Enhancing Career Readiness – Doctoral Students in Leadership Roles

Lauren Dougher is the former president (2021-2023) of the Graduate Employee & Postdoc Union (GEU-UAW, Local 6950) at UConn. She is pursuing her PhD in Cognition, Instruction, & Learning Technology, Department of Educational Psychology.

Working at the Union

Lauren got to know about the importance of the Union as soon as she became a graduate assistant in her program. Once she heard about a volunteer opportunity at the Union from her friend, she joined the Union as a trustee.

She appreciated her work at the Union, “It’s cool to see how you can make things happen. When you do come together as a collective, it has really been something, which I have become appreciative of even more.”

The Union provides a great channel to get to know people, from graduate assistants to postdocs and staff, through working with different departments, hosting events, and volunteering for the Union. “I’ve met so many wonderful people that I wouldn’t have been able to meet if it wasn’t for the Union”, said Lauren.

Being a leader

It’s about all of us.

After a year as a trustee of the Union, she ran for the presidency and served as the president for two years. In her role, she worked closely with the vice president of the Union, a team of staff at the Union, and the executive board to educate graduate employees and postdocs on their rights and to support them when their rights are violated. 

Her typical week involved leading staff meetings, attending the University President’s meetings and other meetings from the Region, talking with graduate assistants and University staff from Labor Relations, and responding to emails. She also worked with her team to organize events to connect with graduate assistants and postdocs. Some of those may sound familiar – the ice cream event, GEU coffee hours, and “Meet Your Steward” luncheons, etc.

Lauren is upfront about her learning curve when she first started in the leadership role, “It was tough at first,” she said, and she eventually got there with the strong support she received and the skills she enhanced. She felt appreciative of having proactive colleagues around her, “I don’t have to look over their shoulder. Sometimes, I might not even think of something first and they’re like, ‘oh, I already did that’.”

While growing her knowledge and strengthening her skills in leadership, she learned and concluded that, “Being a leader doesn’t mean you’re the one that is doing all the work. It means you’re working together with others, and you are also helping, directing, training, delegating, and checking in.” She believes “it’s not the Lauren show, but it’s about all of us.”

Work-life balance

With multiple roles, Lauren struggled with the balance at first and she gradually found her way to integrate different pieces of her life. One of her strategies is to block the time for different types of work and commit to each reserved time. “When I know I have academic deadlines coming up, I’ll go like, ‘here are my blocked times for the Union, and then here, I’ll block this time for my academic work as well’”.

Her other strategy is to do something that gives her joy and keeps her healthy and productive. Some of her favorites are the Coventry Farmer’s Market, doing pottery/art, and exploring local walking trails. She also recommends making use of campus resources such as the Recreation Center and Human Resources’ Employee Assistance Program (Note: graduate students with a teaching or research assistantship, their dependents, and household members are eligible for the Employee Assistance Program’s services free of charge).

On the left, Lauren enjoys supporting local businesses (pictured here at Trigo in Willimantic) whenever possible and has recently become a ‘Yelp Elite’ for reviews on the popular app; on the right, she was with her cat Mabel who was adopted from a shelter. (Photos courtesy of Lauren Dougher)

Benefits of the leadership experience

“Taking on a leadership position can help you learn where you want to fall in the professional hierarchy.”

Working as a graduate student leader does not only grow one’s leadership knowledge and competencies, but also helps enhance other essential skills. Lauren learned the way she could prioritize and delegate tasks and achieve her work-life balance in her leadership role, “I am grateful for the opportunity to work on that [skill] as a graduate student, rather than waiting until I got to the workforce to try and figure out how to set boundaries and what truly works for me.”

Careerwise, Lauren’s leadership experience does not only open different career opportunities, but also allows her to know herself better in terms of her career interests. “Taking on a leadership position can help you learn where you want to fall in the professional hierarchy. For example, I have always enjoyed taking the lead on projects, have the initiative to start new tasks, and gather my colleagues to work on things, but I have learned that my end goal is not to be a top manager. I’m more interested in somewhere in the middle where I can lead teams/projects,” Lauren reflected.  

She wants to be an Instructional Designer, a career of interest that she further developed in her work with the eCampus team at CETL, where she is a graduate student worker.

Advice for doctoral students considering leadership opportunities

“Think about what works for you and your schedule and start off small and then go from there.”

Time constraints are one of the reasons that keep many doctoral students from trying and committing to a leadership opportunity. Lauren’s advice is to start from just one hour each week or month, depending on your interest and capacity. “Blocking off just one hour for volunteering in a graduate student organization – not taking it from anything that gives you joy like fitness, but perhaps the time when you scroll on your phone after getting home at the end of the day,” she said, “And many student organizations within the academic departments only meet once a month or every other week.”

To land on a leadership role, Lauren suggests starting from an entry position as “you don’t have to shoot for the stars at the beginning.” She added, “Think about what works for you and your schedule and start off small and then go from there. Give little pieces of your time and see what brings you joy participating in it.”

Visit here to find out more about leadership opportunities for graduate students. The Graduate Employee & Postdoc Union also announce their vacancies via emails to graduate assistants and postdocs.

By Damiao Zoe Xu
Damiao Zoe Xu Graduate Assistant, Graduate Student and Postdoc Career Programs and Services (She/Her/Hers)