• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Engaging with Your Professional Organization

And helping your professional organization engage better with graduate students.

April 23, 2019

Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature and an MLIS student at the University of Iowa where he works in the Grad Success Center. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien and at his website.

Conference season is in full swing and this means that many graduate students are or soon will be traveling, some of them to their first conference. These conference experiences are incredibly valuable, providing opportunities for networking, hearing about new work in your field, and, of course, visiting book exhibits.

Yet, while many graduate students are aware of the professional benefits of presenting at conferences, it’s often very easy to ignore the professional organizations that put them on. Their logo may be on the conference lanyard and their name will be invoked repeatedly, but engaging with the organization itself, both during and beyond the conference, is something that few graduate students take the time to do. While this is understandable, given the time pressures on graduate students who are juggling a variety of roles on their own campus, it can be a mistake to ignore some of the great opportunities that professional organizations offer to graduate students in particular. To explore some of these opportunities a little bit more, I recently corresponded with Dr. Paula Krebs, the Executive Director of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the largest professional organization in the U.S. for the study of language and literature.

The MLA, like many of its peer organizations, has made significant investments in supporting graduate students in the last few years, including things like hosting a Career Development Bootcamp for grad students at the national conference. I asked Krebs about some of these efforts and she said that while “graduate students used to join the MLA in order to be on the job market,” recent shifts means that the MLA does not have the same job interview function that it used to and

“We [at the MLA] have to work harder to earn graduate student loyalty to the MLA. So we've been putting together resources that are aimed at graduate students and at graduate faculty for their students, to help students to understand the value of their degrees for a range of careers and to help prepare them for those careers. The careers include tenure-track jobs at community colleges, teaching-focused universities, and research universities, but they also include other positions on campus and a range of careers outside of campuses. We can't reach all doctoral students directly with our training and resources, so we also focus on helping departments to diversify the education they deliver so as to give graduate students the maximum number of options.”

This shift follows both larger trends within higher education and the moves made by many other organizations. There is a wealth of professional development resources on sites like the MLA’s Connected Academics site (parallels can also be found for many professional organization like the American Chemical Society and American Historical Association). These resources are invaluable and not only provide guidance to graduate students, but also provide ideas and templates for programs that departments can adopt. Indeed, when I mentioned the MLA’s discounted group memberships for students to my DGS, she embraced the idea wholeheartedly and found the money to sponsor new grad students in our department for membership.

Beyond these resources, the MLA and many other organizations have also worked to incorporate more professional development programming into their annual conferences – this year’s MLA sessions included a resume workshop, career diversity, one-on-one job counseling opportunities, information on using ImaginePhD as a planning tool and, my personal favorite, a session entitled “Your Research and Communication Skills as an Intelligence Analyst in the Federal Government.” While attending the conference provides graduate students with the chance to engage with recent scholarship in their field, it’s also becoming increasingly true, as Krebs says, that “You can spend the entire three days doing nothing but professional development aimed at getting you ready for a range of careers.”

Perhaps the most important piece of advice that I got from Krebs when thinking about engaging with an organization is to “Make it your own.” She suggested engaging with online forum groups, emailing committee members to ask about topics that engage you, connect with other members doing related work through the email directory, introduce yourself to professionals whose work you admire.

While Krebs admits that the MLA, like many other organizations, still has more work to do to continue to engage those who end up in careers outside of traditional tenure-track or research roles, it’s abundantly clear that many of these organizations are making a genuine, concerted effort to meet the needs of graduate students to help them find success both in graduate school and beyond. While it can be a bit intimidating at first, the best part of your professional organizations and their annual conferences is that they are filled with people who get excited about the same things that you do. So get involved in your disciplinary organization, go to the conference, explore their websites, join a committee, mine their resources, apply for the travel grants, and engage with the members of the organization both online and in person.

What experiences or tips do you have for engaging with your professional organization. Share with us in the comments or on Twitter - @bradykrien and @GradHacker.

[Image by Unsplash user The Climate Reality Project and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.]


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