Below is a summary of results from a survey of SSAR student members, written by Jessica Tingle (chair, Student Participation Committee; firstname.lastname@example.org). If you would like to see the full report, please email Jessica for a PDF. You can also contact Jessica if you are interested in getting involved in the Student Participation Committee.
In August 2018, the SSAR Student Participation Committee conducted a survey of young members to collect data on their motivations for joining and remaining in the SSAR, and to elicit feedback to help the SSAR improve the young member experience. The survey specifically asked for responses from students, post-docs, and other young members. A handful of people who were neither students nor post-docs responded, with some of them specifying that they were early-career. In total, 178 people responded, including 134 students and 19 post-docs. As of August 2018, the SSAR had 1613 members, including 425 students. Thus, nearly 1/3 of student members responded to the survey. Of the 134 student responses, 46% came from PhD students, 25% from master’s students, 16% from undergraduates, 7% from students in between degrees, and 7% from high school students.
Why Folks Join the SSAR
We asked why people joined the SSAR in the first place. In general, students, postdocs, and faculty/professional members gave similar responses. People join the SSAR due to their interest in herps and the attraction of social benefits (meeting herpetologists, being part of something that friends are also a part of, JMIH). Additionally, advisors have been influential in encouraging their students to join over the years. Finally, a desire for professional development opportunities played a role for nearly half of the students and postdocs who responded.
Why Folks Stay in the SSAR
We also asked why people remain members of the SSAR. Overall, their answers were pretty similar to the reasons they joined in the first place. Some of the factors motivating people to join the SSAR play less of a role in their decision to remain members. Most conspicuously, advisor suggestion plays virtually no role in member retention. Not surprisingly, student research and travel grants play a role in retaining student members, but not postdocs or faculty/professionals, even though they contributed to many postdocs’ and faculty/professionals’ initial decision to join when they were students. Some factors matter more for retention than for the initial decision to join. Seibert and Hutchinson Awards for conference presentations play very little role in getting people to join, but they do contribute to student retention. Book discounts matter more for continuing student members than for newly joining student members – presumably students do not know about book discounts prior to joining.
Membership in Other Professional Societies
Many SSAR members also participate in other professional societies, especially Herpetologist’s League (35%) and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (34%). Only 18% are members of professional societies such as the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB), the Ecological Society of America (ESA), and the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), and the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) that focus on a set of biological questions rather than on a taxon. Membership in these latter societies showed a marked trend based on career stages: the youngest students are highly unlikely to participate in these societies (0% of high school students and 5% of undergrads), only a small fraction of master’s students participate (9%), and much larger fractions of PhD students (30%), postdocs (16%), and faculty/professionals (28%) participate. This trend could indicate a shift in scientific focus over the course of a career. Many people first come to biology because they love a particular animal or group of animals, and then they get interested in a set of questions later on. For this reason, taxon-based societies like the SSAR probably draw more very young members (especially undergrads) than do societies like SICB, ESA, ABS, or SSE.
What Folks Want from their Membership in the SSAR
This open-ended question generated a variety of responses, many of which echoed responses from earlier questions on why people join and remain in the SSAR (e.g. interactions with other members, professional development, research grants, and travel support). Many people also mentioned the high-quality journals that the SSAR publishes; through an oversight, we neglected to include journals as a possible response to the earlier questions. Several responses indicated a desire for more engagement between the SSAR and its members, or more engagement with broader communities. For example, some of these folks as for more communication, possible in the form of a regular newsletter. Several wanted the SSAR to facilitate educational outreach.
What Folks Want from the annual Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists
This second open-ended question also generated a variety of responses. Nearly everyone attends JMIH with the goal of meeting new people (both professionally and socially). Some specifically commented that they hope to meet potential PhD or postdoc advisors. Many are drawn to the conference by the possibility of seeing old friends. Many young members hope for professional development opportunities such as workshops. Two people commented on affordability. One person called for more inclusivity (specifically, related to gender). Another suggested that conference organizers facilitate more opportunities for socializing over lunch and/or coffee to remove the onus from students (many of whom are introverted and/or attending the meeting alone).
This final open-ended question allowed folks to address topics not covered elsewhere in the survey. Many responses had to do with inclusivity. Two expressed concern over the lack of gender and other types of diversity in our society and among “herpers” more generally. One indicated that “diversity and inclusion are high priorities of any society that I support,” and another expressed gratitude to the SSAR “for addressing current diversity and inclusivity in the society.” Several respondents provided suggestions for future progress in this area, including: “providing more awards and editorial/reviewer positions on behalf of and to women”; “more female and minority speakers”; “don’t give awards to bigoted or objectifying members, regardless of their stature”; “preferred pronouns on name tags”; and “a student seat on the executive committee.” Several responses directly or indirectly called for the SSAR to be more proactive in building connections between its members. One of those said they are “not sure how to get more involved without it being overwhelming,” and another feels “there isn’t a lot of outreach to students or ways for us to participate in things.” Many responses related specifically to JMIH or to other topics covered in above sections. They included too many specific suggestions for us to summarize here, so anyone who is interested may request a copy of the full report (see contact info above).
The survey identified several areas where the SSAR can improve. First, the SSAR (and other taxon-based societies) seem likely to draw younger students than do other types of professional societies. Yet, many students want more communication in terms of what the society does and how they can get involved. They would also like the society to do more to help them meet other SSAR members. In response to these points, the SSAR will start a monthly email update, and we are expanding the role that the Student Participation Committee has played in the past. Additionally, outreach came up in responses to several of the questions. The SSAR executive board and Student Participation Committee are looking into ways that we can facilitate educational outreach so that our members can have a broader public impact. Inclusivity also came up several times. More people than ever have become aware than not everyone feels welcome in herpetology. We (like society at large) need to work hard on cultural change to make everyone welcome, regardless of their identity. This will be the largest issue for us to tackle, and it will require effort on the part of the whole membership. We are currently working on ways to facilitate this change, and we welcome any ideas from any members at any time.