Volunteering With Your Scientific Society

July 25, 2016

by Sarah Boon, Ph.D.

If you’re an academic scientist, your annual performance is assessed largely based on three criteria: research, teaching, and service. While the first two are fairly straightforward, and include things like number of publications and teaching evaluations, respectively (we won’t get into the drawbacks of teaching evaluations here!), the third can cover a wide range of contributions. Service can include work within your university, such as sitting on curriculum committees or hiring committees, or doing undergraduate advising. You can also contribute service to your profession, including doing grant and paper reviews, or serving as an editor for a scientific journal in your field. Service can also take place in public, via outreach activities such as working with Let’s Talk Science, participating in bioblitzes with citizen scientists, or other activities.

One of the more common service contributions involves volunteering with a scientific society in your field. This is often considered a highly rewarding type of service because it connects you with your broader research community and can help advance your career.

There are many opportunities for volunteering with scientific societies—mainly because most of these societies are volunteer-run and rarely have paid staff. Whether you want to run a newsletter and website, or schedule meetings and take meeting minutes, your scientific society will no doubt be happy to have you join them.

The key is to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into. All too often, people sign up to volunteer for a position that doesn’t suit them, fail to anticipate the workload, or don’t get on well with the rest of the volunteer team. They then end up either unhappy with their position or overloaded with too many responsibilities, and their volunteer work falls to the bottom of the to-do list.

When done right, however, volunteering can be a great way to make connections, find out what’s going on in your research field, develop new transferrable skills, and build your scientific community. You can also use service activities to promote things you believe in, such as helping make a conference one worth attending, or giving back to a community that has helped you in some way during your career.

A few things to consider:

  1. Pick the scientific society best suited to your research. 
    While many of us are members of more than one society, there’s usually one whose focus suits us the best. That’s the one you want to contribute to, as you’re more likely to be working with like-minded people. 

  2. Pick a job you’re interested in. 
    Not a fan of tracking budgets? You probably don’t want to sign up to be a Treasurer. Like sharing information about your society and writing? Consider working on the newsletter. If you choose a position you’re well-suited for, you’re more likely to enjoy it and to make a real contribution.
  3. Ensure you have the time and energy required for the position. 
    It’s usually recommended that early-career faculty avoid service contributions that require a large time investment, as you have to balance that time with the work required to achieve tenure (e.g., publishing papers, getting research grants, and supervising students). Women in particular are advised to think carefully about taking on too many service activities. Research suggests women take on a disproportionately greater service load than men, and that this can contribute to difficulties in achieving tenure and promotion. Later in your career, however, volunteering can actually be a tool to help you move forward based on the connections you make.
Remember that volunteer-run organizations rely on everyone pulling their weight in the position to which they’ve committed. Even one volunteer falling down on the job can cause a lot of headaches for the rest of the team. Volunteering means filling the role to the best of your ability, and perhaps developing new initiatives that might help your organization in some way.

For example, I served as the Secretary for my scientific society, which largely involved scheduling meetings, taking notes, and staying on top of requests for information. I noticed that there were many opportunities in our research field that people didn’t hear about, so I started a society listserv. Every week or two I’d email all group members any relevant hydrology-related events and opportunities I’d run across. Soon people were sending me items to include in the weekly email. I met several people during that time who thanked me for putting the listserv together, as they found it a great resource for society members. It was a small but helpful contribution to the society.

Other volunteers in my scientific organization have made major contributions such as spearheading a move to online, electronic membership renewals, or sorting out the accounting and turning around a tough financial situation over the course of several years. These members were honoured with Meritorious Service Awards.

You may not receive a volunteer award, but hopefully you’ll find a volunteer position that allows you to contribute to the best of your ability, to enjoy making that contribution, and to build connections for future research.

Many of our journals here at Canadian Science Publishing have a number of associated societies! Here is a list of all of our affiliations:

Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism is associated with the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology and the Canadian Nutrition Society

Biochemistry and Cell Biology is affiliated with the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences and the Panamerican Association for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Botany is partnered with the Canadian Botanical Association and the Canadian Society of Plant Biologists

The Canadian Geotechnical Society has chosen the Canadian Geotechnical Journal as its principal medium of publication of geotechnical, geological, hydrogeological, cold regions geotechnical, and geoenvironmental papers.

The Canadian Journal of Animal Science is associated with the Canadian Society of Animal Science.

The Canadian Society for Civil Engineering has chosen the Canadian Journal of Civil Engineering as its principal medium of publication of engineering papers.

The Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences is associated with the Geological Association of Canada.

The Canadian Journal of Microbiology is affiliated with the Canadian Society of Microbiologists.

The Canadian Journal of Physics has partnered with the Canadian Association of Physicists.

The Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology is affiliated with the Canadian Society of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, the Canadian Physiological Society, and the International Academy of Cardiovascular Sciences.

The Canadian Journal of Plant Science is associated with the Canadian Society of Agronomy, Canadian Society for Horticultural Science, and the Canadian Weed Science Society.

The Canadian Journal of Soil Science is affiliated with the Canadian Society of Soil Science.

The Canadian Journal of Zoology is associated with the Canadian Society of Zoologists.

Genome is affiliated with the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences.

The Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems is the official journal of Unmanned Systems Canada.

Sarah Boon
has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about nature and nature writing, science communication, and women in science. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Editors’ Association of Canada, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also a founding member of Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @SnowHydro

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