Take Advantage of Student Memberships in Professional Organizations: Why & How

Career Blog

Published: September 23, 2016 by Kate M. Spaulding

LIS career expert Kim Dority talks about why and how to get involved in professional organizations.

To wrap up my series on professional organizations, today I’m sharing an interview with Kim Dority. You can find her on her blog, Infonista, and running the LinkedIn group she created, LIS Career Options. She’s an LIS career expert and graciously agreed to share her wisdom with us. 

Hi, Kim! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the perspective that you bring to this series about getting involved in professional organizations?

I’m an information professional who’s had the good fortune to be able to use my MLIS skill set in a lot of different career settings. Each of my gigs or projects has in some way been based on working with information, but often in ways that were way out of my comfort zone.

Because my career has been so eclectic, the expertise of others that I’ve been able to rely on through my professional associations has been critical to my success.

So although I’m a huge believer in belonging to professional associations for many reasons, this is one of the ones that’s had the greatest impact on my career.

What organizations are you a member of?

ALA, SLA, ASIS&T, Colorado Association of Libraries, ALISE, and the National Association of Career Advisors.

What do you see as the biggest benefits of joining one? Are there any benefits specific to student members?

Most professional associations offer these benefits:

  • A fun opportunity to build your professional community of colleagues, especially at the local level 
  • A good way to practice growing your professional skills as a volunteer, through committee work, project management, program leadership, presentations and speaking – all things that you can learn and practice in the safe environment of your association, and then transfer confidently into your workplace
  • A broad and deep resource for exploring career paths and job hunting – you have a network of connections to reach out to for information, insights, and encouragement
  • If you participate and engage, a great forum for building your professional reputation, i.e., your brand and visibility
  • Education resources ranging from podcasts to webinars to online courses to conferences; many associations also have mentoring programs
  • A wonderful and rewarding way to connect with others who get what you’re passionate about

I think all of these same benefits apply to students, but to an even greater degree. The big challenge for students is to move from student to practitioner status in the eyes of the profession (hiring managers). Consequently, students want to take advantage of every single opportunity they can to build relationships with professionals before they graduate in order to start creating those “bridges.”

If someone knows you as a fellow association member, they’re more likely to see you as a peer with shared interests and similar expertise, even if you’re just starting out. Your level of expertise won’t be the same, but the tacit assumption is that it will be at some point.

Last but certainly not least, joining an association as a student gives you access to the entire membership list and all of its contact information. This is an incredible resource to help you identify people to reach out to for informational interviews (just about everyone likes talking with LIS students!). Not only can this help you explore career paths (and perhaps also write some killer assignments) but it can also help you create professional connections for later when you’re looking for serious job advice.

Student chapters say that joining their leadership team can help my career. Can you clarify the “How?”

One of the most important types of skills you can have is “soft skills” – such as collaboration, team participation, leadership, engagement, personal initiative, etc. – that are hard to document in a resume. Additionally, as a student you may not have many opportunities to practice, let alone document, these skills.

That’s where participating in a student chapter can be invaluable. There are multiple “official” roles you can step into such as managing the e-mail list, being the membership person, or becoming an executive officer, all of which demonstrate several of these soft skills. But you can also just come up with great ideas for a specific initiative and run with it – and what better way to make it clear to a potential employer that you can hit the ground running from day one?

These experiences also give you great stories to recount when asked to give an example of a time when you took responsibility for something, or managed a team, or created and implemented a solution to group issue. Having real-life examples of how you used your soft skills to accomplish goals or overcome obstacles will give you a tremendous edge when job-hunting.

Another way that participating in a volunteer role in a student group can be helpful is that if you’re an introvert like me, it’s often much easier to attend social gatherings if you already know at least a few people there – you don’t feel like quite so much of an outsider.

Here’s one of my sticking points: the thought of trying to be an active member of an organization or of trying to do All The Things offered by one sounds kind of overwhelming. What’s the best way of taking advantage of all that professional organizations have to offer (without going crazy)?

Great (and very realistic) question! My approach has been to start small, volunteer to do a little bit that’s manageable for me, and then see how much bandwidth I still have available. Approaching it this way means that you’ll likely recognize when you’re hitting that bandwidth wall and need to start declining additional responsibilities or activities.

Also, you don’t have to do everything right now. Sequencing is a great approach that lets you take advantage of one membership benefit when and as it’s useful to you, but not until then. For example, a great mentoring program would be much more useful for you early in your career than it would be when you’re a student. So you might want to explore all an organization’s offerings, and then prioritize which would be most helpful to you at various stages of your degree program or career.

I’ve never been to conference- they are expensive, often in places I don’t want to go (like Orlando in the summer!), and they seem so big/crazy/full of people as to be anxiety-inducing. Can you tell me why the investment is worth it and allay my fears about overstimulation?

Welcome to the world of LIS conferences – in order to keep prices as low as possible, they’re usually held in the places that only crazy people would go in the summertime. Even so, you’re right, they’re still expensive for those of us who are paying our own way. (Keep in mind that there may be student scholarships available!)

I’ve found that conferences become less overwhelming when you connect with and hang out with just a few friends, perhaps some local chapter members you’ve found are attending as well. Or, if you’ve had any online correspondence with someone, see if you can meet for coffee. Often the greatest take-away from an LIS conference isn’t so much what you’ve learned as what relationships you’ve built.

That said, I tend to quickly get overwhelmed and exhausted by the people/activity/noise surround, so I always work in a daily break of some sort – might be finding a coffee shop where I can read by myself or putting on my sneakers and walking for a couple of hours. I don’t feel guilty about grabbing takeout and eating alone in my room every other night because it gives me alone time and allows me to process all those business cards, conversations, and follow-up notes before I get back to my office and I’ve lost all that important information.

But here’s the really cool thing. Sometimes you really need to attend a conference to still get a lot of cool benefits from it. In fact, I wrote a blog post about this (No conference budget? No problem), identifying all the ways you could max out conference benefits just by using its online program information. So while I’d strongly recommend attending national conferences if you can, I think you’ll be okay if you don’t for awhile. (Also, you might want to consider starting with a more affordable conference like a state or regional event.)

Any last words of wisdom?

I usually talk to my students about how important it is to be continually building your key career asset, which is your professional equity: what you know (your expertise), who you know (your network), and who knows what about you (your professional reputation or brand).

Association membership is one of the few ways that you can hit all three of those areas at the same time, and often have a really fun time doing it. So take advantage of your access to student memberships, and use them to start bridging from being the student you are today to becoming the professional you’re growing into.

Thanks, Kim! And thank YOU, readers, if you’ve made it this far :) I’d love to hear from you in the comments! Any follow up questions for Kim? Are you a member of a professional organization? What do you like or not like about it?

Read about SJSU’s student chapters:

Third Image courtesy WOCTechChat


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