Like-minded individuals, networking and career advancement opportunities are just some of the things professional societies can offer, says Alaina G. Levine.
Guest contributor Alaina G. Levine
Although professionals may know about their own professional society, many people do not consider the wealth of career advancement, networking and self-promotion opportunities that they offer. Yes, they know about the conference and maybe they read the newsletter, but there is so much more that you can experience from being a member or simply demonstrating your interest in membership.
A professional society is typically a non-profit dedicated to advancing the profession and the professionals of a given discipline, field, industry or sector. (In fact, this is essentially the tagline of the American Statistical Association.) In science and engineering in particular, professional societies are often are founded with the original intent of bringing together like-minded individuals to discuss topics of interest and potential collaborations, and to provide a collective voice for policy, advocacy and even funding concerns. As they grow, these same societies strive to provide opportunities for professionals in the community to become involved in the governance of the societies as official, or paid, members.
Professional societies provide many direct and indirect benefits to scientists and engineers to advance their careers, including:
- Knowledge about hiring trends and issues;
- Publishing opportunities;
- Awards and honors for which you can apply, such as travel grants;
- Job boards and professional development services;
- Leadership experiences.
But the most important benefit that professional associations provide their members is extensive networking opportunities. The first step to access these is to join the society and become and engaged member. It is not enough to simply pay your dues. Take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by the organization – which, to be clear, exist because of and to serve YOU – you will want to interact with the leadership and staff, join committees, understand how the organization functions, participate in its activities (such as conferences and informal discussions), and generally be an active volunteer.
Contact the organization: Let them know you are interested in becoming an engaged member
Start by emailing the “Membership Coordinator” or “Director of Membership” and ask for a phone appointment. Inform them where you are in your career path (I am a grad student, postdoc, new faculty member, or am transitioning into a career in X) and that you are interested in learning more about becoming an “engaged member”, who is active in some way within the association. They will be more than happy to chat with you – after all, their job depends on building the membership. And as you chat, he/she will start to get ideas as to where you might be a good person to serve the organization, what committees are in need and what help you can provide.
Access the membership directory: Learn who the members are, where they work, and who might be a potential collaborator
As a member, one of the most valuable benefits you have is access to the contact information of every other member. When you reach out to members for informal discussions, be confident in the knowledge that you are not intruding or “interrupting” their day by contacting them. They listed their names and contact data in the directory for a specific purpose – they want to be contacted because they too want to expand their networks and seek out new career opportunities. In other words they want to network with you just as much as you want to network with them.
Volunteer: Look for opportunities to give back to the organization and establish yourself as a leader
Volunteering for non-profit organizations within my own fields has given me access to numerous hidden career opportunities and helped me craft strategically important networks. Consider volunteering to serve on committees, write articles for the association’s newsletter, or work at the conference. Volunteers are the lifeblood of an organization and yet very few members take advantage of the opportunity.
Seek leadership positions: Demonstrate that you care about the success of the organization and its members and want to make a positive contribution
As you become more entrenched in the organization, pursue leadership opportunities. Serving in a leadership role in your professional association elevates your brand, attitude and reputation. It gives you a reason to reach out and connect with other members and additional society stakeholders, and it serves as a credential – the organization elected you to this position, so they perceive you as a leader.
Seek career services: Discover who’s hiring, and how you can position yourself for success
Not every association has a career services division. But for those that do, take full advantage of their offerings. A career center within a professional society often has job postings that may not be advertised elsewhere and its resume/CV “bank” is often perused surreptitiously by decision-makers looking for people they wish to invite to apply for open positions. So post your resume on the job board, and join and contribute to listservs reserved for career-related discussions. Attend professional development webinars and workshops.
Becoming active in your association(s) is a critical component to professional triumph and at different points in your career, you will have to determine how much time you can realistically spend serving the organization versus producing the outputs associated with success in your field (such as publishing). You never want to sacrifice doing excellent science in the name of serving on a committee, so it will be up to you to figure out how best to manage your time and commitments. And of course this will ebb and flow as you advance in your career.
But no matter what vocation you choose and where you are in your profession, do ensure that your professional association serves as your strategic partner for success. Because, frankly, that’s what it is there to do.
Parts of this article were taken from Levine’s new book, Networking for Nerds: Find, Access and Land Game-Changing Career Opportunities Everywhere (Wiley, 2015)