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I recently received an acceptance letter from a honor society (I am leaving off the name for now but can include a link to the website).

The offer said I qualified because of my grades or a nomination. I read a little into it and it a lot more like a sales pitch. Offering discounts, exclusive scholarships, and career services in exchange for a biannual fee.

The website does look very professional. I am not sure if it is a scam, a profit driven real honor society, or what else. Aside from intuition is there any ways to tell what an invitation entails without all the hype?

Also, even if they are a profit driven business is it likely worth time to invest in a short term membership?

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I am not at all an expert when it comes to honor societies, but an organization that contacts people out of nowhere to offer "discounts, exclusive scholarships, and career services in exchange for a biannual fee" sounds like scam to me. –  xLeitix Aug 4 at 20:19
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Sounds like a Who's Who scam. –  Nate Eldredge Aug 4 at 20:30
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Is it a big deal to give us the name of the website? There are many professionals on this site who most likely have extensive experience with honor societies, and may easily tell you if it's indeed a scam –  sleek visage Aug 4 at 22:36
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Obligatory: xkcd.com/703 –  Nate Eldredge Aug 5 at 8:10
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If they want money, just say no. –  Andreas Blass Aug 5 at 19:49

3 Answers 3

up vote 32 down vote accepted

In all of my experience: no one within academia cares about honor societies whatsoever. To expand on that: in academia we routinely (closer to constantly) evaluate people based on their academic qualifications, in a very serious way: i.e., the "winners" get offered substantial scholarships and/or jobs. Not once have I ever heard anyone mention membership in an honor society in any of these decisions. Not for faculty hiring, not for graduate admissions, not for picking TA's...never.

When I was an undergraduate I did join Phi Beta Kappa (junior year: whoop de frickin' doo) and Sigma Xi. The way I recall it, I was moderately encouraged to do so by my undergraduate program. And I must say that the amount of money that I gave to these people -- if any; maybe my school paid it themselves? -- was truly negligible: at most $40, or something like that. Based on this money, for many years afterwards I got:

  • Regular newsletters from the organizations that made what looked like reasonable attempts at giving me some kind of scientific / academic contacts. (Not that I read them...)

  • Semi-regular very strange calls offering to sell me gold-laminated books and other such frippery. Often these were done with enough of a "hard-sell" solicitation to get me a little steamed: one caller spoke breathlessly about the gold-laminated books and at the end asked me how many additional copies I wanted to order at a discounted price. I mentioned that she skipped an important step, and she asked what that was. I revealed that at no point in the conversation had she asked me whether I was even the slightest bit interested in buying anything from her. The rest of the conversation was brief but tense.

Based on these experiences, whenever any student asks me whether they should join an honor society -- the ones which are not supposed to be scams, like Phi Beta Kappa -- I say "I do not advise you to do it if you have to pay more than the most negligible amount of money."

However, I have occasionally talked to other faculty and university personnel about this issue, and their experiences are not always as negative as mine. What I suspect may be true (but I have unfortunately never had the occasion to find out!) is that: academic honors societies may be useful for people who are leaving academia, by providing some kind of modest continuing contact with the academic world. I mean, the idea that I need to open up a bi-annual newsletter and read about what other academics are doing makes no sense for me: I learn about what other academics are doing by going to work. But for people who go off into industry -- or something else -- maybe it is valuable. On the other hand, I have to imagine that, as with so many things, the internet makes this kind of thing largely obsolete: the amount of access that any citizen of the world with an internet connection has to current academic activity is greater now than what any professor had twenty years ago.

One final question: does anyone care if your CV says you are a Phi Beta Kappa (junior year!)? I suspect not -- as someone else mentioned, these awards are given for your GPA, and you put your GPA on your CV anyway. But I would, as ever, be interested to hear other perspectives.

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There are three metrics I use to see if a 'exclusive' society is a scam or not.

  1. If they are imprecise when it comes to why I was invited. "Because of your grades or a nomination" is pretty weak honestly. Who nominated me? What was the grade cutoff? Are they associated with group in my university such that they could even have access to my grades? If your invitation comes from a nomination, a legitimate honors society should be willing to name the nomination.

  2. Do they want me to pay money? It's true a lot of honor societies may have a entrance or membership fee. This should be minimal and obvious and you should have a direct idea of what this is going towards. A 'honor society' which is vague the criteria upon which you were invited and who wants to charge you money is pretty sketchy.

  3. Have you heard of them before? Has anyone you respect heard of them before? When you google them - do they have conferences? Meetings? Journals? Are they cited anywhere? Or is there nothing but advertisements for them when you google the name?

It's not that any of the above criteria, alone, is enough to make a 'honor society' sketchy. And I'm sure there are, in some fields, societies that hit all three of the above and are totally legit. But, to be honest, a blind email to you that has a "You may have won!" feel to it is probably a scam on some level.

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Ah yes, the always exciting "you are so awesome, here join my honor society!". My method is to simply google "name of honor soceity" scam. You would be amazed at how much info is out there already answering your questions for you.

To be honest, most "honor society's" are mostly just scams. Perhaps not as overtly as, say, a Nigerian prince being captured scam, but honestly, how many people sign up to be a member but never actually use any of their resources, even if they are legit? It's like a gym membership, only effective if you actually use it.

Anyhoo, I only joined ones that were directly related to my school/ had specific branches on my school and only joined two, a very well known one and the society for my direct major. And those were more to do with resume fillers than anything else.

Truth is, as far as I've ever seen, no one cares about the honor societies. If it's for an awesome gpa, well, your gpa on your resume covers that. If you do volunteer work, again, stating what you do is much better than just naming off an honor society.

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Honor societies have more value as resume fillers if you serve as an officer. –  Ben Voigt Aug 6 at 1:10

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