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Home » Discover Rackham » The Fourth Pillar of Graduate School

When entering my education and psychology Ph.D. program, I was told to prepare for the three pillars of graduate study: research, teaching, and classes. These three activities would constitute my job, and thus the majority of my time, for the next five years. Having reached that point in my education, I felt nervous but prepared for the balancing act. Still, my mentors, advisors, and students alike repeatedly (and accurately) warned that these three domains would complicate my learning experience in new and unpredictable ways.

Classes would be smaller and more student-directed than I experienced in the past. Research would demand a unique cocktail of creativity and perseverance as I worked to make a name for myself among giants. Teaching would be a blend of the previous two, and happily claim any time I may have left. Combined, these were the three spheres of a Venn diagram representing a challenging new educational experience, with me—a naive and tentative scholar—positioned in the center.

I slowly began to realize, however, that something in this experience felt incomplete. While I had ample opportunities to address my curiosity, expand my knowledge, and guide rising students, I found myself feeling disconnected from the larger university community. Graduate school, despite its impressive scope, felt isolating. The work was often solitary and tangible outcomes were few and far between.

What was missing was a fourth pillar. A fourth dimension of graduate study that would help expand the experience beyond the myself and ground it in meaningful differences for others in the present.

What was missing was service.

Service represented work outside of my degree program and beyond the advancement of the students in my classroom. It meant working as part of a team with the shared mission of improving the well-being and circumstances of others on a larger scale. Service rounded out my graduate student experience, providing opportunities to use what I learned through my research, teaching, and classes to make lasting changes throughout the university.

I engaged in service through membership in a variety of organizations. These included diversity-based student groups which organized social events and professional development workshops for students of color. It also included departmental boards which ensured the university’s hiring practices were equitable and diverse. It also included character-based organizations like the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society.

Service is one of the five tenets of the Edward A. Bouchet society. According to the group’s charter, members are expected to “actively contribute to the well-being of society by giving, remaining involved, sharing personal gifts and talents, and exhibiting a Bouchet-like commitment to the service of others.” Among Bouchet scholars, service is not an optional component of graduate education. On the contrary, it is our expectation as engaged and contributing members of an environment of higher education.

While I support this view, there are some important caveats that I share with those who ask about the role of service in graduate school. First, the pillars I presented here will not be relevant for everyone. I have numerous colleagues who do not engage in some of these domains or who chose to focus solely on those areas that will take them most immediately to their proverbial finish line. While there are undoubtedly many unsuccessful ways to complete graduate school, I cannot claim that the pillars I have laid out are the keys to a definitive success. Rather, I have found these four areas to be central to my own professional success and, perhaps more importantly, personal well-being. The inclusion of meaningful service to my education has been a deciding factor in transforming my graduate experience into one that is more equitable, fulfilling, and personally transformative.

Second, balancing each of these pillars is much easier said than done. Indeed, at times it was all I can do to handle any one of them, let alone all of them. Graduate school is as much an exercise in time management and prioritizing as anything else, and any one of these pillars could constitute a full-time job. This is why, whenever possible, service should go hand in hand with your graduate work. Seek out organizations with missions that coincide with your professional goals. Find positions that may benefit from the expertise you have gained through your scholarship. Encourage your friends and colleagues to participate, which fosters a sense of community while deepening your professional network. Demonstrate that you walk the talk of change that you advocate for in your work.

Lastly, as with (hopefully) the rest of your graduate work, find service you are passionate about. Doing so transformed my graduate school experience, and it may do the same for you.