As a health care professional, the best place to start building your network is with membership in one or more professional associations. They support you, through continuing education and advocacy. You can support them with membership and voluntarism.
Name a medical profession or specialty, and it probably has its own association. These associations exist primarily to fulfill two vital functions for the professions they represent: First, they provide continuing education opportunities to keep vital skills up to date. Second, they work with state and federal governments on important issues like licensing and accreditation.
For individuals who are thinking about entering a medical profession, or figuring out how to direct a career as a medical professional, these associations can be primary networking resources.
Start as a student
Step one is to find the association that relates to your current career decisions. (A partial list can be found in the sidebar.) Check out the websites of prospective associations. Many post their newsletters online, or allow non-members to subscribe. Read a few issues to learn more. If you're considering a move into a new profession, see what resources the association has for students. The association may tell you which programs are accredited and what scholarships and aid are available. Contacting the membership or education chair can be a great way to get help arranging informational interviews with people already in the field.
Volunteering makes a difference
Once you're a full-fledged member of the profession, joining the association is your first order of business. Supporting the association will ensure that it can support you with educational opportunities and advocacy. But, as with most things, what you get out of the organization will depend on what you're willing to put in. Volunteering is a way to make connections within the organization. You can start by serving on a committee or helping to plan an event. Moving more deeply into the work of the association can help you move up the career ladder. If you're interesting in administration, consider serving on the finance committee. If you want to move into management, move into a leadership position in the association. It's a way to learn new skills, demonstrate them to your peers and have an accomplishment that you can add to your résumé.
Don't assume that one association is enough, or that the same association will be the right one for you throughout your career. If you're thinking of relocating, you might want a national organization, or you might want to check out the association in the state or states you're thinking about moving to. If you're moving into a more specialized field, or into a management role, you might want to find a professional association whose members can give you insights and help you adapt to your new position.
It's okay to start small. But be prepared to see your involvement grow. It's a great way to make a difference - in your profession and in your career.