What Kind of Society is Right for You?

Membership in professional organizations is an important part of a scientist’s career.  Professional organizations give the opportunity to build your career, network with potential employers or future collaborators, and may provide the stage on which you present your research to the world.

As a geologist, I have been a member of many such organizations from the time I was a geo fledgling.  These ranged from the departmental geology club up through multiple national – and international – scientific organizations.

There was a time I believed that the more geological organizations I was a member of, the better.  They were a badge of honor on my résumé and served to show just how involved I was in the geology community.  This mindset, I believe, is one many students acquire as they are approached by faculty and classmates to “join this club” and to “become a member of that.”  Aside from being “résumé builders”, there’s always a list of benefits – most touted tend to be research grant and scholarship opportunities!

However, in the past couple of years, I’ve come to recognize that a few carefully selected organizations may be better than a bucket-full of the most popular ones.  For me, this realization was mostly brought on by the fact that many of these organizations require annual dues be paid around the same time of year…which can add up.  It was time to clean house and keep only the most important.  But how do you decide who to keep and who to let go?  The best way is to figure out how they benefit your personal goals and career path.

Now, to be perfectly blunt, some time ago I had the great idea of writing this post as a straight-up comparison between many of the available professional geoscience organizations.  Something along the lines of a CNET, side-by-side review of the benefits, draw-backs, and opportunities provided by each.  As I began researching this, I ran into many road bumps that would prevent me from writing a post that I would feel comfortable presenting as a fair review.  Firstly, there are a lot of professional geoscience organizations out there.  Over 320 are listed on the geology.com list of Geoscience Professional Societies & Organizations. Right off the bat, this meant that I’d have to conduct a thorough investigation into each organization (many of which I’ll admit I’d never heard of) and get some first-hand feedback from members.  This, while potentially do-able, would take up a very large amount of time.

My second option was to scale back to only some of the largest, most well-known organizations.  This is possibly something of a future project, but also where my second major problem comes in: I’m not a member of all of them.  Even with input from current members, it would be hard to give a good sense of “this is better than that” (to put it crudely) without having experienced the organizations myself.

And so, what I’ve presented below is my own personal experience with two different organizations that I feel could easily represent other, similar professional organizations.  I’ve separated these by overall size and focus, with the Geological Society of America (GSA) representing large professional societies with broad interests (within the geosciences), and the Association for Environmental & Engineering Geologists (AEG) representing a mid-sized organization with a more defined demographic.  Small organizations tend to be local and vary greatly in their offerings to members, which is why I’ll leave those up to you to review on your own.

Large organizations are great venues for getting noticed by many people at once.  For example, last year’s GSA Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, MN  hosted over 6,000 attendees.  You’ll have everyone from local students and businesses, all the way up to internationally renowned scientists attending from all facets of the geosciences.  These provide excellent opportunities to network and become exposed to all sorts of interesting topics in your field of study.

These large conferences typically attract the press as well, which is all the more reason to present “significant” research here.  You all remember the Triassic Kraken sensationalism in the news last year.  This was one of the more popular stories which was presented at GSA 2011.  A good case and point for getting into the headlines, even without the scientific community at-large supporting your theories.  I will note here that 99% of the research presented at GSA is of much higher caliber…but brought this up to illustrate that the press is, indeed, covering stories from large conferences like GSA.

The GSAs out there are also very broad in their focus.  As such, its publications, grants, presentations at meetings, etc. can be on any topic that’s at all related to the geosciences.  This is awesome!  There’s always new, interesting research out there to learn about, even if it’s not directly related to your area of expertise.  I think every one of us can appreciate that.

Large organizations also have a down side.  Huge annual meetings have so many people that you tend to get a “lost in the crowd” feel.  GSA, for example, boasts over 24,000 members worldwide.  Again, their last annual meeting had over 6,000 attendees.  That’s impressive!  I couldn’t make it to last year’s meeting, but during the previous year in Denver, CO, the GSA meeting of similar size had me feeling pretty small.  I knew certain people were there, but with so many in attendance, it proved hard to track them down.

On the other hand, mid-sized organizations like AEG are…well, smaller.  There are less members in all of AEG than people who attended the GSA Annual Meeting last year.  However, this provides for a much closer relationship with many of the AEG members, who really look out for each other and make it a point to provide whatever assistance they can to fellow members, whether it be through the organization directly (scholarships, grants, etc.) or on a more personal level by aiding in employment opportunities.  The camaraderie here is so close that I’ve always felt comfortable talking to the president(s) of the organization and being on a first name basis.  

Smaller organizations are often more defined and, like AEG, tend to describe exactly what they’re about right in their names (Environmental & Engineering, Hydrogeology, Sedimentology, etc.).  This means all members of that organization share a common career path with you and are more suited to provide advice, contacts, and job opportunities.  Almost everything at the annual meetings are centered around what you do, meaning you’re more likely to fill your week with symposia, short courses, and exhibits that fit in directly (or nearly directly) with your research and/or career.  As a professional member, you’re more likely to run into someone that could become a future collaborator or coworker, or provide consultations on an upcoming project.  

One of the most significant differences I’ve noticed between these two organizations is focus.  As I’ve mentioned, GSA has a very broad focus.  Because of this broad range of topics, large organizations tend to put emphasis on research and academics, and not so much “applied” geoscience work.  Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad thing!  Especially if you plan to pursue a career in academia.  However, if you’re like me and are looking toward a career in applied geology, these societies have some drawbacks.  The mid-sized societies like AEG are perfect places for people like me (for the reasons expressed above). 

A good way to tell if your organization puts an emphasis more on academia or the applied workforce is to make a visit to the job-fair at the annual meetings.  At GSA, an overpowering percentage of available jobs were for research and/or teaching positions whereas at AEG, there were many more “applied” positions than academic/research.

As we can see, there are plenty of differences when it comes to the size of an organization, which are most obvious when you compare their annual meetings.  However, there are positives and negatives to both, depending on what you’re looking for and, as it turns out, the they both seem to balance out by making up for each others’ deficiencies.

What type of organization is right for you?  As you should have figured out by now, it’s significantly dependent on what you plan to do for your career.  If you intend to start a career in a specific field, a couple organizations tailored to that field would be better than only large, broad ranged organizations.  For example, if you intend to become an engineering geologist, AEG is a great organization to join.  However, if you want to teach or do research (especially at the university level) research-based organizations like GSA are a great idea (and there’s still plenty of room at the smaller societies for you, too!).

In fact, it’s never a bad idea to be a member of both of these types of organizations.  As I said, there are definite benefits to each, and what one lacks, the other can usually make up for.  What you don’t want to do is collect memberships in multiple organizations that you are barely involved in.  A list of 15 professional societies on your résumé doesn’t mean much if you’re only receiving the monthly newsletters.   It’s much better to be a member of a few orgs in which you are active.

I’ve gotten a lot more out of AEG than any other organization I’ve ever been involved with, and I know the reason for that has to do with what I’ve shared above, but much more to do with the fact that I’ve gotten involved with the organization by giving presentations at local and national meetings, volunteering on committees, and communicating with other active members.  Do this.  Apply yourself, and whatever organization you’re involved with will provide you with so much more than a regular publication.

This post was based on my own, personal experiences, but I realize your opinions may be different.  What organization(s) are you involved with?  Are you active in that society? Do you agree or disagree with my (brief) assessment of large vs. small organizations?  I’d love to hear what you have to say!

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