In the last month I’ve spent a lot of time, over and above the duties of my actual job, doing unpaid work for one academic society. I turned down an invitation to apply for the council of another, though I remain an active member and attend their conferences. Finally, when the renewal for a third society came up, despite having been a member for many years, I decided that it was no longer meeting my needs and will allow my membership to lapse at the end of 2016.
There’s a good reason why I haven’t actually named the societies concerned; I’d like to use this as an opportunity to think about the general reasons for joining an academic society (or not) rather than the benefits of any in particular. Here are some of the common benefits:
- You believe in their mission. In this sense you might view membership in the same was as supporting a charity: you’re making sure that work you care about gets done, and opinions you share have a collective voice. Every society should have a clear mission statement. Here’s a few random choices:
- Society for Conservation Biology is dedicated to advancing the science and practice of conserving the Earth.
- British Ecological Society: We are working towards a world inspired, informed and influenced by ecology.
- Society for Tropical Ecology promotes and communicates new and emerging knowledge among tropical ecologists to advance the understanding of tropical ecosystems and their protection.
Like those? Then head to the membership pages and sign up. That said, I’m only a member of one of the above, despite warmly supporting all of their objectives. This again is much like charities. In general it’s hard to disagree with what they aspire to do, but that doesn’t mean we can give to all of them. Another filter is required.
- You want something back. Joining a society isn’t just about supporting them; you may have an expectation that they will provide some benefits to you. Some of the common ones include:
- Professional membership and accreditation. Having membership of a society on your CV demonstrates a commitment to the academic field in which you are working. Some societies, such as the Ecological Society of America, provide certification schemes to demonstrate your standing in your field.
- Discounts for meeting attendance. For the British Ecological Society the equation is pretty simple: if you’re attending the Annual Meeting then it’s cheaper to join for a year than to pay non-member rates. This is at least in part why the headline costs of many conferences are so high; it increases the incentive to join the society.
- Receiving their in-house magazines. Only members of the BES can receive the quarterly Bulletin, which contains news, opinion articles and reviews. ESA members get a print copy of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which you might not otherwise have access to (other than via dodgy links).
- Journal access. Most societies give their members free access to their journals, or the option of discounted print copies, which are cheaper than subscribing independently. Digital access is also a normal offering, although I’ve never managed to log into the online version of a society journal successfully.
- Members-only grants. This is a big one. The early stages of my career were made possible by small grants of a few thousand pounds from societies and charities that were kind enough to invest in me, provided that I signed up to them. This was awesome.
- Support and mentorship. Societies are a great way to get advice, access dedicated support and training, or to meet and learn from role models in your field. Many place a particular focus on developing graduate students or early-career researchers. You will also build confidence through finding and sharing with other people like yourself.
- Discounts on books and journals, often those produced by the society, but sometimes through deals with other publishers. This is a nice bonus but I doubt that it draws in great numbers of new members.
- Reduced page charges. If you join the American Society of Naturalists, you get discounts for publishing in American Naturalist. This is common for many society journals, and as with attending their conferences, it usually saves money in any given year. Whether this acts as a sufficient incentive to depends on whether you pay directly for page charges and membership from your own money or a grant. Remaining a member implies that you believe that you will continue to publish regularly in that journal, which seems rather aspirational.
- It’s affordable. This does rather depend on your career status, amount of disposable income, and whether your employer (or grant) will cover the costs. Many societies offer cheap rates for students, or are even free for introductory periods. Joining international societies can depend on exchange rates; if your currency is plummeting the way Sterling has in recent months, think twice before adding to your direct debit list. A cost-benefit analysis comes into play. It’s likely that you will accumulate memberships as your career progresses, but sometimes these will need trimming because you can’t participate in everything.
- Become part of a community. You care about your research area, right? Of course you do, otherwise you’d be doing something soulless that’s better remunerated for shorter hours*. Being a member of an academic society puts you in contact with other people who are passionate about the same things and are investing their lives in them as well. They will be interested in what you do, supportive of your work, and looking to share and collaborate. In time, after running into them for a few years, they become friends. I met many of my closest friends at conferences; some of them I’ve worked with, most are just awesome people that I wouldn’t otherwise have come across.
Back to my opening comments. I won’t name the society I’m leaving, other than to say that the fall in the value of Sterling following Brexit shifted my equation and made me feel that it was no longer worthwhile. But it’s no secret that the one I do a lot of work for is, of course, the British Ecological Society (I’m on their Council). Not a member yet? Well you should join, and it’s free for students for the first year, so you’ve got nothing to lose!
* Quick disclaimer: I write mainly for an academic audience, but am aware that many members of scientific societies are actually interested parties who just want to keep abreast of developments in a field that they’re enthusiastic about. If that applies to you then please don’t flame me, but I’d love to hear about a job that is well-paid, intellectually satisfying, allows an appropriate work-more work-life balance and still allows you to measure trees occasionally.