Ecological Society of America: A pathway for professional development

by Luke Lamb

The 250 page meeting program can be daunting to students new to ESA but it's really FULL of opportunity.
Every year ecologists from around the world get together at the Ecological Society of America (ESA) meeting for a week-long endeavor into all-things ecology. As a student whose only attended two ESA meetings, ESA2017 and ESA2018, this meeting has already been instrumental in shaping my professional perspective on the field of ecology and how its members conduct themselves. My hope with this post is to provide some evidence of the benefits that being involved within ESA as a student provides and how to make the most out of future meetings!
For starters, the ESA is organized into a variety of different sections and chapters. Chapters are organized regionally while sections are organized around a common interest, like everybody is a student, or early career researcher, paleoecologist, etc. ESA says:

“[Section] activities are intended to encourage research, exchange ideas, and facilitate communication between ecologists with similar interests.”

My experience working with the ESA lies primarily with the Student Section (ESA-SS). I rose into the Student Section officer ranks relatively quickly, getting elected into the secretary position after attending my first ESA and only have been a graduate student for all of about 5 minutes (meaning it’s not as hard as you might think!). One of the missions of the ESA-SS board this past year was to help connect students to the section throughout the year, as in the other 358 days that aren’t the Annual Meeting. We pay a good chunk of money to be members of the ESA so our goal was for the students who join to have resources available to them year-long. I can’t say that we completely solved this issue but it is something that we continually worked on and board members are more than willing to talk to students at any time and take in suggestions. Get involved! A podcast was even started last year by Rob Crystal-Ornelas called Science in Podcast where Rob interviews grad students and others about their experiences.
 As part of the secretary position, at ESA2018 I organized (1) the annual student mixer; (2) a 5-hr science communication workshop as a joint initiative of the Student Section and ComSciCon; and (3) served on a planning committee to organize the first ever “Career Fair” held at an ESA meeting. I also gave a couple of joint presentations as part of other Student Section initiatives. As a direct result of the various workshops and presentations I gained confidence in my public speaking abilities, networked with an incredible amount of people, both horizontally (other students) and vertically (ecologists in positions higher on the career ladder), and made a number of lifelong friends.

Myself (left) pictured with Dr. David Schimel, group supervisor of the Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems Group at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab and a keynote speaker at ESA2018. Dr. Schimel and I had a great time doing an "interview demo" for for a "position" in his lab at NASA for folks to watch and critique my performance. It provided some great insight into the interview process and why certain questions are asked over others, as well as how best to answer those questions! Highly suggest participating in mock interview sessions!

To back up my point about the opportunities for professional development ESA can provide, I can also share a short anecdote. During the Career Fair, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion regarding non-academic sectors and skills that will help students succeed in non-academic positions. Towards the end of the discussion it was brought up by the panelists that getting involved with a relevant professional society can provide an avenue for getting skills that might be harder to get within your academic degree program. This really validated my ESA experience for me. I feel that it showed me that opportunities for professional development opportunities come in a variety of forms: it’s just a matter of finding them!
But how do you justify these to your academic advisor who might be a stickler about how you spend your time? For starters, the professional development I just mentioned can only do positive things for you while you’re a student. I am in the midst of scheduling a proposal defense seminar and while I’ve never given a talk about my research before, after all the speaking obligations I had at ESA2018 I will walk in knowing I CAN speak in front of people, which is often half the battle. By getting involved with societies, like ESA, you’ll also begin to feel part of a broader community of scientists all working towards a common goal, which I know helps me to think about when I have those stuck-in-a-rut moments (I know you all get them too!). But I’m also not advocating to partake in these extra-curricular’s at the expense of your own research/grant obligations/degree progress. Those must always come first! It’s a matter of finding balance between these obligations and no when to step back when you are feeling overwhelmed (I could write a whole post on this topic alone). If anybody is interested in learning more about what ESA does and the opportunities embedded within the society, please don't hesitate to ask!

Lastly, I wanted to conclude with some tips on how to be a ESA meeting pro!

1.     Network! A good Wading through Research post on networking can be found here. My strategy is usually meet one person per day. This can be as simple as introducing yourself and then walking away. Even this helps to normalize these kinds of interaction.
2.     Talk to the Student Section officers! We are all happy to talk to anybody and are to help new members get oriented within the society.
3.     Don’t go to every talk you think might be even mildly relevant to your interests. This is “How not to burn-out at a large conference 101”. Take afternoons off. Go explore the city. HAVE FUN.
4.     Attend the poster session. This is my favorite part of the conference. This is where you can really connect with folks. You never know who you will bump into, I often find myself aimlessly wandering the posters and just stopping whenever I see something interesting.
5.     Find the free food!!
6.     Attend the section business meetings. This can be intimidating but the folks running these are usually thrilled to see new faces at these. Even if you don’t say anything or don’t know what is going on, it’s a cool experience.
7.     Don’t go to things just because everybody is going. A specific example I have for this is the closing reception. Not to knock it but you have to buy overpriced tickets that say dinner included but then it’s often not even a real dinner.
8.     SYNTHESIZE. Schedule in times, maybe at the end of the day, to digest what you learned each day. You’ll thank yourself later.


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