Advice for freshman fisheries students: join AFS

by Brandon Peoples

Let me start off by saying that I don’t claim to be “successful,” or that I’ve “made it” in the fisheries profession. In fact, I’m still a student—just beginning the fourth year of my PhD studies. However, I can say that I’ve been active in fisheries science long enough to notice a few differences between students who thrive in our field…and those who fail.

I originally intended this article to focus on a few tips for freshman fisheries students—namely things I wish I would have known when I started out. In addition to finding a mentor, the first tip was to join the American Fisheries Society (AFS). After a bit of writing, that first point ballooned into an entire post in itself (it’s that important). So, stay tuned next month for more tips and clarified misconceptions that may help you as an underclassman fisheries student.

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So you want to be a fish biologist…why should you join AFS?

At some point in the next four years—hopefully sooner rather than later—you’ll learn that what happens in the classroom can only get you so far. Of course you need good grades to get ahead, but a 4.0 GPA won’t mean much if you don’t have solid experience and a working knowledge of our profession. And the last thing you want is a crisp new diploma with no job prospects to show for it.

That’s where AFS comes in. AFS is the oldest and largest society of fisheries professionals in the world—and it’s your bridge from being a fisheries student to being a fisheries professional. AFS goes about the business of conducing fisheries science and conservation. By joining and participating in the society, you’ll learn how working professionals put their skills into practice.

Students and professionals mingle at the 2014 Southern Division AFS meeting in Charleston, SC. Source.

AFS (sometimes called parent society) is divided into many units: there are four main divisions which are divided into chapters and student subunits. While there is plenty of opportunity for you to be involved in every level of AFS, your best bet is to start off with your student subunit (if your university has one). To find out about meeting times, ask your advisor, keep an eye out for fliers in the halls, follow the Facebook pages and join the LISTSERVs.

Then go to meetings (all of them). There you’ll find plenty of opportunities to get your feet wet. Student subunits are some of the most locally active AFS units, frequently organizing fishing derbies, stream cleanups, restoration projects, fundraising and social events. Local biologists often call on student subunits when they need extra help with sampling or hosting events. While these events may not seem so important, they provide great opportunities to get to know your colleagues and your profession.

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Many universities don’t have AFS student subunits…but that shouldn’t stop you from being involved. AFS sections are issue-specific groups that provide great opportunities for student participation. Good starting places include the Education Section and its Student Subsection.

Being active in your student subunit is a great start, but you can also be involved in larger units. Start by going to meetings—AFS’s annual meeting is usually in late summer, and division and chapter meetings are held mostly in midwinter or early spring. AFS meetings are your best opportunity for networking with professors (read: future grad school advisors) and working professionals (read: future employers). In fact, I met my advisor at the 2007 AFS meeting in San Francisco; I started grad school four months later. Many fisheries professionals have a similar story.

Meetings consist largely of professionals and graduate students presenting their research. At first, the scientific presentations may seem intimidating. But stick with it—you’ll be surprised at what you learn. Sitting in on AFS presentations is also a great way of keeping your mind in the “fish world” while you’re bogged down with classes like algebra, technical writing, biology, and world history.

Yes, joining AFS and attending meetings costs money…BUT IT’S NOT MUCH! Fisheries scientists understand that investing in the next generation of professionals is critical to our goals. To that end, student membership and registration fees are ridiculously low. Student membership is $20, which includes a subscription to Fisheries magazine and discounts on books (read: cheap textbooks) and meeting registration. At that price, AFS runs the best deal in town.

Navigating our profession can be tough for new arrivals. There are many things you’ll need to do to succeed, and your colleagues and mentors in AFS can help you along the way. Good luck!

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