Why you should join a professional society!!

Societies IIOne of the first questions I (Emmanuel) ask when approached by anyone seeking any form of career advice is whether they are members of any professional societies or professional bodies in their subject areas or career interest areas. Just for reference, the terms “professional societies” or “professional bodies” are often used interchangeably.

I have to admit, at times I get a blank look like errrr…and often it tends to be a NO answer and a funny look like my question is a silly one.

Reflecting back a few years, when I worked in industry, I was not an active member of any professional societies thus, I never got involved in any professional activities with my peers outside the work place. This changed when I embarked on a PhD and advice from my wonderful mentors.  Having attended many conferences and society organised events to date, it is clear that society membership and society events are not limited or restricted to professionals from any individual field i.e. it is not only for people in academia or research hence, it is imperative for any student, early career or mid-career professional to take joining societies as a very key element in career development and positioning.

As with everything else, there are usual challenges and sometimes grumbles when people talk about joining societies. In this post, we talk about thing to be aware of when joining a society and the opportunities you can get from being a member.

But there are many societies,  how do I know which to join? – this is often the comment that I get in the discussions about joining societies. Yes! There are indeed several societies in the different subject areas which does create some confusion. In an ideal world, many would be happy getting involved with the different societies, however the reality is different. This is because membership of the societies come at a cost (annual membership or joining fees). This sometimes serves as a deterrent for some to join professional societies however in our experience, the benefits far outweigh the cost implications of membership.

However, think about it like joining a gym, we’d all obviously like gym memberships to be free, but to use the facilities, to have the social interactions and to be part of a group with a common goal of fitness and health you had to pay a membership fee didn’t you? The professional societies obviously do not work like gyms (maybe the worst analogy!!) but they provide helpful and very useful activities and opportunities that members greatly benefit from.

Before you join – to help you decide on what society to join, the first thing we’d advise you to do is look through the pages of the society website. Where there are no functional websites for the society (not a good indicator!!), find someone who is an active member of the society and enquire about the activities and benefits of the society generally and also what the individual has benefited from the group. Keep in mind the interests of people joining these societies are not always the same and tend to be for different reasons. Thus, try and identify what would you would like from the society before forking out membership fees to join any society.

Once you join – now this is the important part, the easiest part is joining the society, the harder part is navigating through the society and having real benefit from your membership. It is important you have an understanding of how the society functions and the different activities as well as opportunities that you can take advantage of as a member.

We will now briefly highlight some of these opportunities……

Conferences and workshops – every functional professional society runs at least one conference annually or two years (dependent on the size of the society as well). Some societies run an annual conference for all members and smaller local meetings and workshops which are open to members in different regions. This is a good place to take advantage of things like discounts on books, new and existing technologies and freebies. For many, this is a chance to unwind whilst interacting with other professionals in their field of expertise. I (Emmanuel) love attending conferences as it not only offers me a chance to showcase my research, I also get to listen to and see new and ground breaking research in my field whilst developing new networks, collaborators and many new friends.

CPD – the added advantage of joining professional societies is the ability to have some level of professional development. These could be in the form of courses or attendance at seminars and conferences and is useful for professional progression or career development.

Career and mentor events – this is fast becoming a key part of the activities of many big professional societies. For example, the American Society for Microbiology at the annual general meetings hold career workshops for students, PhD and Post-doctoral members. At these events, different employers especially those from major organisations including Biopharma, National institutes, Universities, Marketing and Commercial speak to the delegates and offer free advice on careers and offer mentoring which the delegates find incredibly useful.

Collaboration – this is a key part of society activities and active membership. If you are already a member of a professional society then ask yourself this question. How many functional collaborations have you made as a member and how many of those are active? Being part of a professional society means you have better access to different sectors within your field and you should make use of this. If you are a student and seeking opportunities for the next phase of your career then you are in a good position where you also have access to key employers in your field who are always seeking great talents and in our experience comment on the enthusiasm and zest of young individuals who make the effort to attend conferences or engage with them at society sponsored events.

Grants and awards – I tend to refer to this as a “mini lotto”. You pay £2 with the hope of winning millions or at least more than £2 if you have that magical pen. Well professional societies offer grants and awards which enable members attend events, conferences and support members who have ideas or initiatives that are a beneficial and of relevance to other people in that field. Memberships grants could be anything from support for travel costs to thousands of pounds/dollars to attend major events or for international capacity develop activities. Both Amara and I have benefited from some of these grants such as the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM) conference studentships which enabled us attend the annual summer conference in different cities in the UK and Ireland for many years.

Committee activities – want to bolster your CV?  Join a committee!! Within the societies, there are usually several committees such as student committees, organising committees for conferences, editorial groups etc. where possible, get involved with a committee within your professional society after you join. This is not only beneficial, it is rewarding and you can develop yourself a lot more than as a by-standing member.

Networking & Friends – We have discussed networking in some detail and would suggest you read our previous posts. Joining professional societies would undoubtedly enlarge your scope for networking and as we mentioned before, the aspiring professionals’ hub was a child of networking at a professional society event from many years ago. Also, in these professional societies, you will find many people like you, looking to interact and engage with others. We have had many contacts that have become friends and we have shared many great times and memories as a result.

So what are you waiting for? Join a society today and reap the benefits that are widely available to you in your field and area of expertise or go make a friend or two.

Would you like to share or discuss your experience with professional societies, please  leave your comments or sending in your reflective pieces to be published here. Please contact us via info@aspiringprofessionalshub.com or@AspProfHub. If you enjoyed reading this article, please share and follow! 

#MyPhDStory – Attending my first conference

QFS2010-photo-ENSS_2179Conferences provide a good opportunity for academics –early career researchers in particular – to present their work and develop valuable contacts in their field. Preparing for your first conference can seem daunting as you do not know what to expect, especially if you will be presenting! In today’s Reflections post, Nina, a research assistant at the University of the West of England, shares her experience of attending an international scientific conference for the first time.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present my first poster at the Koninklijke Nederlands Vereniging voor Microbiologie (KNVM) Microbiology Spring Meeting held in Arnhem, Netherlands.  I had never been to a conference before so I hope sharing my experience will help other conference newbies.


Day 1

Monday (AM)

So…I’m not a great sleeper but I woke up quite tired, probably because I was so excited about the trip. It was a short journey from Bristol to Amsterdam – only an hour on plane. When I got to Amsterdam, it took a little while to figure out how the public transport system worked to get to Arnhem. I managed to get on the right train, the right bus and even get off at the right stops. In the end, travelling was easy as everyone spoke English and I arrived in one piece although knowing basic Dutch may have been of some benefit but hindsight is a great thing. The double decker trains blew my mind!

Monday (PM)

The hotel was lovely and I caught up with my industry sponsors and had dinner. This provided a good opportunity to settle in before being swept the official start of the conference. I would highly recommend getting in a day early if you can.

Day 2

Tuesday (PM)

I didn’t sleep terribly well but I think I was just nervous. Breakfast was so good, I forgot about my nerves for a while. I arrived at the conference early to give me enough time to set up my poster. Seeing my poster amongst the others gave me an overwhelming sense of pride and achievement. All the time I spent working on it was so worth it. My sponsors introduced me to a few people after which I attended some plenary sessions. There were about 500 people in the audience and I felt honoured to be among them. I used lunch as an opportunity to mingle with the crowd which was a bit daunting at first as everyone around me was speaking Dutch! I overcame my nerves and introduced myself to people, thankfully, everyone spoke English.

Tuesday (PM) – Poster time

After a few breakout sessions, it was time for the official conference dinner. I was sitting alone at a table and just kept hoping someone would sit with me. Luckily, three lovely Dutch professors sat at my table and we have a very good conversation about our respective countries, academia and loads more. It was so good, I almost forgot that it was time for me to present my poster! In case you were wondering, yes, the poster was presented at night time – after drinks!

I went to stand by my poster and made eye contact with a gentleman whose poster was next to mine. He explained that he was also presenting for the first time and was nervous. It was nice to talk to someone on the same level as I was and this helped me relax. Most attendees just walked by, having had a quick scan, moving on before I could say anything to them. Eventually, one by one, a few people came to ask questions. The questions were not as difficult as I expected e.g. ‘What is your poster about?’, ‘Why is this relevant to us?’ etc. I felt I answered confidently and accurately, overall, it went very well.

Day 3 – Homeward bound

I slept much better as the nerves had finally gone. I attended the morning meetings in the most relaxed state I had been since Monday. Unfortunately, I had to miss the second part of the day’s programme to enable me catch my flight. Overall, it was a great experience and I wondered why I was so nervous in the first place!

I would not call myself an expert on attending conferences but these are a few things I learnt from my experience –

Just be brave and talk to people…it was hard for me at first but I found everyone I spoke to really friendly and engaging.

If presenting a poster, wear something smart but comfortable because you want to be as relaxed as you can be.

Take some work with you, you’ll be amazed how much work you can get done during the commute and with less distractions to boot!

Bring business cards. I didn’t have any but everyone else seemed to. A business card enables people remember you and projects professionalism. If you are going to spend all that time networking, it is important your new contacts can remember your name!

Pace yourself. It can be a long day, especially if you have late night presentations. Try to get settled in a day early to adjust to your new surroundings.

If abroad where English is not the first language, learn basic terminology (Hello, Please, Thank you); it just seems more polite.

Keep your poster, it’s a nice memento of the good work you have done. You can also find somewhere to put it up in your University.

A practical one for the ladies – do not pack new shoes or heels! You’ll be surprised how long you will be on your feet!

As a final thought, just remember that everyone was once in the same boat as you. There is nothing to be afraid of, if anything, this conference proved to me just how fun and relaxed it can be.

Thanks Nina. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. If you would like to share your experience(s) with us, contact us on aspiringprofessionalshub@gmail.com.

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