Learned societies can provide an endless array of opportunities for emerging scholars and those who have been in the academic profession for some considerable time. Not only do many host an annual (or bi-annual) conference, but there are also several other activities, such as workshops that are held on an infrequent basis that bring people together with similar interests in a friendly and collaborative environment. In an age when pressure within academia is high, it is often good to share your burdens and discuss with colleagues in similar positions so that you can at least reassure yourself that you are not alone!
More than just a conference
During my academic career, I have joined many learned societies, primarily because of the opportunities they provide beyond the presentation of a conference paper. Oftentimes, learned societies comprise senior members of the academic community who not only attend conference panels (and thus may hear your paper), but who are also around for informal discussions during the coffee break. Moreover, professional sessions are often held as panels in conferences on issues such as how to approach job interviews, job applications and writing book proposals or articles. Furthermore, the larger conferences will also have a large delegation of publishers on hand with whom you could discuss your book proposals, in addition to providing advice on publication. All these outlets provide an interesting and useful base from which you can launch or kick-start your academic career.
Did you know about this job/fellowship?
Maybe you didn’t know about an upcoming job or fellowship, and the reason is that probably it has not yet been advertised. Therefore, knowing about an opportunity through a learned society network, in advance can often be invaluable, especially if you are at a conference where influential people from the hiring committee are likely to be attending. This is where networking is extremely important. If you’d really like to apply for an upcoming job or fellowship, then it is certainly to your advantage to speak to the people on the committee, introduce yourself and talk about your research. Every job or fellowship is likely to attract many applications, and it would do absolutely no harm if you got yourself known to the decision-makers in advance. While it will not guarantee you success, it will help the assessors put a face to the name when the assessment process begins.
The usefulness of the professional mailing list
Many learned societies will also have a mailing list in which weekly or monthly digests are often sent to subscribers. This is often free as part of your membership, and provides a useful forum for discussion, debate and disseminating information about upcoming events, conferences and opportunities, including jobs and fellowships. Accessing this information through a professional network gives you a head start, and provides you with access to professionals in your field who could be on hand to give you advice and support in your academic journey.
The external ‘mentor’
Many learned societies are now making use of the professional mentor option to help younger scholars acclimatise to the profession and provide advice on how they could flourish. If you are a member of a learned society that offers this option, it would be advisable to explore the option of being assigned as a mentee to a senior scholar, since their insight and wisdom is certainly beneficial on many levels to junior scholars. Not only do senior scholars have an understanding, appreciation and empathy of the experiences that junior scholars are experiencing (because they too went through similar experiences some time ago), they also, owing to their greater experience, have a wider network on which they can draw. This not only reassures the under-pressure junior scholar that perseverance is essential to long-term success, but senior scholars may also be able to connect you to other opportunities or support networks that could improve your situation and experience.
Getting professional recognition in your field
For those who have already published some articles or a book, learned societies can also provide a platform for scholars to get formal recognition for their contribution to their discipline. Some organisations, such as the British Academy, normally provide fellowships to senior scholars after decades of contribution to their field. Others provide recognition for contribution to teaching, such as the Higher Education Academy, whereas others provide fellowship in recognition of your contribution to research and teaching commensurate with someone at a mid-career level. Such fellowships would also carry a formal title that you could then use as suffixes to your professional name. Such titles act as a formal recognition of your work and contribution to your field.
Finally…..enjoy the dynamism that learned societies can bring
Cooperation, collaboration and discussion with colleagues is supposed to be a dynamic experience that can be enjoyed. Learned societies provide an arena in which this can be achieved. While you will learn a lot from others, others will also learn a lot from you. It is a symbiotic relationship, and one that can be most enjoyable. I hope you get a positive experience of collaboration and exchanging ideas with your peers!