I've frequently discussed how important it is to make internal social and professional connections. But departments, like people, can be terribly insular, and it is really crucial for your broader academic development to make as many external contacts as you can.
One of the best ways to do this is to become involved in national societies and subject specialist networks in your field. These exist in almost all disciplinary areas - but if they don't exist for yours, why not think about starting one? Such groups are particularly prevalent in museum studies and its allied subjects, because the people involved in this area of study have diverse interests and expertise.
The group I am most involved with is one of the oldest SSN's in the country. It's name is the Museum Ethnographers Group (MEG), and it was founded in 1975 by a group of anthropologists who worked in, or were involved with, museums and collections. It now has more than a hundred members, runs events and an annual conference, and publishes a journal affectionately known as 'Jimmy'.
As is sometimes the case with these things, I fell in with them almost by accident. I attended and spoke at their 2010 conference, and enjoyed it so much that I returned to speak again the following year. I must have caught the attention of the then chair, because the next year I was asked to come onto the committee where, to my infinite surprise, I was elected treasurer.
I have to admit that I'm one of those people who really likes having a defined role. If I don't have a job I feel like a useless spare part. But I do recognise that getting such a position is not always so simple or indeed necessary at all. The crucial thing is the taking part in a group who's interest tally with your own an from whom you can learn. The important thing is not the position you end up in, but the connections you make and the knowledge you share.
It is also about gaining experiences. For me, being involved with MEG has been of immeasurable value. I have gained contacts in both academia and practice, and seen how life works outside the university bubble. My confidence in my ability as a responsible member of an organisation has at times been knocked, but has ultimately sky-rocketed. I've been across the country and back, and become involved in projects that have a tangible impact on the public, professional museum practitioners and the rest of the real world. I've helped with the organisation of conferences, made important decisions about memberships and money, been involved with successful grant applications, and trawled through an archive. Without MEG, I might never have done any of those things.
I think what I'm saying is that societies and SSNs provide three good things - a chance to develop your specialist knowledge, accompanied by the opportunity to broaden your knowledge of the wider community and to develop a set of skills that will assist you within and without your academic career. It is about pushing beyond your own personal boundaries, broadening your horizons, and embarking upon a path that, hopefully, will take you to many exciting places.