I believe in the idea of servant leadership. Because of this, the answer to the question of what does it mean to be a leader is a simple one – it is to be willing, able, and available to serve the needs of others. In graduate school this becomes complicated, because success requires that we focus consistently on building our C.V. There are precious few incentives to devote your time to the benefit of others. Nevertheless, it will make the campus, and our educations collectively better if you step up as a leader. So how to do this?
What graduate students should do to gain leadership experience during their time at USC is to start with those closest to them. What are their needs and how can those needs be met? It requires smart and active listening to understand these needs, and frankly isn’t the easiest thing to do. However, there is a good way to start. Think about the “unwritten rules” of your program/college/situation. It might be which professors are hardest for comprehensive exams, which classes are the most valuable, which advisors give the best feedback or serve as the strongest advocates for their students, where certain regular sources of funding are and who gets them, where are the best places to live, which places offer the best internships, which conferences are the most beneficial and are the most affordable, or other minutiae that is nonetheless valuable. Write down your list. Some of this will probably just be gossip, and conveniently enough, that will probably be the stuff you are the least comfortable signing your name to, so feel free to delete that. Chances are that what remains is a good list of needs crying out for leadership. Writing that formally and sharing it can be a help, but the second challenge of a leader is to go beyond this. Think of ways to best formalize and update that tacit knowledge so that student can permanently benefit from it. Maybe it is broadly applicable, and should be disseminated through the Graduate Student Association. Maybe it is exceptionally useful but just to your program, in which case either working with the department or with a professional association to set up an infrastructure to maintain and update the information is best. Maybe it is broadly applicable to select groups of graduate students – in which case look for specific university committees, advisory boards, or other relevant groups where you might be able to contribute. Then use this information as an agenda item to get involved in the relevant organization and commit for at least a year to it. This long-term commitment doesn’t need to be very time consuming and can be limited to just a few hours a semester (on the low end), but will help reinforce the importance of your agenda.
I have followed needs illuminated by this list onto a wide variety of university committees and into a number of organizations on campus. Sometimes in a larger context, my initial agenda has come to seem silly or shallow, and sometimes the problems have been magnified. Occasionally I have had great success in addressing real problems, and more regularly it has been a real challenge to make a difference. Regardless of the outcome, the path of leadership has been worthwhile for one simple reason: I have done something tangible to address every problem I saw at USC. That makes the six years I have invested here translate into something far more meaningful than just a PhD. It makes me proud to be a Gamecock.
Mark VanDriel is a doctoral candidate in history in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Carolina. Mark is the graduate student representative on the Graduate Council at the University.
Questions? Comments? Ideas? Contact Dr. Heather Brandt at firstname.lastname@example.org.