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I'm a student in the US, about to graduate with a BS in zoology. I've just been invited to join Phi Beta Kappa and am trying to find some more up-to-date discussions of whether or not it's worth it and I see a lot of conflicting opinions/information.

It costs $99 for me to join, which some have said reflects poorly on the society, while others say PBK is super prestigious and eye-catching. I've seen some saying it has gotten them positions, and others say its meaningless or they even look down on people who include it on their resumes.

I'll most likely go to grad school eventually and have no intentions currently to do any work/study outside of the US (I've seen many folks from outside the US saying they see honor societies and have a negative reaction because of Greek Life). Anyone have thoughts on this?

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I am looking at this from a European perspective. Also I focus on the perception and not whether this is accurate, which does not matter that much – whether you like it or not. You can neither expect readers to research this detail of your CV to fully understand it nor to suppress subconscious bias by the impression they get from items they do not fully understand.

As confirmed by some of the comments by other European members here, the vast majority of information of US Greek-letter societies that trickle over to Europe is about drug abuse, sexual misconduct, dehumanising initiation rituals, and nepotism. Therefore mentioning a membership in such an organisation (without any further explanation) risks leaving a bad impression. At the very least I would try to mitigate the risk by explicitly denoting it as an honour society – which can only have so much effect since that’s not a protected term.

Also, while a little Internet research suffices to debunk the worst associations, it does not leave the best impression:

  • It’s surprisingly difficult to find a recent independent characterisation on this society. You mainly find self-representation and Wikipedia (which is currently dominated by self-representation). The best you can find with reasonable effort are two articles from 1996 and 2005, respectively, about declining membership and recognition, in which the society leaves a rather entitled impression. Also, this very question and others on this site are already amongst the first things you find. This somewhat suggests that the society has since evaporated into meaninglessness.

  • The society’s main activity appears to be selecting and recruiting new members and documenting their achievements, which strikes me as awkwardly circular. There a few awards, scholarships, and fellowships, but these seem secondary.

  • The primary selection criterion seems to be grades, scholarly achievements, and learning another language, which should be featured on your CV anyway. It seems like a society that charges mountains to put a golden badge on them stating their height (analogy stolen from Leonard Cohen). Thus, listing membership appears to be somewhat redundant.

Mind that this is just an impression (after all the difficulty of finding information from reliable sources is one of the things that form this impression), but at the very least it suggests a considerable marketing failure.

  • Actually, the faculty in PBK are likely to sponsor a series of lectures on campus of distinguished intellectuals and academics and give students an opportunity to meet them. – Buffy Jun 1 '20 at 11:43
  • And, do you look for ways to give your own best students a boost? Would it be worthwhile to have some formal way to do that? – Buffy Jun 1 '20 at 13:05
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    @Buffy: Actually, the faculty in PBK are likely to sponsor a series of lectures on campus of distinguished intellectuals and academics and give students an opportunity to meet them. – If you need to point that out, that’s a part of the problem I am describing. (Also, I don’t see why you would need an honour society for this.) — And, do you look for ways to give your own best students a boost? Would it be worthwhile to have some formal way to do that? – I really do not want to debate the honour societies in general here. I am not saying they are bad; I am saying they leave a bad impression. – Wrzlprmft Jun 2 '20 at 6:19
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Include it. Phi Beta Kappa isn't a part of the Animal House culture. It is an honor, bestowed by the faculty and only those respected by the faculty are considered.

If someone confuses it with the Dekes it is their ignorance. The faculty who will review your applications know what it means, maybe even in Europe though comments here make me wonder. So, if you want to apply in Europe, explain that it is an honor society.

For those offended by this answer, note that PBK is not a fraternity. It has no initiation rites. It is purely and simply an invitation only honor society.


Disclaimer, neither a Deke, nor a PBK. No disrespect intended for either institution.


Caveat: Perhaps, for applications to any European institution you will need to make the nature of PBK blindingly obvious if you include it. The impression here, from comments and other answers, is that too many Europeans may make too many incorrect assumptions about Greek letter societies, assuming that all are only for drunks and such. And you may not get a chance to follow up. Sad.

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    "Even in Europe". Mm... not sure 'about that. I don't want to be disrespectful for such an institution, but I have no idea what it means, and I'm pretty sure that most of my European colleagues don't know it either. And, yes, like it or not, many people around this part of the world associate any fraternity to Animal House. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 23 '20 at 20:19
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    Do you really want a selection committee to Google a fraternity name? ;-) – Massimo Ortolano Apr 23 '20 at 20:33
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    Another European here who does not know PBK. The practical matter is that if I am looking at that CV, it will be one of many. I am not going google everything I see there. I probably won't hold it against her or him, but I will probably just skip it unless I am really interested in that individual. – Maarten Buis Apr 23 '20 at 20:41
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    Imagine a European professor reading a CV mentioning a Greek-letter organisation. The only thing most of them know about these organisations is Animal House or worse. They now have two appropriate options: 1) Educate themselves – which is a considerable effort for a single CV item and often impossible due to time constraints. 2) Try to forget it as good as possible – which is inevitably imperfect: We cannot avoid being biased. — What many of the above commentors are saying is that if they chose Option 2, this is the bias they would have. It’s not that they are intentionally ignorant. – Wrzlprmft Jun 1 '20 at 10:32
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    For what it's worth, the concept of an "honor society" in general seems fairly US-specific (see e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honor_society). On a practical level, as someone in the UK who's not too familiar with US honor society culture, I'm not sure I'd know what to make of it, so I'd probably just ignore it in practice. Not saying that's a good thing, but that's the reality. I'd be much more interested in looking at your published papers and talking to you about them; what society you're in wouldn't be much of a factor in any decision-making. – Stuart Golodetz Jun 1 '20 at 13:32
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Save your money. At best it's meaningless and at worse it associates you with all the negative connotations of Greek society and none of the benefits (such as the social life and a network of close friends and contacts you get to know over the many years at school).

I say it's meaningless because everything that it purports to represent - a high GPA, the acclaim of faculty, academic achievement - can be fully represented without it. Simply including your transcript or reporting your GPA, including letters of recommendation from faculty, and reporting on publications, research awards, and so on, covers every base.

Therefore, the only remaining piece of information that joining it tells me is that you respond to phishing-like emails to collect a hundred bucks.

And frankly, I've been a faculty member at two American departments, one of which was selective and the other of which was highly selective (in the top ten most selective in the US), and I had no idea you supposedly get access to this through faculty nomination. There's been a lot of answers focusing on Europeans who wouldn't know that it's supposedly a good thing, but I've been in the US academic system basically my whole life, and I also don't know that.

  • "respond to phishing-like emails" is pretty uninformed and insulting. Invitations are actually likely to be delivered in person by someone you know. A professor or department head, perhaps. – Buffy Jun 1 '20 at 22:03
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    The ones I saw were emails that looked like phishing. It's clear you've had a very different experience with this place than many. – Jeff Jun 2 '20 at 15:36
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I personally think honor societies are overrated, and I say this as someone with a 3.93 GPA who was invited to join many (for their fee, of course). They may have more value if you were planning on entering the workforce after undergrad. For example, they might help you land an internship. However, they carry little weight for grad. school admission committees who primarily care about research experience etc.

*My opinion is based on my experiences as someone with an undergrad. degree who wants to attend grad. school, not someone who's actually been admitted or who has sat on admission committees. (However, I can't see them factoring in an honor society membership.)

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