Again, this post is mostly addressed to students, since I assume that most scientists with a permanent job are already members of at least one scientific society. I will keep these comments general, although I will mention specific societies as examples from time to time.
Scientific societies vary greatly in focus, size, organization, and, yes, personality. Some, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), cover all the sciences and are, accordingly, massive—Wikipedia says that the AAAS had over 125,000 members in 2008. Others, such as the Canadian Society for Chemistry, target a major scientific discipline. Still others, like the 750-member Society for Mathematical Biology, narrow their focus to a specialized field. As some of their names suggest, scientific societies tend to be organized at the national level, although almost all of them will have significant numbers of foreign members, and many explicitly think of themselves as international societies. The larger societies tend to be run much more like businesses, with large complements of staff responsible for day-to-day operations. The smaller societies typically have few or no staff, and run on the labor of volunteers.
Scientific societies serve many, many purposes. Selfishly, they are conduits for information and provide networking opportunities for their members. In the case of societies organized at the national level, especially the larger ones, they are often important lobbying organizations that make sure that governments regularly hear scientists’ perspectives on various issues. The good societies are communities whose conferences are gatherings of people with common interests, even when those interests are uncommon as in the case of the small, specialized societies.
That last point is the one I want to emphasize: Joining a scientific community, in the ideal case, is joining a community. A member of a scientific society, whether a student or a famous professor, is “one of us” to other members of that society. And there are benefits to being a member, in the full sense of the word, of a group.
Some of the benefits are obvious: Every professional society has some kind of regular newsletter. These can vary from very simply reproduced amateur newsletters to professional-looking newspapers or magazines. These newsletters typically contain news stories about what is going on in the field, society news, profiles of members, conference announcements and job ads. Modern scientific societies will also have mailing lists that are restricted to their members. These are typically used to disseminate more time-sensitive information including, again, job ads and conference announcements, but can contain a variety of other content, as is the case for the public mailing lists discussed in my last blog post. Scientific societies usually hold conferences, and members always get discounted conference fees. And of course, attending a society conference is an ideal way to meet other members of the society.
In fact, society conferences can be invaluable networking opportunities. The people you meet there may one day be in a position to offer you a job. Even if that doesn’t happen, being known within your field means that people who make decisions about your career, about things like scholarship applications or grants for example, are likely to know you. Now we try really hard to screen out our biases when we’re refereeing grants or papers, but the truth is that it’s much easier to be a harsh judge when we don’t know the person whose file we’re judging.
In addition, many scientific societies have mentorship programs, as well as a variety of professional development events, often during their conferences, or in the days immediately preceding or following a conference. The latter can be technical seminars (for example, chemical safety mini-courses run by chemical societies), or they can be oriented toward career building, such as workshops on job interviews. The latter can be extremely worthwhile to young scholars.
But, you might say, I’m not interested in a career in academia. Then you should think hard about which society you join, but you should still join a society. Find one that has many non-academic members. Chemical societies, for example, typically have many members from industry. Some societies, like the Canadian Applied and Industrial Mathematics Society, try really hard to bridge the academic-industrial divide, and could be expected to have a number of industrial members, or at the very least some programs intended to help connect those two worlds.
Hopefully, I have convinced you that you should join a scientific society. But how do you choose one? Do you join your national society or a larger American society, for instance? Low student membership fees and reciprocal membership arrangements, in which members of a national society get reduced fees in another national society at a reduced rate, may make this a false dichotomy. However, money is tight for many students, so you may have to make an initial decision. Advice from your supervisor can be helpful here, but you should do a bit of thinking, too. What are your career objectives, and how can one society or another help you get there? What society do most of the people in your field and in the geographic area where you would eventually like to work belong to? What conferences do you want to attend? These are all factors you should consider. In the end, you are looking for a society in which you will feel comfortable, and find fellow travelers.
Beyond the society itself, the larger societies (and even some of the not-so-large ones) often have divisions to create smaller communities within the large community. For example, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) has several highly active activity groups. Often, the real community is found at the level of these divisions. They would typically have their own mailing lists and conferences. Most societies with divisions will allow you to choose one division for free as part of the overall cost of membership. So if the really big societies seem intimidating to you, they need not be, provided they have a strong division in your area of interest.
The good news for students is a student membership fees are usually really low. Some societies, like SIAM, even allow their full members to nominate a certain number of students for free memberships. Scientific societies really want student members, because today’s student member is tomorrow’s full member.
So talk to your boss, and do a bit of research and thinking on your own. Join a society. It’s a small step towards building your career, but potentially a really pivotal one.