Learned/Scholarly Societies Primer: Why and which ones to join?

In today’s post, I wanted to address the important topic of academic societies. You can learn about what they are and what benefits they offer in case you don’t have a clear picture of that yet. But I will also discuss why joining them might be an important step in your career. And also, once you’ve joined, it might not be immediately clear to you how to make the most out of your membership (definitely initially wasn’t to me!). So if any of this speaks to you, you have come to the right place 😉

What are Academic Societies?

Probably the first question to deal with is: What are Academic Societies?

A learned society is an organization that exists to promote an academic discipline, profession, or a group of related disciplines such as the arts and science. Membership may be open to all, may require possession of some qualification, or may be an honour conferred by election. (Wikipedia)

The next most important question is how to find academic societies related to your field? I’d say the first step is asking around (boss, colleagues, friends, fellow PhD students, etc) and also web-searching the name of your field plus “society”. You’ll likely already come up with a good list of results. Try something very targeted, such as Society for Neo-Latin Studies and something more broad, like Society for Classics.

Do your research around the following questions. Maybe write out pros and cons in a table and compare multiple societies. Maybe discuss the topic with colleagues after having done your reserach on the following questions:

1) What are the benefits of being in an academic society?

  1. Networking, connections, etc. Overall they are a hub for connecting with scholars who possibly share your interests and thus might become important contacts and allies in your career. They can also help you build a more international profile (if it’s an international society).
  2. Reduced fee for the annual meeting (might be your main reason to join at first); possibly travel grants offered: Important academic societies often organize meetings/conferences which are important in your field. The fees can be quite expensive. Being a member of the society often gets you a discount. But also calculate if it’s actually worth it because now you have to pay both membership and conference fee. In some cases it’s actually not worth joining from a merely finanical standpoint.
  3. Events, professional development offers, Annual Meeting / Conference, and/or possibly sponsored panels at other conferences. In short: Academic societies organize events you might want to go to or even be part of.
  4. Prizes and scholarships offered by the society. In some cases, especially with the highly distinguished (i.e. elitist) societies, these prizes are only for people who are already professors. Thankfully though, most fields have now understood that this is some seriously elistist shit and focus more on supporting the “youngsters” of the field. Check whether your chosen society does that. Sadly, it might not offer anything for you. Then you don’t need to give them your money to fund already well-off professors’ research sabbaticals (don’t get me wrong, they’re important too but you know what I mean).
  5. Possibly getting digital or even paper copies of the journal that society publishes. Many societies publish important journals. If you’re a member, a copy of those might be included. This can sometimes make the membership fees much more expensive but also is often what makes a membership attractive to student members. I receive all copies of Renaissance Quarterly even though I only paid a tiny fee this year due to membership fees being linked to your salary at RSA and I wasn’t employed (just a fellow).
  6. Special offers for early careers (if a society doesn’t have anything like that, it’s either extremely small or probably won’t be worth joining for you). Some societies really don’t do much at all. In that case only join if you have a compelling reason or totally want it on your CV.
  7. You’re kind of expected to be part of at least some if you’re planning to stay in Academia. So that’s a not-really-a-benefit benefit.
  8. Societies might also function a bit like a “union” for your field. Not all do but some might.
  9. You can also join a very targeted one to get into a new field or for something that’s more like a hobby to you (like the German Underwater Archaeology Society for me = DEGUWA, or CAA for Astrid). Ergo they ultimately function as “interest groups” more than they are elitist circles of professors (most of the time).
  10. If you’re in a regional society, you might automatically get membership in the worldwide organization (like it is the case with the national Digital Humanities societies).
  11. Some of them are very informal, meaning they might not charge a fee but also don’t offer much (maybe just a listserv). Still totally join the listserv to get all the news! (Maybe we’ll do a post on academic listservs at some point…)

2) Which ones to join?

First of all, I’d suggest making a comparsion of the following criteria:

a) How relevant are they to your research (and how targeted to your specific topic)?

It’s important to be in one more general one for your field (say if you’re an archaeologist, a general archaeology one) and, if there is one, a more niched one, targeted to your specific sub field (for me that’s the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry). The general one is important as a “see and be seen thing”, the targeted one will probably be, well, more targeted, your direct research network. I generally feel like I tend to get more out of the more targeted ones. But you still kind of have to be part of one of the bigger ones, just so you don’t miss out on what’s going on in the field.

The bigger ones are often those who have the prizes, scholarships, annual conferences and affiliated journals. The smaller ones might not do so much. So you join the big one for the “financial benefits” and so your CV shows your affiliation with the broader field – and the smaller one to meet people and actually discuss your research. The bigger ones are for seeing what’s going on in your field outside of your own narrow research topic – but it might happen to you that you don’t even really find someone to actually talk to about your research because what they do is just “too far away” from your stuff. Except maybe the friends you already know from your smaller targeted society.

b) How much bang do you get for your buck?

By that I mean that there are some societies where especially student-membership is super cheap and they offer great stuff for early career scholars (like prizes, stipends, (professional development) workshops, etc.). And then, some are extremely expensive and basically give you no benefit at all (or they only offer stuff you are not eligible to apply for).

I personally signed up for a huge amount of those things during my phd phase (you get the student membership fee) to check out which ones are worth it and which aren’t. I feel that it quickly became clear to me which ones I liked. But I like that I actually joined all of them and then, took the time to “experience” them as good as possibly by taking part in their activities and using all they had to offer.

For example, I love the Renaissance Society of America (short: RSA). Their membership fee will be relative to your employment status (self-declared), so they will massively charge professors with fixed contracts because they likely won’t have to pay that out of their own pocket anway and I only paid like 12$ for this year’s membership where I was just a PhD fellow without a job at times. I got the Renaissance Quarterly journal (which I love), reduced conference fees for the Annual event (this is mostly a reason people sign up for societies) and I think they also offer lots of other great benefits for early career scholars (like professional development workshops, prizes and stipends). So apart from the unpaid advertisement of RSA, these are some things you can look for when choosing your society.

If at all financially possible for you, I’d suggest you just get a one year membership for any society you like (wasn’t a huge investment for me, given I only had to pay the student membership) to experience what it’s like for a year and whether you enjoy it. Be sure to actually use the membership in your tryout year, or you won’t get much out of your membership (like go to the meetings, you might qualify for a travel grant, etc.). I will, for example, stay in some that I liked less. But overall, I will reduce the amount of societies I’m a member of. You can’t keep up with a crazy number of them and also, having submitted the PhD, I won’t be eligible for student membership next year.

Also, before you commit and pay the fee, clarify with your institution (if you have a job somewhere) if they have a budget to sponsor your membership. This might not be the case most times but you might save yourself the fee, so it’s worth asking.

c) Can you sign up yourself or do you need to get invited?

Nowadays, I think you can join most societies without being “invited” or having someone vouch for you (since they’re probably losing members and need the membership fees to financially sustain their activities). Many societies have different tiers for just getting informed about activites and basically donating but have a tier of members who need some sort of professional qualification proving that they actually work in the field. In my experience (also behind the scences of such a society), there are a lot of people in societies who have no qualification whatsoever. So don’t feel discouraged from applying because you feel that you might not be qualified enough.

Just click the link to the “Membership” site of their website and check what they require of you. You might be surprised that most of them won’t ask you to “prove your worth” or whatever. And, from the behind the scences perspective, let me tell you that this is mostly because they’re broke and need your money. This is especially true for smaller societies.

However, there are a few more elitist close and invitation-only ones. If one like that is super-important in your field, you might consider asking your advisor (or another member you know) to initiate you. The invite-only policy also applies to the Academies of Sciences where you need to be distinguished in your field before anybody will even think of initiating you. However, let me be clear that I fully don’t approve of societies like that as they promote privilege and create barriers for less privileged people (just look at their membership statistics, it’s probably 80% privileged white men). I have heard lots of colleagues stating that they wouldn’t even join a society like that even if they were invited just because they don’t want to condone this sort of pseudo-meritocratic but ultimately inegalitarian system. (Btw, also getting positions in counsils, see section below, in most societies remains kind of a shady process but I guess the fair, open and transparent thing hasn’t really reached the sphere of learned societies yet…)

Active participation in Academic Societies

Now that we have covered all the possible membership benefits you might want to look out for, I wanted to discuss another related topic and that’s participation! Apart from the general body of members, societies often have something like a council of members with special functions (head, but also stuff like web master or treasurer). Unless your society is a student society, you will probably only be eligible for the post of student representative before you have your PhD and have somewhat established yourself in the field. But still, by all means, go for it! Apply for the post or if it’s already taken, get in touch with the current student rep. I have made great friends by doing just that 😉

Some societies also have working groups where you can get active. Like the German-speaking DH community (Digital Humanities im deutschsprachigen Raum, DHd) has a number of such groups. They can be useful hubs for meeting people who share your interests. Many societies also have special sub-groups for minorities, such as Queer Societies, a Women’s Caucus or an Early Career Caucus. They might offer workshops or be a place where you can actively shape the politics of your society.

Conclusion

Overall, if you want to get established in a Academia, being a member of academic societies is one of the soft factors in your applications (i.e. the ones which won’t get you the job but which will look like a gap if you don’t have them). Participating in societies is a great place to start if you’re looking to polish up your CV (you can apply for grants and prizes or add items to your “service to profession” section of your CV). Not only can prizes and scholarships offered by societies help fund your conference travels, they also generate items on your CV in the grants section. And as Karen Kelsky says, start early with the small grants and be consistent in applying for more, they make you eligible for increasingly bigger ones (see our post on Karen Kelsky’s advice). At some point, you might also be expected to have served a function in a society or journal at some point (such as being on the council or book reviews editor, or reviewer for a journal or something like that), so keep this in mind as you plan your active participation in societies. Get your foot in the door early on.

So that’s it for today’s post on Academic Societies. What’s your opinion about them? Did you join any? Did you learn anything you didn’t know in this post? Let us know in the comments!

Best,

S


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