One of the fastest ways that new academics can network and improve their visibility in the field is by becoming active in a subject research organisation. But which should you join, and how can you take advantage of the potential benefits?
What are subject research associations?
A subject research organisation is a group that any academic who conducts research or practices in a certain topic area can join—many also have non-academic members. They provide a wide variety of benefits to members. Almost all offer workshops and conferences that provide excellent networking opportunities. Some, like the Royal Society of Medicine, also have their own libraries or publications; many provide job listings; some distribute prizes and grants.
There is usually a membership fee, which your department may cover (if not, this is a work-related expense and is normally tax-deductible). A few have stringent membership requirements, but the majority welcome new academics, including these whose educational background may be different from the usual trajectory. For that reason, subject research organisations can also provide a way for academics whose role or subject has shifted to get up to speed in their new field.
Some national organisations also play a key policy role. For example, the British Educational Research Association’s research ethics guidelines are considered “standard practice” in UK education research. BERA members contribute to developing and disseminating “best practices” across the entire field.
Which should you join?
Your colleagues should be able to make informed suggestions. Which do they tell postgraduate students to join, and which are they members of themselves? Of these, which do they feel really offer value for money—conferences where they have presented or enjoyed stimulating presentations, for example.
If your area of research is focused only on the UK, a national organisation may be the best fit for you. Many national subject organisations are affiliated with similar groups in other countries, which can give you access to exchange schemes and international contacts. If you work in the UK but on a topic focused elsewhere (such as American Studies), you may find that the best organisation for you in based in that country: the American Historical Association, for instance, which is the largest such group in the US for academic historians.
If international contacts for research bids are something you and your team need, definitely seek out any international subject organisations. Groups like the Association for Tourism and Leisure Education and Research
Membership of the Higher Education Association (HEA) can also link you with its internal networks, although these may not as critical or independent as self-managed organisations.
Routes to recognition and accreditation.
Especially in medical and legal fields, subject organisations can be a career essential. Groups like the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences are much more than a networking club—they offer accredited continuing professional development training and recognised credentials to suitably qualified members.
Whatever your choice is, these groups all offer a forum where you can become better known by colleagues in your field. Presenting and attending conferences, convening conference sessions or panels, contributing to online or print-media discussions, and acting as a local or national officer are great ways to get involved.