Students + Professional Associations = A Match Made in Career Heaven

Published: Friday, March 11, 2016 by Kate M. Spaulding

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been getting lots of emails about the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference that’s happening in June in Orlando, FL. Right now, they seem to be shouting warnings at me that the “early bird” rates will expire soon, so I should register now. But should I? Conventional wisdom emphatically says, “YES!”

I am currently a few months into my free ALA membership, thanks to taking INFO 200 last semester. I know that I really should do more with ALA and other professional associations starting now, while I’m still a student. But why? And how? A little research reveals all.

Why?
Well, because networking. And continuing education. And experience. And inspiration.

I know you know networking is good for future job prospects. It’s also good for future projects and opportunities (for example, maybe you’ll meet the perfect person to write a paper with or discover a panel or round table you want to participate in). Those projects and participatory experiences in turn grow your network, teach you new skills, and may help you land your dream job. Maybe you will meet someone with a job title you've never heard of and fall in love with it. 

As students, the idea of continuing education sounds…dreary. So perhaps think of conferences as a way to find out about new trends and new technologies, or broaden your horizons, or just see what awesome ideas fellow LIS professionals have to share. Interacting with professional associations at conferences or local events is a great way to learn about various branches of LIS, career directions, and culture. You can find answers to questions about what different professionals do all day long, or what classes they found most helpful post-school, or how a MLIS degree translates to a job at a tech company. A friend of mine told me that going to an ACRL conference “helped me understand libraries so much more in so many ways.”

The experience piece of the puzzle ties back in with networking. Look for panels you might want to participate in (are any looking for student voices? You’re a student! You have a voice!). Are you nervous about speaking in public? Seek out some informal get-togethers and practice in a small group at first. The trip and destination itself are also experiences that can help you grow by exposing you to new people and places and cultures.

Inspiration comes in small moments and in larger ones. Conferences can provide both. Maybe hearing a luminary in the field give a talk fires you up, and maybe just overhearing what a rural librarian in Maine accomplishes with a tiny budget inspires you to make your library do more. Or maybe you’ll be inspired to figure out what exactly you want to accomplish after you graduate.

How?
Well, professional associations LOVE students. And by love, I mean they dramatically lower their membership rates for us. For example, ALA’s student rate is just $36/ year. Special Libraries Association’s (SLA) student rate is $50/year, as is the Society of American Archivists (SAA). ASIS&T (Association for Information Science and Technology) offers student membership for $40/year. Some enterprising students take advantage of these prices to get memberships in multiple organizations, which increases your networking ability (especially on LinkedIn) and exposes you to lots of new ideas. Check out this Career Center recording (just want to know how to use professional organizations on LinkedIn? Skip to 51:00)

In addition, these professional associations offer discounts to annual conferences as well. For example, ALA’s rates start at $65, SAA’s at $109, and options for SLA’s conference start at $45. ASIS&T doesn’t have rates posted yet for October’s conference in Copenhagen (OMG let’s go!), but they are currently accepting proposals for panels, workshops, papers, and mentoring services. Maybe one of those can help you justify or pay for a ticket?

Furthermore, all of the people running conferences started out as newbies, so there are lots of resources for first-time conference attendees, students, and job seekers. (I’m going to focus on ALA for a minute, but SLA, and ASIS&T have resources for us, and I bet other associations to do. Take a look!) ALA’s annual conference has resources specifically for first-time attendees. ALA JobLIST Placement & Career Development Center will host an Open House and a ton of other free or low-cost activities designed to help you land your dream job, like professional head shots, resume reviews, career counseling, and workshops.

It’s also worth trying to get into a conference for free by volunteering for part of the time or in other ways (there are lots of articles with tips, but I like this one from the always-smart Jen Dziura. A basic Google search gets you tons more, but they’re pretty repetitive). Another idea – is an association having an event near you? Something like a fancy dinner and a speaker? Contact the organizers, mention you are a MLIS student, and ask if you could skip dinner and just come for the speaker. That way, neither you nor the the organization isn’t out the cost of your dinner and you get to hear what the speaker has to say. If you have a blog or are active on social media, offer to promote the event or even write about it afterwards. That gives the organization press, and you get both information and stronger networking connections.

Are you a member of a professional association? Do you attend conferences or events? What tips do you have and what value do you get from these activities? Inquiring minds want to know! Let’s have a conversation in the comments.

More resources:
Networking through professional organizations 
iSchool student groups and student chapters of professional organizations 
Networking questions to ask at conferences 
Conference survival tips from Jill Klees 
How to Conference Like a Champ 
Walking the Exhibit Hall Like a Pro 
YALSA’s conference series

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