Professional Associations: Do I Have To?

by | October 7, 2009

Professional associations are an important component to effective career management, but many people are unsure how to best leverage them to develop one’s career.

You may have received advice from faculty members or colleagues that you should join a professional organization, but you may not be sure how to act on that advice. Even if feel like you have an accurate understanding of what professional associations are, other factors may be inhibiting you from participating. Often people worry about the time commitment involved, or membership dues and conference registration fees may feel prohibitive, especially for students. As a result, people often question whether joining a professional organization is worth it.

In my experience, many individuals also have trepidation about professional associations for an even more basic reason: they seem scary. This is definitely the case for me. I prefer to meet people one-on-one rather than in a group setting. I also prefer to be introduced to new people by mutual acquaintances, instead of meeting people “cold.” As a result, attending professional association meetings or conferences – group events where I don’t know anyone – is really stressful for me.

Me too! So what’s the point, then?
There truly are significant benefits to becoming involved in a professional organization. Despite the fact that it might seem hard to break in at first, professional organizations are a great way to meet people in your field. It can be intimidating to attend a board meeting or roundtable discussion where you don’t know anyone, and even more nerve-wracking to attend a networking event hosted by the organization. But by attending a few events, you can very quickly go from not knowing anyone to making connections with some of the people in the organization. (The challenge, however, is to make yourself go in the first place, and then to talk to people once you’re there. More on that in a minute.)

Professional organizations are also fertile ground for finding mentors and colleagues outside of your own organization with whom you can share best practices and learn new approaches to your work. They foster collegiality and give you an outlet to talk about your work with like-minded professionals.

Active participation in a professional association is also an important strategy for becoming known in your field. As a doctoral candidate, you may be seeking to establish yourself as an expert in your field. Professional associations, where you can become known by your peers and share your expertise, offer a great venue for accomplishing this.

Finally, professional organizations are a rich source of information about job openings and other career advancement opportunities. Employers frequently post job openings on listservs or websites maintained by professional organizations. Additionally, by networking with association members, you are well-positioned to hear about job opportunities that may never be posted anywhere at all and are filled instead through word-of-mouth.

But which organization should I join?
If you are unsure which professional association(s) you should join, you’ll need to do a little research. One simple strategy is to ask your colleagues, supervisor, or mentors which professional organizations they belong to or they recommend you join. You can also review the list of professional associations contained on the “What Can I Do With a Degree In…?” document for your Capella program for a list of organizations related to your academic discipline.

Alternatively, do a keyword search for your job title, career field, or industry on LinkedIn (you’ll need to join LinkedIn first), and review the profiles of the people who fit your criteria to see what organizations they list. Finally, a quick Google search by keyword (your job title, industry, or career field) and the phrase “professional association” should also return a list of possible organizations.

Once you develop a list of possible organizations to join, review their websites to determine if they seem like a good fit given your job and your career aspirations. Also investigate whether there are local or state chapters in your area. Becoming involved on a state or local level is often much easier than involving yourself in the national chapter. Opting to join the local chapter allows you to more easily meet people and identify activities or opportunities for you to participate or assume a leadership role.

It’s expensive! I can’t afford this!
All professional associations levy annual fees for membership. The amount depends on the organization, although as a general rule, membership in state and local organizations costs less than membership in national-level associations. Regardless, the fees may seem prohibitive, especially while you are a student. There are several strategies you can employ to minimize the financial burden posed by membership.

First, make sure you fully investigate the benefits that membership affords, and make sure they align with your interests and career development goals. If not, you might want to continue searching until you find another organization that better meets your needs. If an organization looks promising but you aren’t convinced you want to commit, email a board member and ask if you can attend a few board meetings to try out the organization before joining.

If you see value in joining an organization, but are still worried about cost, you can explore options for reducing the membership fees. Ask about a student membership rate, or the possibility of need-based scholarships to would-be members. Inquire as to whether volunteer opportunities with the organization come with a discount on annual dues or conference registration fees. Finally, if you are considering joining a professional association related to the work you are currently doing, see if your employer will finance all or part of your membership.

Okay, I joined. Now what do I do?
Professional organizations shouldn’t just be a line on your resume or CV. To make them worth the membership fees, you need to participate. Involvement is also the only way to actually meet your fellow association members. Make sure your email address is added to the organization’s distribution list, so you are notified about organization events. Attend monthly board meetings, roundtable events, or brown bag presentations the organization sponsors. When you attend these events, participate! Ask a question at a roundtable discussion, or offer your perspective at a brown bag event. Volunteer to serve on the board or one of the board committees. Propose a presentation at the organization’s annual conference or other continuing education forums.

A common misperception is that professional associations don’t need volunteers for their board or committees. Another is that the criteria for having a presentation accepted at a conference is stringent. Usually just the opposite is true – associations are always looking for energetic new members to join in, and conference organizers often scramble to find enough presenters to fill out their conference schedule. It is much easier to join a committee or get a presentation accepted at a professional association conference than many people realize. (Remember to add any presentations you give onto your CV.)

I’m still nervous. Help!
If you are introverted like me, there are a number of ways to ease your involvement with a professional organization. After you’ve joined a professional association, see if the organization maintains a LinkedIn group, and join it as well. Start participating on the group discussion board, or asking and answering questions in the Q&A feature. Joining these online conversations can be a “safe” way to reach out to others in the organization and start building relationships with them.

Schedule informational interviews with a few key leaders as a way to learn more about the organization. Board members are a good place to start, and their contact information is usually listed on the organization’s website. This will allow you to educate yourself about the organization and to build relationships with a few people before jumping into a meeting or other group environment without knowing anyone.

After you’ve connected with a member, ask if you can attend your first few meetings with them. Request that they introduce you to colleagues and friends as a way to meet people without having to introduce yourself cold.

Finally, consider volunteering for one-time commitments to test the waters before committing to board membership or other ongoing responsibilities. Volunteering has the added bonus of giving you something to do at a conference or other event, so you aren’t just standing around hoping someone will talk to you. Bonding with another volunteer over a shared task, or chatting with a conference attendee who asked you a question while you were working at the registration table is a great way to break the ice and help you feel more comfortable in group settings.

While joining a professional association can be intimidating, challenge yourself to work past your anxiety and get involved. Your career will thank you for it! For more tips and strategies on managing your career, visit the Capella Career Center.

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