Given recent evidence that fewer than 20 percent of Canada’s PhDs are employed as full-time professors, efforts to support graduate student professional development to ease the academia to industry transition need to address barriers around a lack of industry contacts and experience. Professional associations offer graduate students the opportunity to address both, as their activities are open to student members, yet the benefits of joining a professional association are often not promoted to graduate students. Indeed, it is important that graduate students be clear about what professional associations are, what they do and why it matters.
What is a professional association?
Professional associations are groups of people that come together to create and maintain standards for a profession or industry, and represent the interests of the industry on a larger scale. In order to achieve their mandate, they offer professional development and networking opportunities to their members.
What do they do?
While every professional association has a different focus based on their governing board, a common thread between them is that members come together to discuss and address industry-related challenges and trends, and disseminate information via annual conventions, conferences, regular meetings, networking events, listservs, publications, committees, and job boards. Given the complexity and multifaceted nature of industrial challenges, they often collaborate with stakeholders such as government, academia, consultants and community organizations to address issues holistically.
Professional development opportunities take the form of courses, workshops and some offer mentorship or internship opportunities to support emerging talent. These efforts are also aimed at achieving adherence to competency standards.
Moreover, some professional associations are involved with industry research, and, as such, publish labour market reports, articles and other publications to increase member and public awareness around industry trends and news.
How to find the best fit
Industries vary with the variety of professional associations they have. Some industries have as few as one association, while others have a myriad of options. Some industries have a specific professional association dubbed a “regulatory” or “licensing body” that is devoted to licensing. For example, in engineering there are many professional associations. The regulatory body in Ontario is the Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO), and there are other overarching professional associations such as Engineers Canada and the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE), as well as discipline-specific professional associations such as the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering or the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering.
The best way to see a comprehensive list of associations is by conducting a keyword search in the Associations Canada Directory. Found in most large public libraries, this directory is available in print and online versions and is updated annually.
After making a list of all the professional associations in a given industry, a visit to their respective websites will help you determine which will offer the best professional development and networking opportunities for student members. It is best to investigate professional associations that are not regulatory bodies, as such organizations tend to focus only on licensing and thus only have professional development related to licensing.
Many professional associations offer no-cost or low-cost memberships to student members or to unemployed job seekers. When that is not offered, you may have the opportunity to attend an event as a non-member, paying nominally more than a member to attend the event, allowing you to get a feel for the professional association prior to committing to a membership. Graduate students can also enquire with their graduate school administrative office around accessing funding to attend conferences.
How to make the most of your membership
Graduate students are encouraged to leverage their student memberships at the outset of their academic career to grow their community of contacts, stay abreast of industry trends and add to their skill set and professional experience by:
- Joining at least one committee, task force or interest group
- Volunteering at a conference
- Attending networking events and regular meetings
- Following and actively engaging with the association on social media
- Reading industry publications
- Seeking member contact information and arranging for one-on-one information interviews with members to learn career strategies and advice
Graduate student involvement in professional associations ensures that the student perspective plays an important role in the labour market and workforce development conversations, including advocacy for students from under-represented groups to influence policy and committee initiatives as ambassadors for equity, diversity and inclusion.
While the endeavors outlined may seem like daunting tasks to manage while pursuing graduate studies, a small investment of time is all that is required to reap the professional development and networking opportunities that professional associations provide. Listing professional affiliation membership and the accomplishments derived while a member on a CV or resume and on social profiles will demonstrate to potential employers that you are a proactive career builder committed not only to your research, but also to advancing the interests of the respective industry.