The untapped potential of professional societies

By Chris Lowe

Almost all STEM graduate students and post-docs are members of professional societies. Why? The member rate for conference registration is offered at a deep discount and when students must travel to present their work on their advisor’s dime, every dollar counts. If you are one of the majority of graduate students or post-docs then your professional society involvement probably begins and ends with the abstract submission followed by a poster or presentation at a conference later in the year. If this sounds like you, then you are leaving so much of what they have to offer an early career scientist just sitting on the table.

Professional societies across the board have the common goal of advancing their individual professions. A key component of this advancement in the bioscience and bioengineering fields is the development of the next generation of scientists and engineers. Towards this end, professional societies offer the opportunity for unmatched professional development and unparalleled networking. Some of these opportunities are obvious, like actively networking while at conferences or sprinkling in workshops on career topics with the technical sessions you attend. Others are more subtle, and you may miss out on them when you’re not in “conference mode”.

Most all professional societies have career development resources that they provide to their members, which address soft-skills critical to success in the workplace. These can take the form of blogs or articles on topics like how to market yourself during a job search or how to deal with new supervisory responsibilities after a promotion. Many professional societies offer monthly webinars to their members and at least a few times a year they address non-technical topics. In addition, most groups archive their webinars for their members to view anytime, accumulating formidable libraries of resources that can help you in your early career development. Taking some time to watch a webinar can be a nice way to take a quick break from slogging through data, while still being productive and career focused.

Outside of the virtual world, professional societies frequently sponsor local chapters or sections that hold events much more regularly and closer to home. These local sections operate under the umbrella of the wider organization on a smaller scale, hosting happy hour mixers, seminars, tours, and meetings for members local to a particular area. For example, in North Jersey, there are active local sections of ISPE, ACS, and AIChE. These provide the opportunity for face to face networking, learning, and socializing with nearby scientists and engineers in your area throughout the year.

The existence of local sections also presents a less well known, but highly valuable opportunity: volunteer leadership. Local sections, special interest groups, and operating committees in professional societies are led and developed through the work of volunteer leaders within their society. Becoming an officer in a local section or a young professionals group in a society has a number of benefits. Getting involved at this level not only allows you to meet a new group of professionals in your field, but it allows you to work alongside them, collaborating on specific projects or planning events and meetings. This provides an outlet to gain experience using your soft-skills (leadership, communication, creativity, collaboration) working with people in your technical field towards concrete, tangible goals. Successfully planning a series of meetings, hosting an award banquet, or launching a new outreach initiative with these groups will foster far greater relationships for your network and greatly increases the chances these contacts will be able to effectively advocate for you in the future. Demonstrating that you can work productively with a team towards a common goal also goes a long way towards showing future employers that you are more than just an antisocial lab rat, that you can “play well in the sandbox”. Furthermore, having the chance to effectively manage a diverse team as part of your professional society involvement will reflect positively on your abilities as a leader, boosting your case for promotion or supervisory responsibilities down the road. Involvement at this level may seem daunting, but as these organizations are largely run on a volunteer basis, there is often a great deal of understanding between members as everyone is volunteering their own time outside of their labs and their jobs. A small investment of time in this way could pay large dividends for you and your career.
While the marquee annual meetings hosted by professional societies garner the greatest buzz, there are a number of other opportunities that may lay untapped for you to take advantage of much more frequently and much closer to home. Below are links to some specific branches of professional societies that may be of interest if you’re looking to take your involvement to the next level or just looking to make the most of your membership!


American Chemical Society (ACS)

American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE)

American Society of Cell Biology (ASCB)

American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB)

American Society for Microbiology (ASM)

American Physiology Society (APS)

Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES)

International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineering (ISPE)

Society for Neuroscience (SfN)

Society of Toxicology (SoT)

Genetics Society of America (GSA)

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

ASME Bioengineering Division (ASME BED)

  • Student Leadership Committee: @asmebedstudents


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