Volunteering as a Career Development Strategy

by Meris on November 22, 2011

We volunteer a lot with schools when growing up, but now help yourself and your career. Then go back to helping others. :)

Working for free might not be your first plan during a recession, but I am here to tell you that volunteer work is a great career-building tool. I am not specifically talking about charity volunteering (food banks, clothing drives, etc.), but you should do that too. I am talking about volunteering for an organization that works in the field you hope to find a job in.

Wherever you are in your career path—a recent graduate, college student with an undeclared major, in between jobs, or looking for a career change—volunteer work is a great way to:

  • Explore career paths and job responsibilities
  • Build connections/networks
  • Gain experience in a chosen field (even while you have another job)
  • Show potential employers that you love this field so much that you were willing to work for free (at one point).

Now, I have not done any statistical research to necessarily prove that you will get more job offers if you volunteer, but I have a real-life experience with how volunteering helped me get into graduate school and secure regular employment:

As an undergraduate I had every intention of becoming an archaeologist. My specialty was going to be Greek and Egyptian archaeology. The graduate schools had other ideas. I graduated college with a BA in Classics, six rejection letters, and no clear path to take. I returned home to live with my parents. I got a minimum wage job to start paying back my student loans.

I considered taking summer classes to improve my ancient Greek and Latin translation skills, but I also started looking at other options like museum work. If I wouldn’t be able to excavate the artifacts, perhaps I could have a hand in their curation and conservation. Regardless of which career path I took, I knew I needed more experience. I contacted the archaeology lab at a local National Park. I had met the staff a few years prior, when I attended the archaeological field school at that national historic site. I knew from the park’s website that they had many volunteers and I asked if I could come gain some experience in museum curation.

I spent a few months purely as a volunteer. My supervisors quickly became my friends and I became part of a very supportive professional community network. The head curator helped find projects for me that would look good on resumes and graduate school applications. Eventually, they gave me the opportunity to research and design a small museum exhibit and then hired me for a short-term contract to analyze a backlogged collection of artifacts. During this time, I became more interested in North American historical archaeology.

I applied again to graduate schools, albeit with a slightly different geographic focus. The archaeologists and museum personnel that I volunteered for knew many of the professors at the universities that I applied to. I know that these connections helped me be accepted to graduate school, because my supervisors could speak directly about my work ethic, skills, and interests. The volunteer position also helped me get hired at my current job while I was still in graduate school, because I could demonstrate that I had practical skills and work experience.

Many non-profits are looking for volunteers to help with day-to-day operations. If you are interested in science, find out if your local science museum, arboretum, zoo, or aquarium has a volunteer program. Are you a history or anthropology major? Check out your local historical museum. Is the environment your passion? See if any preservation organizations or urban sustainability groups need help with their record keeping. Admittedly, there are many career fields that I do not have specific knowledge of and cannot suggest volunteering ideas. However, I know that my local historical museum was looking for volunteers who could help with web design and social media outreach. So it is possible for tech-savvy folks to find a volunteer opportunity in unlikely places.

Best of luck in your career development!


Meris Mullaley works as an archaeologist in the Pacific Northwest. She fills her free time with: trying to live “sustainably,” hiking, sewing costumes for the next convention, Dungeons & Dragons, and various sci-fi/fantasy tv shows, books, and movies. 

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