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En route to academia, are professional society memberships useful? So far, I feel like I have been paying ~$100/year for a few societies (with student discounts), just to receive copies of their monthly magazines that I only end up skimming over once. I get tons of emails that are vaguely aimed towards keeping people up to date with current research, but one can do that by reading papers anyways. So I don't really see a point to being a member.

Does anybody else feel this way? Are there actual benefits to being a member for societies like these?

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In addition to the individual benefits they offer (subscriptions, electronic journal access, discounts, the possibility of distinguished or honorary grades of membership, etc.), professional organizations also contribute to the research community more broadly:

  1. They organize conferences, publish journals, and support other activities, for example in employment, education, outreach, and public awareness. The academic community would be very different without these services, many of which need financial support.

  2. They represent their field to the outside world, such as government funding agencies, and make the case for its importance.

  3. They intervene in crises. For example, when the University of Rochester abruptly decided to cancel its graduate program in mathematics in 1995, the American Mathematical Society helped coordinate a very effective response, which led to the program's reinstatement.

  4. They monitor the health of the field and help members address any concerns (for example, by investigating ethical complaints).

  5. They help shape how the field is viewed within academia, through publicity, prizes, leadership positions, invited lectures, etc.

Membership dues help pay for these activities, which are also more effective when the organization represents a large fraction of the field.

Nobody has an obligation to belong to any particular organization, but it's a simple and valuable way to support the field as a whole. I'd recommend that every grad student join a couple of professional societies.

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In my area, (computing and information science) there are 2 primary professional organizations that one is a member of. The first is ACM and the second is IEEE.

In my own context as a graduate student, there are 2 major reasons why someone is a member of ACM or IEEE or both as follows:

  1. It gives me access anytime, anywhere to the ACM Digital Library and the IEEE Digital Library. This is important because it allows me 365 x 7 x 24 access to papers and citations and references in my own area of work that are very relevant and important for me.

  2. It reduces the cost of attending conferences (sometimes by 15-25%) whether one is presenting a paper or poster or not (even though the culture in our area is that the adviser pays for conference attending funds but its good to reduce his/her financial burden).

A third, ancillary reason is that you can create your own Author webpages on these websites which is a good supporting place for listing your publications since they appear automatically in your author webpage once you publish and also tracks citations and references to your work.

In my opinion, there are no other practical reasons for being a member of these two organizations. Of course, this may and probably will differ from discipline to discipline but I just wanted to point out the reasons for being a member of professional organizations in my research field.

  • 3
    Does your uni not provide you access to digital libraries? In my experience access to literature is not (and should not) be a membership only deal, on the contrary it should be a part of the job description. In other words I see it as the responsibility of the institution to provide access, not membership to some organization – posdef Mar 28 '13 at 0:02
  • @posdef - this may not be the case for Shion, but it might be easier to access the pubs through IEEE or ACM rather than the university because of a requirement to either be on-campus for access, or to go through a VPN. I've had wireless internet connections that didn't allow VPN, and it would have been difficult to get the pubs otherwise. – Chris Gregg Mar 28 '13 at 4:31
  • The university does provide me with access to most digital libraries. However, I am not within the university firewall all the time and when I am at home, this is the best option. Alternatively, as Chris pointed out, I have to go through the library portal - which is rather poorly designed. :) – Shion Mar 28 '13 at 4:53
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This might sound controversial to some but my understanding of it all is that the whole society concept is a bit outdated. I have a feeling that most of those organizations or societies have older roots and try to live on the reputation of what it once was. In my own field I don't know a single person who's a member of the national/regional/global organization. I know some who used to be, though...

The only benefits I have figured out so far are discounts on journals, conferences and in some specific cases travel grants for younger scientists. The "problem" here is that the first two never really mattered much, in my experience. I don't know how it is at other institutes but we normally get access to a wide variety of journals via the university library network (in other words, I never had any reason to subscribe to journals) and likewise we are required to apply to travel grants in order to go to conferences, so having some percent discount does not make a huge difference (we either get the money to go to the conference, or we don't).

To refer to some of the points mentioned:

  • as I mentioned in a comment to Shion's answer, providing access to relevant literature should be a responsibility of the department/university/research institute. It is such a fundamental part of the work so that not having access to literature would be a service-professional not getting a hammer/screwdriver from his employer. Access to literature is as much of a vital tool for us as a chisel might be for a carpenter..

  • some of the other benefits, such as representation towards policy makers, could be extremely region-dependent. For instance; as a European resident, I see absolutely no reason to be a member of ACS, which is one of the biggest societies relevant to my line of work.

  • organizations/societies do organize conferences but you still have to pay to attend, plus I have yet to come across a society-exclusive conference so far. Note that I do not dismiss the possibility, but rather stress how uncommon it is.

All that said, I do not advocate that societies are useless. I only suggest that given the meager salaries we get as grad students, I think you can come up with better use of the money that would have been spent on the membership fee.

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Give for receive.

If you are a member of a professional society you can contribute, create projects, connect/meet people, improve skills, etc. In the other hand you can get/receive benefits:

  • academic
    • professional prestige
    • international spot
    • professional collaboration
  • economic (commissions)
    • training/organizing for events/congresses
    • society funding projects (graduate courses, infrastructure improvement)

The usefulness of a professional society membership depends on your personal interests, society capabilities and is harvested with time.

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