Editor’s note: This article is part of a career advice series contributed by PhysicsToday‘s partners at the American Institute of Physics Career Network.
It’s easy to get so caught up in day-to-day professional responsibilities that you end up working in a bubble. Yet if your goal is to expand your career opportunities, engaging in the larger physical sciences community is an important step. For students and early-career scientists especially, joining a professional society can help build interpersonal networks and open up avenues for career advancement.
Research and join the right organizations
No matter what job you have, there are probably multiple professional organizations that you can join. Some are large and broad—like the American Physical Society (APS), which has about 50,000 members—and others are smaller and more specialized, such as the Society of Rheology. To find the one that’s right for you, ask for recommendations from colleagues and compare each organization’s areas of specialization, services, activities, benefits, and costs.
Many professional societies have smaller subgroups, often called divisions or sections. They are frequently organized around a technical subspecialty—such as APS’s divisions of astrophysics, fluid dynamics, laser science, plasma physics, physics of beams, and more—and may include members from all geographic areas.
Societies can also have local sections, which are generally organized around a particular geographic area and will include members with a wide variety of professional interests. For example, the American Meteorological Society has six chapters in California alone. Participating in your local section helps connect you with other professionals nearby. If you are looking to relocate to a specific area, contact the local section that covers that region and ask about career resources or local employers. Local sections may also host conferences, offer grants, and provide lists of internship programs, instrument exchanges, and other interesting services.
Find out what the membership requirements are at the national and local levels. Joining the national organization may automatically make you a member of a local chapter, or you may need to register and pay separately. There may be different levels of membership, with different prices and benefits available with each one. For example, students and unemployed professionals often get significantly reduced rates for membership. And sometimes membership in one society enables access to member benefits from another society.
Many employers will reimburse employees for at least one professional society membership, so make sure to check. If there is no standing policy, you may still be able to negotiate and get your employer to pay, especially if you can provide a business justification for how your company or institution will benefit from your membership and active participation.
Use the resources and contribute your own
Once you are a member, take advantage of the benefits the society has to offer. Read the newsletters, magazines, and journals to stay up-to-date on developments in your field. Join the society’s LinkedIn and Facebook groups and contribute to conversations that are of interest to you. Use the society’s data and tools to understand the state of your field and how it may change in the future. Skim the job postings, even if you are not currently looking for a new opportunity, so you can start to get a sense of the job market. You can also learn about adjacent sectors and other possible career paths.
Attending conferences organized by the societies is a great way to learn about current research and to grow your professional network. The conference rate is often much lower for society members than for nonmembers, so much so that the cost of membership is nearly offset.
Most societies also provide professional development resources, such as webinars and workshops, printed materials, job fairs, and travel awards to help defray the cost of attending national or regional meetings. Often those awards go unused because no one applies for them. Some societies provide online or in-person courses or certifications that can prepare you for the next stage of your career. For example, the American Association of Physicists in Medicine offers those who want to become qualified medical physicists the opportunity to acquire board certification.
All levels of professional society membership will offer you opportunities to lead. You can start small by reviewing award applications, helping to organize events, or writing and editing newsletter articles. Volunteering can be a great way to try new kinds of tasks and practice professional skills that you want to improve in a low-pressure environment. As you provide yourself, you can take on more responsibilities, such as mentoring new members or proposing new directions for the organization. And you can move on from tasks that you no longer enjoy or that turn out not to be what you expected. It’s much easier to leave a volunteer position than to quit your job and find a new one.
Be sure to use your volunteer experiences with a society to advocate for expanded responsibilities in your professional life. For example, successfully organizing a technical session at a society conference could demonstrate to your supervisor that you possess the skills to help coordinate the company’s annual scientific meeting.
Involvement at any level of a society will yield interactions with other members, which will help build your professional network. Making sure that you meet all your commitments and produce excellent work will help cement your professional reputation and lead to other opportunities. Attending both local and national events can help secure those working relationships, which can then be a great source of professional information and job leads.
A sampling of professional societies for physical scientists
Lisa M. Balbes has been a freelance technical writer and editor at Balbes Consultants LLC for 30 years. She has published more than 300 articles on career development for scientists and given more than 300 presentations in the US and abroad. She is the author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas in Chemistry (Oxford University Press).