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When (and when not) to volunteer at work

11 April 2022

Taking on additional responsibilities can yield professional benefits, but it’s important to select opportunities carefully to avoid burnout.

Tasks that may go beyond a science professional’s job description include participating in open houses and workshops. Credit:

Editor’s note: This article is part of a career advice series contributed by Physics Today’s partners at the American Institute of Physics Career Network.

As a scientific professional, you will be given the opportunity to do all sorts of tasks that may not be part of your official job description: reviewing manuscripts for journals, hosting prospective students or the public at open houses, serving on departmental or institutional committees, organizing sessions at technical conferences, and much more. Such extra activities can be a great way to build your skills and your professional network, but they can also require a lot of your time and energy and may have unexpected effects on your professional pathway. Before you accept or decline, take time to evaluate the offer. Only then can you determine if you should commit the time, energy, and resources needed to be successful.

To start, make sure you understand exactly what you are being asked to do. For example, if your supervisor asks you to “edit this paper,” inquire about the level of edit needed. Is this a first draft, and you’re being asked for your opinion on the ideas and organizational scheme? Or is it a nearly final version that only needs to be checked for typographical errors? Understanding the request can save a lot of trouble in the long run.

Ideally, the project you are being asked to do has a specific goal and a defined end point. Some of the parameters may have already been set, so ask about restrictions. What people, budget, and resources have been committed? Which ones would you be expected to provide?

In addition to time and professional expertise, you may be expected to contribute your personal assets. For example, you may have to cover the cost of meals or travel to meetings, and you may even be asked to donate additional funds. Some groups reimburse volunteers for travel and other expenses or provide honoraria, but even that can be a hardship if the initial outlay is substantial or the wait for reimbursement is long. Be sure you know exactly what you are agreeing to.

If the request is for a less well-defined project, such as organizing a student career night, gather as much information as possible. Find out if you will be personally responsible or part of a team, and if the level of responsibility matches the expectations for what you will accomplish. Determine the time frame—both how long the project will go on and how much time it will take on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.

For ongoing, long-term commitments, such as serving on a committee, find out if there is a term limit or typical succession path. In some organizations, the secretary typically becomes the chair-elect, who then becomes the chair, so ask if there are any unwritten expectations or traditions.

For larger projects, you may want to talk to a colleague who has done something similar to learn what the role entailed. You could also ask a mentor or other trusted adviser what the ratio of work to reward is for this type of project.

Another important step is to think about who is doing the asking and why you were the one who was asked. Sometimes an “ask” is really a “tell”—if the person asking is your boss’s boss, for instance, it may be more of an assigned duty than a request to volunteer. Ideally, you were asked because you demonstrated skills and interest in this type of project, and careful evaluation indicated that you were the best person for the task. However, members of underrepresented groups are often disproportionally asked to volunteer to be mentors and to serve on diversity committees. That makes it even more important to evaluate and select opportunities carefully to avoid burnout.

Evaluate how well this opportunity fits with your professional development plan and values. Weigh what you are being asked to do against your talents, passions, and future career plans. Maybe this opportunity will allow you to grow a specific soft skill, like speaking in front of groups. Often new opportunities put you in contact with new people, which can expand your professional network. Will your employer look favorably on this accomplishment at your next review? Is this a routine offer that you may be able to accept at a more convenient time, or are you looking at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? If you are a graduate student or postdoc, keep in mind that some of the things you’ll be asked to do are standard parts of academic life. Volunteering may give you a chance to see if you like them. And finally, think beyond your career and evaluate the impact of taking on additional responsibilities on your life outside work.

Ultimately, only you can determine if the work will be worth the rewards. Don’t allow yourself to be guilted into saying yes. Your no could be the nudge that someone else needs to say yes, or it could cause the activity itself to be reevaluated or the terms to be adjusted.

Finally, make your decision and communicate it. The bigger the ask, the longer you can take to decide, but always get back to the original asker by the deadline, assuming there is one. If you accept, commit fully. Build the needed time into your calendar and start planning as soon as possible. If you decline, do so gracefully. Thank the asker for the opportunity, and see if you can offer at least something. Maybe you can recommend someone else or fill in for a short time until someone else makes a longer-term commitment.

By carefully choosing when and where to volunteer, you can maximize the return on your investment of time and talent.

Lisa M. Balbes has been a freelance technical writer and editor at Balbes Consultants LLC for 30 years. She has published more than 300 articles on career development for scientists and given more than 300 presentations in the US and abroad. She is the author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers (Oxford University Press).

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