing and researching. There is of course central help provided by the university, but department-specific workshops are more tailored to your degree. They're often run by postgraduate research students, which bridges the gap between student and staff, so don't be intimidated by the thought of going, as researchers are learning to teach too.
In later years of study, your department may offer several research projects that are designed for undergraduates. These often take place over the summer break, but often come with a stipend or wage. These programmes give students the opportunity to carry out research under the supervision of staff in your department, which can give you a taste of archival work and public speaking. These projects usually involve an application and an interview, but it’s worth the time if you are considering a postgraduate degree. There may be stiff competition for these, with perhaps only two projects to serve an entire year group. If you don't secure one of these, know that it won't negatively impact your future.
Departments will sometimes secure funding to put on a series of events, which may be a great opportunity for you to get involved in some public history. Helping to plan and deliver an event to the public will look fantastic on your CV, as well as enabling you to network with others in your field. I’ve found occasions like this really valuable, so if your department is organising something, even if it’s not your particular area of interest, don’t be afraid to send an email asking to get involved.
You may feel like you’ve just got to university, but it’s never too early to think about placements and studying abroad. Lots of people I knew spent a semester or a year at another university, and I think that being a student is the perfect excuse to travel a bit. Studying abroad usually takes place in the second year of study, or between the second and third, if you’re going for a whole year. Everything is organised through the university, and there will probably be a contact within your department who will have the information you’ll need. Presentations about studying abroad often take place after Christmas, but check out your university’s website and have a think about whether it’s something you might be interested in.
Other placements or volunteer work will most likely take place alongside your studies, and it doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. Many history graduates go on to teach, so shadowing a teacher at a school is one way to see if you’re interested in a career in education. Many museums and archives also love volunteers, so committing a couple of hours each week will land you with a decent, relevant reference, as well as some hands-on experience, which is especially valuable in the current climate. Some places may get in touch with universities asking for volunteers, but feel free to approach places yourself and ask for more information. For students considering postgraduate study, universities often hold informal lunches and meetings to go over what is involved in an MA or MRes. Staying at your current university is a viable option that many students choose for continuity and financial benefits, so sign up and go along if you're interested.
Paid employment is often a lifeline for students such as myself, who need some extra cash to top up loans or pay off debt. Finding employment relevant to your degree isn’t always necessary, as graduate employers tend to understand that jobs in the sector for unqualified individuals are hard to come by. However, universities themselves are often big employers, so look into jobs advertised on central portals, especially those that concern recruitment. Sharing my student experiences is how I pay my bills at the moment, and I can’t champion it enough. Universities know that the best way to advertise their courses are through their students, and large-scale open days require lots of people to make them run. Giving up a few weekends a year can net you a decent profit if you’re not bothered about a regular commitment, so get in touch with your department about opportunities such as this. I’ve led campus tours, showed off my room in halls to prospective students, given small presentations about my work in public history and helped set up and pack down the event. Chatting about my experience to prospect students also helped me to realise that I wanted to continue my studies, and hopefully teach in some capacity too.
Finally, organising meetings with lecturers and checking in with your personal tutor is another way to keep connected to the department. As well as talking through feedback, developing positive relationships with staff is important if you’ll need them to write you a reference or use their connections in your graduate job search. There’s often the worry among students that they’re just a number, and while I don’t think that’s true, you do have to take some initiative in establishing yourself in a new place. The more that staff get to know you, the more likely they are to recommend you for opportunities and share advice with you. There’s nothing wrong with exploiting your connections, but you have to do the work and make them first!
Overall, getting involved in departmental activities will help to make your academic experience a lot more well-rounded. If you feel a little intimidated, take a friend with you, and at least there will be one person there that you know.