Beyond the Classroom: Increasing Student Participation in Professional Organizations

Speaking in front of a group of strangers, many of whom are older and have a plethora of academic credentials, can certainly be a frightening and scary experience. For undergraduates especially, the task can be downright daunting. Nevertheless, a lot can be gained from actively participating and engaging in professional organizations, student clubs, and conferences.

The Accessibility of Professional Organizations
Contrary to many students’ expectations, professional organizations actively seek to increase student membership and participation. A variety of psychological societies have separate student branches (e.g., APSSC, APAGS) devoted specifically to student issues and programs. Students are allowed and encouraged to become members of most professional organizations and to present their research at annual meetings.

Getting Involved With Student Clubs
If you love psychology and want to extend your passion outside the classroom, many university departments have clubs or organizations designed to enhance the student experience. Whether it’s an undergraduate psychology association, a chapter of Psi Chi, or peer advising, resources are available to proactively apply your interest in psychology. If your university does not have a club or organization, you should explore the possibility of getting students and professors together to start one.

Some of the activities sponsored by student clubs include informal social events with professors, career and graduate admissions panels, and advising sessions. The possibilities for student involvement are endless. The idea to start the Stanford Undergraduate Psychology Conference in 2001 grew out of the energy and passion of a few dedicated students who had gained exposure as leaders in various student organizations.

Getting Involved With Research
Although it’s not essential to begin research during your first few years in college, you should keep a variety of ideas on your radar. Allow yourself the time to explore psychology, but never be afraid to receive the wisdom of your peers, advisors, and mentors. If you want to begin research, talk to professors to get their thoughts about steps you should take and whether they might be working on a project similar to your interests. You might be surprised to hear about the fascinating work being done by a professor or graduate student. Getting involved in their lab could be a wonderful and enriching learning experience. Take advantage of the opportunities and people surrounding you.

Are Conferences for You?
No matter how much research you’ve conducted or how many psychology classes you’ve taken, I firmly believe that conferences are for everyone. A student observer can absorb research and talks from peers and leading academics, as well as meet interested students from other schools. A student participant has the additional opportunities to improve public speaking, receive valuable feedback and criticism, and see tangible results from hard work. These experiences undoubtedly offer perspective for potential career paths and academic options.

You will gain the most from both doing a bit of homework before the conference and being proactive at the conference. Large academic conferences can be overwhelming and intimidating due to their size and number of participants. Frequently, larger meetings offer lots of interesting sessions and tend to have an impressive list of eminent psychologists. Don’t be turned off when receiving a dense program thick with presentations. Do your best to attend a variety of talks, panels, and poster sessions. If possible, do a bit of background research on who will be there and what they will be presenting so that you can create an individualized schedule related to your areas of interest.

Like APS, many national and regional organizations (e.g., Psi Chi, APA, WPA) have made a commitment to increasing student participation and offer a variety of diverse student-focused activities at conferences. Examples of these activities include informational sessions on gaining admittance to graduate school and Q&A sessions with famous psychologists. In addition, social events allow students to meet other students in a more relaxed environment.

There Are Conferences for Everyone
Smaller psychology conferences offer a less intimidating and more intimate setting to share research. Most regional organizations and a handful of universities host annual psychology conferences. Universities offer an informal and comfortable way to present research to your peers, and many are organized by other psychology students with similar passions. Frequently, obtaining approval to present at a university conference is less competitive than at a regional or national meeting.

Finding the Right Fit for You
There is no definitive statement about which conference or organization is ideal for you. Thus, it is essential to talk to faculty and peers to find out which organizations would be the best fit with your interests. Although the format is similar at most meetings, each has their own objectives, program, and venue. Yet, from the student perspective, attending and presenting at student conferences is a great way to get your feet wet and to gain exposure to professional academia.

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