Jul 16, 2013

Professional Societies: Still Relevant for Junior Researchers?

Nicole Lazar is a contributing editor of the IMS Bulletin. She writes:

A February 27, 2013 posting by Alice Meadows on the website scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org bore the title Are Scholarly Societies Still Relevant to Young Researchers? Perhaps Surprisingly, Yes They Are. The article dealt with the reality that many professional societies have an aging membership, as well as membership decline. That is, not only are existing members inevitably aging, but new members are not joining to replenish the pool. Meadows reported on the results of a small survey, of 140 young scientists from Wiley’s advisory group. The purpose of the survey was to gain insight into the reasons why young researchers do, or do not, join their professional societies, and to understand the value that professional societies bring to their members.

What are the benefits of belonging to a professional society? The scholars who responded to the survey gave a variety of answers. Attending the society’s conferences, networking with society members, and quality of scholarly publications were among the leading responses. Least important were discounts on publications, access to the society’s newsletter (sorry, IMS Bulletin!) and public outreach. I think that those of us who are members of the various statistical associations can recognize the validity of these reasons. Our membership gives us access to some of the best statistical work, conferences sponsored by the major societies are exciting venues to gain exposure to cutting-edge research, see old friends, meet new colleagues, and bolster our interactions and collaborations.

What about those who did not belong to any professional society, some 13% of the respondents? A major deterrent was high membership dues—and, indeed, membership in professional societies is not cheap. Many societies charge regular members (that is, those who are not students, or retired, for instance) in the range of $100–300 per year. This often includes some publications; these days, electronic versions of some society journals are often free, but print versions cost extra. In addition, society membership usually does not include registration for the society’s conference, which by itself can be a considerable expense even for members. Not surprisingly, then, this reason was given more often by the youngest of researchers, those with less than five years’ experience. That population is still relatively close to graduate school, with memories of scrimping, saving, and eating ramen noodles, fresh in their minds. As experience is gained, and financial security increased, high membership dues become less of a deterrent. Which leads to the second main reason given by those who did not belong to any professional organization: a perceived lack of benefits to being a member. I find it hard to relate to this answer; in my mind the benefits are many and clear. Interestingly, though, this answer was given by experienced scholars (those with five to 10 years of experience) more often than by younger researchers. Perhaps statistics is a more welcoming community than some others; or perhaps “you get out what you put in”: researchers, like me, who invest energy and time in their associations at earlier stages of their careers, reap the benefits later on. Unfortunately, information of this type was not reported in the article, but it would be an interesting question to explore further.

What is the landscape in our discipline? Statistical researchers have a variety of professional societies from which to choose. Of course there’s the IMS and the American Statistical Association (ASA), not to mention the International Statistical Institute (ISI), Royal Statistical Society (RSS), and the Statistical Society of Canada (SSC). There are international umbrella organizations for statisticians from China (International Chinese Statistical Association; ICSA), India (International Indian Statistical Association; IISA), and Korea (Korean International Statistical Society; KISS). The Bernoulli Society, the International Biometric Society (with various regional subgroups), the International Society for Bayesian Analysis, the Classification Society of North America…the list goes on and on. I joined the ASA as a beginning graduate student, having earlier joined the Israeli Statistical Association before moving to the United States. A few years into graduate school, as my identity as a mathematical statistician solidified, I joined IMS. I have recently also become a member of ISBA, and sporadically maintain membership still in the Israeli Statistical Association. Most of my junior colleagues are members of ASA and IMS, and many of them are also members of IBS (ENAR), ICSA, IISA, or KISS.

From my own perspective, membership in multiple societies has brought different benefits. I’ve served on various ASA committees since I was a starting Assistant Professor, and have recently become more active in some Sections as well. These activities have helped me to form relationships that might have been difficult to forge otherwise. My involvement in the IMS has mostly been through this Bulletin, and attending conferences and IMS-sponsored sessions at JSM, which I often find to be among the most interesting and high quality. Membership in the Israeli Statistical Association has allowed me to keep abreast of the community in which I received my first training in statistics. And joining ISBA has put me more closely in touch with Bayesian colleagues around the world.

Many modern statisticians are also very active in applied collaborations—engineering, neuroscience, astronomy, economics, and so on. This offers us yet another group of professional societies in which to become involved, should we so wish. I’d argue that there are yet additional benefits to be gained from such involvement, in particular facilitating the dissemination of statistical ideas in the subject-matter communities. It’s important that we talk to each other about new methods and approaches, but we also need to bring them to the attention of subject-matter experts if they are to be used in practice. The journals and conferences of professional societies outside of statistics are a natural venue for this. And we can have more impact if we actually join, and become active in, those societies.

We’d like to know what you think. If you are reading this article, you are probably a member of IMS. Do you belong to other statistical associations as well? Do you think there is value to be had in joining the professional societies of other disciplines in which we work? What do you feel are the benefits of your membership in the various societies? And what could we do better? Send us an email or leave a comment to let us know!

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