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I had a discussion with a colleague about paying to become a member out of our own pockets. His argument is that we have to support a society if we care about it.

I don't understand the argument. The best way I can explain it is if we compare it to industry. You would not be asked to pay out of your own pocket to do the job you were hired for. Instead, your employer would have to pay it.

However, with respect to memberships in academia we are supposed to pay to do the job we were hired for (by the way, in my contract it says "give presentations in academic meetings"). It might be my experience in industry that makes me think this way, but again, I do not find it appropriate at all that we have to pay to do our jobs.

Why is there this discrepancy between academia and industry?

PS. I know in some cases one can use certain funds to pay for membership, I am not asking about that. I am asking that if you have the options of (1) not being a member or (2) pay it yourself, you are expected to pay it yourself.

Extra information: I asked around in my office and all (but me) frown upon academics that are not members of any society. In practice, this means (as far as I know, told this in confidence) that colleagues in my department do not consider you a committed professional and can use this as an excuse to minimize your achievements and maximize your weaknesses. One of the comments was similar to one of the answers here "if someone is not committed, then he/she should change careers, they have no place in academia"

  • In Germany and Austria I know for a fact that researchers are often covered by the institutional membership of their institute if that's offered by the society. Else, memberships often come with discounts on conference fees that can be used to get reimbursed for society membership by your university. I would guess the same applies to other European countries. – henning -- reinstate Monica Aug 16 '17 at 14:35
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    Just curious, in your discipline, is it necessary to be a member of a society in order to "give presentations in academic meetings"? The major societies in my discipline do organize meetings, but one is not required to be a member in order to present at those meetings (though non-members pay a higher registration fee). There are also many important conferences which are not organized by any society. – Nate Eldredge Aug 16 '17 at 14:53
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    @NateEldredge In my area, the societies often have the cunning scheme that the registration discount for members is greater than the cost to join! – David Richerby Aug 16 '17 at 19:04
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    I would also like to comment that the policy "employer pays for all things necessary for employee to do their job" is by no means universal in the private sector. As a simple example, a sales firm might require its employees to dress elegantly, but would likely not pay for those elegant clothes. – Nate Eldredge Aug 17 '17 at 15:35
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    "PS. I know in some cases one can use certain funds to pay for membership, I am not asking about that. I am asking that if you have the options of (1) not being a member or (2) pay it yourself, you are expected to pay it yourself." This is particularly nonsensical. "I assert this thing is true, I do not want to hear things counter to this assertion" is...not productive. – Fomite Aug 17 '17 at 21:01
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First of all, I believe the premise of your question is largely incorrect (and I know from your disclaimer that you are "not asking about that" but will take the liberty of addressing that anyway). At my university, researchers can use their research funds to pay for membership in academic societies, and my perception is that this is the norm in the United States. So, to the extent that it's not the case at your institution, my feeling is that that is out of line with the norm, so perhaps there is indeed no good reason for it and you should lobby to get this rule changed.

Second, even if it is the case that you cannot charge this expense to your research funds, the assertion that "academics are expected to pay out of their pockets for memberships in academic societies" still sounds highly questionable to me. What does "expected" here mean? I was not a member of any academic society until last year, and nonetheless managed to become a full professor and department chair at a respected university. So I maintain that no harm will come to your career if you ignore this so-called "expectation". Sure, it might be nice to be a member of a society and can come with various small benefits, but if you don't feel like paying for it, you'll be fine.

Third, even if it is the case that becoming a member of an academic society in your discipline is somehow a professional necessity, and that the only way to do that is to pay for it out of your personal money, I don't think that's necessarily unreasonable (nor is it entirely true that things aren't like that in industry - lawyers have to pay annual bar fees, for example, not all of which are covered by their employers). Your interpretation that this means "we are supposed to pay to do the job we were hired for" seems to me like a very narrow-minded view of what life in academia is about. Sure, it is a job and we are paid a salary for it; at the same time, being a researcher is much more than a job - it is a vocation, and that is why researchers are notoriously bad at separating their personal lives and their professional lives: most normal "workers" don't work late nights and weekends (not to mention holidays and family vacations) and don't spend a large proportion of their lives traveling for work, including moving repeatedly across large geographical distances before landing their first permanent job.

In fact, to be honest, as an academic, I feel like I can't draw a precise line separating my "job" from my "personal life". When I read a math book or article at the beach or swimming pool, am I "working"? When I think about a research problem while driving or talk about math with a friend over dinner, am I "working"? I honestly don't know. And that's a good thing. It means that I am doing something that makes me happy. How many other "workers" can say that? Too few, sadly. So let the industry people have their employers pay for them to do the "duties" that are "written in their contract", is what I say. If you are passionate about your work and being a member of a society is something that interests you enough, you would not find it burdensome having to pay a small amount for it. And if not, well, either switch careers, or just forego the society membership, and all will be well.

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    I'm not so sure about your perception of the "norms". At my institution (R2), faculty aren't by default allocated any general-purpose "research funds". There are internal funds available for travel and various other specific purposes, either automatically or by competitive application, and of course one can apply for external grants. But I don't think professional society dues are allowed by any of these. I wonder if there is any broader data on this. – Nate Eldredge Aug 16 '17 at 16:21
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    As for "no good reason" for this policy, I think the university would cite what they see as the most compelling of reasons: it costs money which they don't have, can't afford, would have to cut other benefits or services to compensate, etc, etc. – Nate Eldredge Aug 16 '17 at 16:23
  • @NateEldredge sure, lack of money is obviously a valid reason. I guess I assumed that since lack of money is a generic answer to many questions of the type "why isn't my employer enabling me to do X, which I need to do in order to do my job?", OP wouldn't be asking the question if that were the reason in his institution's case. But anyway, good point. – Dan Romik Aug 16 '17 at 16:31
  • @NateEldredge Researchers at my institution get a small amount of unrestricted money from every funded grant proposal ("indirect cost recovery" or "ICR") . That's what we use to pay professional society dues; if I don't have ICR money, I pay from my own pocket. Junior professors can also use startup funds, but that's just another species of ICR. Using direct grant money would violate funding agency policy. – JeffE Aug 16 '17 at 19:03
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    "the assertion that "academics are expected to pay out of their pockets for memberships in academic societies" still sounds highly questionable to me": As I said, in my office and all (but me) frown upon academics that are not members of any society. One of the effects (as far as I know) is that tenure committees make it more difficult to attain tenure or promotions. I guess it is similar to industry when they sometimes just say "not a team player" as a generic way to decrease chances of promotion. Also, I did not ask about your university, I know that some fortunate individuals can use funds. – Roger Aug 17 '17 at 10:43
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A few perspectives on this question, from someone who has had one society membership paid for by their university, and several not:

You would not be asked to pay out of your own pocket to do the job you were hired for. Instead, your employer would have to pay it.

First, I know a number of people in industry who end up paying out of pocket (especially if we consider the time value of money) for learning things important to their job.

Second, rare is the society membership that is required to do your job. I have only published in a single journal that required an author on the publication to be a member of the society, and generally speaking, I also haven't had to be a member to attend meetings, present work, etc. - though it's often cheaper than registering as a non-member.

However, with respect to memberships in academia we are supposed to pay to do the job we were hired for (by the way, in my contract it says "give presentations in academic meetings").

As noted above, society memberships are neither necessary nor sufficient for you to fulfill this clause in your contact.

PS. I know in some cases one can use certain funds to pay for membership, I am not asking about that. I am asking that if you have the options of (1) not being a member or (2) pay it yourself, you are expected to pay it yourself.

You made a general argument, but don't want to hear about the counters to your general argument?

I've used both startup and grant funding to pay for society memberships.

There are other reasons that I can come up with off the top of my head for why this isn't done (often):

  1. For many faculty, even those with unallocated money, society memberships may fall in that category of "annoying, but not worth spending my limited grant funding on."
  2. It is very hard to link society membership to a particular tangible work product, save for rare cases. My membership in SIAM, for example, has done exactly nothing for my career, and is tied to no products, yet I still find it reasonably valuable. That's hard to put into a grant, and hard for a university to justify spending.
  3. There's no cap on it. There are always societies to join. If you come to a university and say "I need a PCR machine to do my work" you buy the machine (and perhaps a service agreement) and you're done. "I need to join some number of societies" isn't capped. Is that number one? Three? Fifteen? Fifty?
  4. Society memberships follow people, not positions. For three months, I was between jobs - yet I was still a member of the Society for Epidemiological Research. If I quit my job tomorrow, I will still be a member of one of their committees. The same is true if I switched jobs.
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In my field, it is not required to be a member of any society. So it is not expected that one would pay for that. Personally, I do not pay for any memberships. But, If wanted to, I would use my research funding (permitted in many universities). And otherwise, if I would not have enough funding, I would just pay it with my own money, and it would not be much of a problem. In my field, membership are cheap for students (about 50 $ USD). And for professors, we typically have a high enough salary that paying a membership is not much of a problem even if we would pay from our own pocket. If you really like research, you may not mind paying a little bit from your own pocket, especially if you don't have enough funding and you think it could help you.

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