Professional Organizations: Why You Should Join Them, How to Get the Most Out of Their Meetings, and How to Avoid Going Broke Doing So

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Professional organizations and their meetings are one of the best parts of academic life. You get access to important professional resources and networks. Conferences are in fun locations – some of my favorites have been Melbourne, San Diego, New Orleans, Lausanne – and once there, you get to hang out with a bunch of people who also nerd out on good research. But, professional organizations and conferences can also feel overwhelming and mysterious to new graduate students.

Why join a professional organization?

The big question is – why join an organization in the first place? They are expensive to join, and once you graduate, they are even more expensive to maintain membership. But, they do offer a host of benefits.

Me, Kelly Musick, and Tasha Snyder on the Lavaux Vineyard walking tour outside of Lausanne, Switzerland. We were attending the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies conference.

Me, Kelly Musick, and Tasha Snyder on the Lavaux Vineyard walking tour outside of Lausanne, Switzerland. We were attending the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies conference. Kara Joyner was behind the camera.


Professional organizations often sponsor journals. You will have access to the journal through your membership, and often can even get print copies of journals if you prefer. But, you can probably get the journal through your institutions library, at least at most universities with graduate programs. You also get access to other professional resources, such as the mentoring program that the International Association for Relationship Research (IARR) offers. Junior scholars are paired with more senior scholars, and these senior scholars offer advice, networking opportunities, and support. Many organizations have teaching resources available, and others have professional development resources, such as example conference submissions.

Some organizations have member profiles on their websites. The Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) has a database of members that reporters can search for experts related to their reporting. The listserves maintained by professional organizations are also very useful. They are used for disseminating information such as job opportunities and as recruitment tools for studies. Some disseminate teaching resources or media articles related to the organization’s topical focus.

Most departments post their job ads to professional organization websites as well as the Chronicle of Higher Education. It is much easier to find jobs that are related to HDFS on the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) website that to try to search the massive Chronicle database.

Finally, organizations often publish newsletters with useful articles and updates on issues of relevance to the organization, such as the funding situation at NIH or a policy brief that was recently published. You do not always need to be a member to receive these emails, so check the organization’s website to see if you can sign up for the emails even before you are a member.

New research ideas

Professional organizations, particularly through their meetings, can spark new research ideas. Consuming the latest research at conferences can help you identify exciting trends coming in the field before they even appear in the journal.  You might learn about a dataset that is publicly available that you did not know existed. You might come up with a novel research idea that you hadn’t previously thought of upon hearing a question at a talk. Thus, professional organizations can help you push your research forward.


Networking is a big part of academia. Meeting the leaders in the field can open up opportunities; perhaps you will be invited to submit as part of a conference symposium or a special issue of a journal after meeting a leader in your specific research area. You may meet another graduate student in your research area and open up the possibility of collaboration. Further, when you are on the job market, you can set up meetings at the conference with search committee members. This can often tell you a lot about the position. Perhaps the position says they want someone senior, but they really could consider someone who is junior who fits the right profile. Having this insider information can make a big difference. If you make a good impression, you may increase the chance of you getting an interview.

Fellowships, Grants, Scholarships, and Awards

Professional organizations often offer fellowships, grants, scholarships, and awards that can help advance your career. Fellowships can offer you time to focus on your research, grants can help fund your research, scholarships can help you cover the costs of attending a conference or help you manage the experience of graduate school, and awards can get you recognition. Each of these looks great on a curriculum vitae (CV; the academic version of a resume) because they are competitive. Further, winners of these competitive awards are often featured in organization publications such as emails, newsletters, and at plenary sessions at conferences. When my student Sara won the NCFR student award, she was featured in an email, a publication, and was given the award in front of a large plenary audience of several hundred. This was great for increasing her visibility.

Leadership Experience

Professional organizations can offer opportunities for leadership experience. Most have governing boards and executive committees. Further, many organizations have smaller sections within them, and it is even easier often times to get involved in these. Leadership experience in an organization can give you value knowledge of how organizations work, help you meet other leaders in the field that can open up subsequent opportunities, and looks great on a CV when  you are on the job market. Further, national service such as these is often less time than local service. That is, serving on the elections council at NCFR like I do takes much less time than serving on our college’s curriculum committee, but it looks just as impressive, if not more so.

When should you join a professional organization?

Well, professional organizations are expensive. I think most graduate students, and even some faculty, join or renew their membership when they are getting ready to attend the organization’s meeting. You do not have to be a member of an organization to submit to one. So, for most graduate students, I recommend joining when you register for your first conference. After that, I would suggest you maintain membership in one or two organizations. Some organizations have rules about who can apply for awards, and continual membership may be a criteria.

What should you do before you attend a professional meeting?

Once you are a member of the organization, you will probably find yourself attending the meeting. Here is how to get the most out of the conferences you attend.

Before the Conference

Review the program

The first thing you should do is review the conference program. Put together a conference schedule; many conferences offer online schedule planning tools. Most often when you go to a conference, there will be several talks at the same time. To decide which to attend, pay attention to the topic of the talks. Chose those that most closely align with your research interests.

Pay attention to talks specifically aimed at students/new professionals. These are often very useful and have advice from more seasoned scholars. I still remember a panel session I attended on work and family balance as a graduate student. Look out for award and/or presidential addresses. You will most often see graduate students and early career professors presenting their work during regular sessions. To see a more seasoned veteran, attend an award or the presidential address. For example, I still remember Greg Duncan’s Population Association of America (PAA) presidential address. Even if the talk is not solidly in your research area, you will likely learn something new.

You might also want to attend section meetings. Sections are usually smaller entities within the larger professional organization that are focused on a topic or area. At NCFR, I am a member of the Feminism and Family Studies Section. This is a particularly great section because the leaders have created a very welcoming environment where introductions and ice breakers occur. It is a great place to meet new people. And, like I said above, getting involved in sections is sometimes easier, and if you don’t attend the section meeting, you may miss out on an opportunity. Even if you aren’t sure you are in a section, go ahead and attend the meeting. It will not hurt anything. And better yet, introduce yourself to the people you are sitting next to.

Some conferences have built in networking events. PAA has a Wednesday night mixer. NCFR has the university reception. And sometimes your university or alma mater will invite you to a social event – I always go to the Illinois reception at NCFR, and this helps me stay connected to my alma mater, meet new people, and score a free drink/apps! Go to the networking events and make it a goal to talk to at least two people that you do not know.

Preconference/Postconference workshops can be incredibly useful. PAA usually has several preconference workshops some of which can teach you about a dataset that might be useful to your research. NCFR has the Theory Construction and Research Methodology workshop which is a preconference focused on improving the papers that are presented through in-depth discussion and advancing family theory and research. It is a great meeting.

Email faculty/graduate students to meet

When you are reviewing the program, pay attention to who is presenting. If someone you would like to meet is presenting, email them to see if they have time to meet with you. I have done this several times with students, and I did this as a graduate student. I remember one time that Andrew Cherlin met with me when I was late in graduate school. It was a great meeting, he was very gracious, and he even looked at my paper that I sent him before our meeting. All of us have been in the position of idolizing senior scholars, so most of the time you will find your academic idol kind and willing to meet with you if they have the time.

Don’t discount graduate students or early career scholars. If you see an early career scholar is presenting a paper that you are really interested in, email them to see if you can meet. They will probably be honored and excited to meet you, and then you have expanded your network and have one more safe person you can talk to when you are standing uncomfortably at a reception.

If you want to meet a senior leader in the field but do not see that they are presenting at the conference, pay attention for their name as second or third author of a paper. Advisors will often attend their students’ presentations. Ideally, you will email them before the conference, but this strategy can work in a pinch.

Bring your CV and/or business cards

It is never a bad idea to bring a few copies of your CV or business cards if you have them. That way, if you meet someone that you would like to follow-up with, or that you want to stay on their radar, they have something they can throw with their conference stuff, and hopefully, they will come upon it when they are sorting through conference materials later. Sometimes it can even get passed on to search committees! I gave my CV to someone at a conference once, and then I got a rejection letter for a job that I hadn’t even applied to at the institution. While that sucked, at least my CV was passed along to the search committee.

Prepare an elevator speech

You are going to be meeting a lot of people. You should be able to describe your research area in a few sentences. And I am not talking long, convoluted, jargon filled sentences. I am talking user friendly, your Grandma could understand it, sentences. You will have a lot of opportunities to meet people and you want to put your best foot forward by not stumbling over what your research interests are. It will be one of the first questions you are asked after you are asked at what point you are at in your program and who your advisor is (note most people are reading your nametag to know where you live).

Make sure you initiate the process to get reimbursed

Many graduate programs/universities fund graduate students to attend conferences. But, most of the time, the funds need prior approval. At Ohio State, you will absolutely not get reimbursed without prior approval. Even faculty have that rule. So, make sure you know what paperwork you need to file or emails you need to send, and do them months before the conference.

Set up some sightseeing and/or some fun!

I find myself at some conferences spending every second in the conference hotel. I get home and people ask – how was Vancouver? And I say – I just saw the Hyatt and that was about it. Don’t be like me. Schedule some time to sightsee – sign up for a tour, or download a walking tour. One of my favorite tours I did was a self-guided Lavaux Vineyard walking tour I did with Kara Joyner, Kelly Musick, and Tasha Snyder at the Society for Longitudinal and Lifecourse Studies outside of Lausanne, Switzerland. We had an amazing time, and actually did talk about some work related things while we were navigating the vines.

Pack business casual, plus more casual clothes for socializing at night

Most people at conferences dress business casual, unless they are presenting. Then they might wear a suit or something more formal. Do make sure you pack jeans for socializing at night. But, be careful that it is something you wouldn’t mind others seeing. I was wearing an awesome jumper that was a little on the short side with cute heels at a conference before I went out for my birthday once. I figured I wouldn’t see anyone I knew, but I went down one floor to meet my friend, and ran into the head of our pop center and a senior colleague. I was a little embarrassed. So, make sure you keep in mind, especially if you are in the conference hotel, you are probably going to run into colleagues and leaders in the field. Wear something you wouldn’t mind them seeing you in.

Pack comfortable shoes

Hopefully you are going to do something fun and get out of the hotel. Make sure you bring comfortable shoes that you can walk in. Walking will save you money on cabs, and the walks to and from dinner can be great for connecting with your fellow diners. Plus, you do not want to be in foot pain and lagging behind everyone else when they run into Beyoncé.

At the conference

Never eat alone

My sister works from home three days a week, only going into her office twice a week. She never, ever eats alone those days, and most times, she schedules a meal and a coffee meeting. She is networking, planning, and advancing her career through these meetings. You should do the same. Thus, when emailing faculty and graduate students you want to meet, offer to have lunch or breakfast. If you do not feel comfortable asking faculty to share a meal, ask graduate students. Also, if you do not have plans, sometimes hanging out in the lobby can be useful and get you an invite to join another group. If you are so bold, you can even ask to join a group that you see leaving. Most will be happy to have you along. Approaching other graduate students will be that much easier. And, when you introduce yourself to new people at networking events, or in sessions or section meetings, ask them about dinner plans.

Take notes

Make sure you take notes when you meet people. Maybe someone will ask you for your conference presentation, or a copy of your masters thesis that you cited in your presentation. You want to follow-up on these requests as that person may eventually cite you, and citation counts are used to evaluate you for promotion and tenure. So make a list of people to follow-up with and what you need to send them.

Likewise, maybe you will have a brilliant idea for a research question, but then you forget it by time you get home. Make another list of research questions that you think of or other scholarly notes and review it when you get back. You might not get the question right away, but you may eventually be looking for a conference submission for next year, and looking over your notes on potential research questions might end up with you starting your next great idea.

Actually attend sessions

I went to a conference once and the graduate students I went with only attended their own session. Now I always be sure to check in with my students so that I can make sure that they are actually attending sessions. I might text them – see any great talks today? Or check in with them when we are back on campus. I try to set up the expectation that they will attend the conference, and if I do not see them in any sessions, I worry. Don’t make your advisor worried. Show them that you are invested in your career by attending sessions. Plus, the university is often paying something for this, sometimes with money directly out of your advisor’s funds! I am not spending my research account money for you to have a great vacation with an hour of work. So, again, please be engaged in the conference.

Wear your nametag

I know it can be irritating, but always wear your nametag. You might make new connections just because you are at a particular university. Perhaps you will be on the elevator with an alumni who is now a professor at another institution. That connection could pay off later when you are on the job market or even at the conference. I remember other alumni from Penn State being particularly nice to me when I was a junior scholar.  Or, you might meet someone from a regional institution who could be a great resource connecting you to local resources related to your career. Thus, wear your nametag.

Keep receipts

Make sure you keep receipts for everything. You will often need them for reimbursements. Bring an envelope and put all receipts in it so you will have them all together when you get back. Don’t forget taxi receipts and email receipts. Do not delete the email receipts – these are often the easiest to turn in.

Post conference


Review your notes. Follow-up with anyone you said you would follow-up with. Send out your paper, presentation, or CV. Thank people for meeting with you. Send a quick note – “Thank you for meeting with me last week at XXX. I really enjoyed our conversation about YYY. I look forward to seeing you soon, and keep me in mind if you hear of any opportunities I might be appropriate for.” And attach your CV. You could also attach a publication if you mentioned it. “Here is the paper I mentioned that is coming out in the Journal of Family Psychology” These types of emails can lead to new opportunities and maybe even jobs and additional citations to your work.

File post-conference paperwork

Make sure you file the necessary paperwork and turn in your receipts so you can get reimbursed!

Work on the paper

If you did a presentation, begin working on the paper! Review your notes, and start revising the paper and getting it ready for submission. Remember, make everything count!

How to afford a conference?

Conferences are expensive! And, you are expected to attend them. So, here are some tips to save money on your next conference.

Apply for funding

Many graduate programs have funds to support students attending conferences. Find out how you can get money by talking with veteran graduate students and your advisor. Follow the protocols to get the money. Further, many universities and colleges have additional pots of money. Students in our college can get additional money from the college to attend a conference, Ohio State has a travel award program through its Council on Graduate Students, and our Institute for Population Research will fund students to go to PAA. Thus, make sure you explore every avenue at your institution.

Sometimes the organization itself will have travel awards. My students have received travel awards for the IARR conference. So, don’t forget to apply for travel funding from the organization itself.

Work at the conference

Students can sometimes get additional funding or reduced registration costs by working at the conference at the registration desk, or a welcome desk. Pay attention to emails from the organization about opportunities like this.

Share a room

I have been to very few conferences where I stayed alone. I most often share a room, and in graduate school, I once shared a room with two women and one man, all fellow graduate students, while I was pumping for my son Toby! It was awkward but we made it work. Roommates can save you a lot of money, and can be an automatic group to go to dinner with. If you do not have other students at your institution going to the conference that you can room with, ask your advisor to reach out to some colleagues at other institutions. I emailed a colleague to see if his students had room for my student in their room at a recent conference, and they did, hence they all saved more money and my student expanded her professional network. Win-win!

Find a cheaper hotel

I am a big fan of staying in the conference hotel. It makes it easy to run up to your room between sessions when you are getting overwhelmed by all the people. It makes it much more likely you will run into someone you really want to meet. It makes it more likely that you will attend sessions. And it makes it easier to meet up with friends for dinner. But, the conference hotel is also expensive, even with conference room discounts. So, look on travel websites for cheaper hotel deals. I even had a colleague tell me about a student he suggested use Priceline to find a cheaper hotel room for a conference, and the hotel room ended up being in the conference hotel, but the student payed half the price of the conference rate.

Bring food with you

My mom is a TSA agent, so I know you cannot bring the ingredients for a gourmet meal on the plane, but, you can pack granola bars or jerkey, and I have done this to save money on breakfast or snacks.

Eat outside the hotel

The food inside the hotel tends to be more expensive. I walked outside the hotel for my meals at a conference I went to this summer in Toronto, and I had a couple of great lunches from food trucks that were near the venue. I have also stopped at convenience stores for energy bars for breakfast.

Register and book early

If you register early, you can often score a discounted registration. The conference block of hotels sometimes sells out, so book early to get the discount. Make sure you watch ticket prices and try to get your plane ticket when they are the cheapest.

Find the cheapest ways to get around

There are often shuttles from the airport to the hotel that is much cheaper than a taxi. If you do take a taxi, try to find other people going to the conference and share a cab. You can sometimes identify those people going to the conference by a poster tube. Once at the conference, use the metro or bus system if the city has them. Do a little homework before you go so you can save money when you are there.

Make coffee in your room

Starbucks is expensive! Most hotels have little coffee pots in the room. Use these instead of paying for a pricey coffee.

Go to the receptions

There is often free food at the receptions. In fact, some receptions have so much food you may not need to eat dinner after the reception. So, while you are networking, enjoy some free food and kill two birds with one stone.


Airline tickets are expensive. Drive and you will save a lot of money. I know grad students who have driven together halfway across the country to save money.

Get there late and/or leave early

One conference I go to lasts from Wednesday morning through Saturday afternoon. That is crazy! That is way too long, especially if you do a preconference. So, I leave on Friday, saving me potentially two additional nights of hotel. Yes, I miss some of the talks, but I also have four kids and I want to stay married to my husband. Wait until you know when you are presenting to book your tickets. If it is a long conference, leave early in the morning on the first day, and leave in the afternoon the last day to avoid hotel rooms those days. You can also try taking a redeye if the conference is across the country, again avoiding a day of hotel. Plus, even if you miss a talk you really wanted to see, many are live streamed or recorded, and you may be able to get the talk after the fact. If it is a paper presentation, you could email the author to see if they are ready to share the paper. Some conferences like PAA post the papers, so in that case you can just go to the conference website and download a draft of the paper.

Final Thoughts

Ok, so this post ended up much longer than I thought it would, and I didn’t even get to when you should submit your work to a professional conference, and tips for presenting. That will come in a future post. I had no idea I had so much to say about these topics!

Below I have pasted a list of professional organizations related to Human Development and Family Science. HDFS is interdisciplinary, so there are a lot of relevant professional organizations. Enjoy!

Professional Organizations Relevant to HDFS

Development Across the Life Span

Prevention Science/Policy

Family-Interpersonal Relationships

Related Disciplines

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