I was recently an invited guest speaker in a career/professional development course for seniors. When talking about the importance of networking to students’ professional development, I had one student who raised concerns about membership dues in national organizations. She asked if it would be sufficient to get involved at state or student levels rather than a national organization because she had heard it was more expensive to get involved in national organizations. Excellent question! My response to this question is: no, it is not absolutely necessary for undergraduates…, and you have to decide what is right and feasible for YOU.
There are a variety of national organizations you could get involved in for any given major. If you are a family and consumer sciences’ student, see your “area of study” on the family and consumer sciences page for a list of professional associations you can get involved with. At the same time, getting involved in national organizations CAN be expensive. Although it costs less for students ($60-100) than for other professionals ($130-200), the expenses involved may or may not be worth it to YOU. Some national organizations offer scholarship programs (for example, The American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences has the HUGS sponsorship program for students). Others, however, do not. So, you will need to think carefully about whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs to you.
The benefits of your involvement in national organizations center on opportunities to network with professionals and other students across the world. Additionally, as a member of some national organizations, you could have access to job postings that relate to your discipline. You could also learn more about your discipline and the types of jobs or experiences that professionals who have the same major as you have had. Presenting some of your research or scholarly activities via a workshop or poster presentation at a national conference would be an asset to your resume. Further, you would not generally present at a national conference without some guidance from a professor or mentor. Thus, this process would provide you with an opportunity to get to know and work with at least one of your professors a little better; these are the folks that you will also ask if you could list them as a reference or to write letters for you, and the more they know you, the better they will be able to speak on your behalf…you get the idea. Yet, all of these benefits require active involvement.
To illustrate, here are a few ways in which my active involvement in professional organizations have influenced my career path:
2004- A graduate student invited me to attend a meeting that a student organization in my Department was having (The Student Association of Family and Consumer Sciences). I thought that I was too old (as a “nontraditional” student) and that only dorks got involved in these things…but I ended up going because one of my professors offered extra credit to do so. I loved it. I attended meetings regularly, volunteered to help with fundraisers and community service events, and I was an elected as an offer for the next few years.
2004- My professor and mentor (and now dear friend and Career Skillet Project Manager, Mikki Sherwood) invited me to attend a board meeting of The Illinois Council on Family Relations (IL-NCFR). I had asked her how I could get involved in professional organizations. IL-NCFR is an affiliate of The National Council on Family Relations (NCFR), but student membership was only $5 (compared to $60 at the national – NCFR – level). I jumped at the opportunity, became an officer, and was actively involved in that organization for about 7 years following. In my involvement with IL-NCFR, I met several professionals throughout the state of Illinois, many of which changed my life path (see 2005-2007).
2005 – I attended an annual NCFR conference in Phoenix, AZ as an undergraduate. Through this experience, I became excited about the world of research and met other students and professors that I still talk to today. Side note: I had been doing some work for a professor on intimate partner violence, and when at the conference, I became unreasonably excited to realize I was riding in an elevator with one of the leading researchers in this area, Dr. Michael Johnson. He had me at, “what floor are you going to?” Star struck. Yes, I am a complete dork. BUT, my experience at NCFR gave me the opportunity to meet people like this, building on my enthusiasm for the field and my future in it.
2005 – I graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree and received a graduate assistantship to advise all of the student organizations in my Department. What to graduate assistantships mean? With graduate assistantships, you work for the Department (teaching, doing research, or other departmental work) for approximately 20 hours per week (varies); in turn, you are given more opportunities to network, a pay check, and tuition waivers. It is a pretty sweet deal actually, and I thoroughly enjoyed my assistantship. And, I would never have got this graduate assistantship if I had not been actively involved in the professional organizations I was as an undergraduate! Interestingly, I was filling the shoes of the graduate student that invited me to attend my first meeting in 2004. Who would have thought?
2006 – I graduated with my Master’s degree. Because I was actively involved in student organizations and Departmental events as a graduate student, my work was more visible to other professors in the Department, including the Department Chairperson. As a result, they invited me to stay in the Department and teach family services classes full time. This experience was life altering for me. I absolutely loved teaching the classes and working with the undergraduate students.
2008 – Although I loved my job, I felt like I was missing something by not having a PhD. I wanted to pursue my PhD, so I could learn more about research (as my friends that I met at NCFR in 2005 had) and about human development and family studies (because I thought the more I learned, the better the educator I would become). I did some research on PhD programs and reached out to a professor at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) that I had come to know through IL-NCFR. I met with her, and she encouraged me to apply to her Department to work with her and other Extension faculty at UIUC. I did and long story short, I got my PhD from UIUC in 2013, had an amazing experience along the way, and many wonderful things are coming from it.
These are just a few examples of how MY active involvement in student organizations influenced MY career path…and one that I am quite excited about it. I wish the same for each of you. So yes, membership dues CAN be worth it. You have to
- decide what is feasible for you,
- reach out to professors and mentors (tell them about your interests, and ask them to help you find opportunities),
- choose the organizations that will benefit your career goals and interests,
- find out if national organizations you are interested in offer discounted membership rates or member sponsorship programs for students, and
- prioritize your involvement and activities within the organizations.
For more benefits and information on this topic, see the article written by Career Skillet contributor, Kimi Crossman: Why You Should Get Involved in Professional Organizations and Where to Start. There are benefits to being involved on all levels (student organizations on your campus, state organizations, or national organizations); going to all of the meetings, participating in the volunteer opportunities, or taking on a leadership role (for example, secretary or president) in the organizations you get (or already are) involved in could potentially be life altering for you, but simply having your name on their member list will likely not help you that much at all. As such, YOU are really in control of whether or not membership dues are worth it.