Going pro

Back when I was an Honours student, with much excitement, I joined the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS). It wasn’t a big a decision. It was just what you did; if you were starting to consider yourself a climate science researcher, you joined AMOS.

It was also great decision. As a discipline, Australian climate, ocean, meteorology types invest heavily in our professional society. The highlight to this investment is our annual conference.

It’s a small national conference, but the presentations are always very strong and it’s great fun. As a early career researcher, you get to see the same group of  young people every year, meeting up regularly to talk science, drink wine and catch up on the ups and downs of the year.

At every AMOS national conference, a series of career awards are presented. It’s exciting to see a big name in the field honoured and hear their unique career trajectory. And it’s even more exciting to look around the room and think that in 10 or 20 years time, one of my friends will be up at the lectern, humbly accepting recognition of their academic accomplishments.

In my discipline, being a member of our professional society is just the done thing. But early career researcher (ECR) participation in professional societies is generally pretty low. Young researchers tend to see them as the domain of crusty old folks. And why would someone part with their meagre PhD scholarship dollars to be the only one in a society under 60?

There’s lots of benefits for everyone in being be part of a professional society, which come at a very small monetary cost in return.

  1. There’s the chance for lots of fun. You get to the see the same group of researchers move through the ranks from timid honours students to confident PhD students to tired postdocs, having fun and supporting each other along the way.
  2. It’s a chance to get involved. Membership can be a gentle entry point for taking on a leadership or service role and getting some experience sitting on a committee. Most societies have local or state chapters and it can be easy to get involved with organising workshops, or get a chance to experience chairing a small conference session.
  3. It opens up lots of other opportunities. Most professional societies have some resources to subsidise student participation at conferences. Some have student conferences prizes that make a great addition to a resume and often also confer a cash reward. Societies provide an venue to impress you senior colleagues and establish strong, ongoing networks with your peers. Many have some sort of formal or informal mentor schemes or professional development opportunities that can help navigate the step from Phd to employment.
  4. Membership of a professional society reflects an important commitment to community. When I sit on selection panels that decide on postdoc appointments, I always like to see a membership of a professional society. It demonstrates that you are committed to being an academic and not just a paper writing machine. Although, I think you are suppose to be this as well.

I’ve found my membership to AMOS to be rewarding in all these ways. As a PhD student, I received travel funding and small conference prizes. Along the way, I’ve found friendships and started collaborations. I’ve been given the chance to speak at a public lecture in front of 300 members of the public as a representative of my society.

I’m currently the early career representative on the committee for Science and Technology Australia (STA). Membership of STA is provided through a professional society and this gives Australian scientists additional tools to communicate and advocate for science. Members of a professional society, and by proxy STA, can attend workshops to learn skills to interact with policymakers, politicians and journalists.

The reluctance of young scientists to join their particular societies mean that it’s really hard for groups like STA to provide for the specific needs of young scientists. It makes it harder for us to advocate for our own needs and to communicate why we need clearer career pathways, or more job opportunities in the first place, or better access to childcare, or more skills for linking our research to business and industry, or longer, more fairly paid PhD scholarships.

A professional society is far stronger than a nebulous rabble of independent scientists. A professional society can set the direction of a discipline’s research, framing research goals and priorities in a strategic, methodical way.  If early career researchers wish to have a voice in their disciplines, participation in our societies is a great place to start.

My society is a diverse group, cross-cutting ages and genders, which makes it great fun to be part of. Some are not. If your relevant society is more crusty and old, than fun and vibrant, I suggest you get involved and invest in creating the society that you want. Gather some friends up and join together. Power to the (young) people!

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