Phi Beta Kappa offers employment, networking opportunities

Cara Lowry

Each spring, roughly 10 percent of Whitman’s graduating class and up to two percent of the junior class are elected to an honor society as old as America herself –– Phi Beta Kappa. This semester, 37 Whitties join the likes of Henry Kissinger, Mark Twain, Glen Close, Helen Keller and Peyton Manning, not to mention 17 U.S. presidents, 38 U.S. Supreme Court justices and 136 Nobel laureates.

While election is prestigious and selective, many students are unaware of the organization’s existence, let alone the advantages of membership, before being chosen to join.

“I had never heard of Phi Beta Kappa before receiving the e-mail and I still don’t understand exactly what it entails,” said new member and senior Alicia LeClair.

The name Phi Beta Kappa comes from the Greek initials to the organization’s motto, philosophia biou kybernÄ”tÄ”s, or “love of learning is the guide of life.”

Each of the 280 chapters nationwide sets its own academic standards for election. At  Whitman this means having excelled in a broad range of courses in the arts and sciences including math and foreign language. Though there is no minimum GPA requirement for membership, of late the cumulative GPA of new members has not been below 3.75.

With election often coming as a surprise to new members, it follows that Phi Beta Kappa remains elusive to the greater Whitman community.

“In talking with other Whitties, I have discovered that there is, generally speaking, a lack of familiarity with or respect for the organization on campus. Since the election process is conducted by Whitman faculty who are themselves Phi Beta Kappa members, I suspect that some students feel the election process relies on favoritism,” said new member and senior Dawn Angus.

Phi Beta Kappa’s national web site stresses that membership is for life, but it is hard to envision any tangible benefits when election seems like little more than an abstract honor.

“I’m definitely flattered and excited about it, but I guess I haven’t really reaped any benefits yet except for writing it in on my resume,” said new member and senior Matt Coleman.

Susan Buchanan, director of the Student Engagement Center, stresses that simply writing “Phi Beta Kappa” on a resume isn’t enough: The honor needs to be contextualized.

“[Phi Beta Kappa] is a symbol of the accomplishment you’ve achieved at Whitman, but it needs to be described. Employers don’t deal well with symbols … It is the onus of the student to make it clear to the employer why that is a meaningful honor,” she said. “I know an employer wouldn’t take the time to look it up.”

Buchanan adds that being an academic honor, Phi Beta Kappa membership is more likely to make an impression on graduate schools than on the average employer. She further emphasizes that Phi Beta Kappa membership in itself won’t necessarily land you the job.

“You have to have the whole package, that’s the bottom line. All other things being equal, Phi Beta Kappa might tip the scale in your favor,” Buchanan said.

And for some it may already have.

“Phi Beta Kappa will certainly be a positive influence on my future academic and employment aspirations. During recent job interviews, employers have noted my membership in Phi Beta Kappa. I was offered both jobs that I applied to, which might reflect positively on PBK membership,” said new member and senior Hannah Payne.

Others don’t envision Phi Beta Kappa membership shaping their future in an active way.

“I’ve heard it can lead to employment opportunities, but I don’t personally see it greatly impacting my future,” said LeClair.

New member and senior Deirdre Gorman agreed.

“I don’t see it really affecting my future, other than that it helped me achieve my life goal of joining a fraternity,” she said.

Whether or not Phi Beta Kappa membership will directly benefit someone entering the job market, members often join regional alumni associations and are offered “exclusive networking opportunities” according to the society’s web site.

“Phi Beta Kappa has regional associations (such as the Puget Sound Association) that periodically hold lectures, tours and other events for members; given the importance of networking, it couldn’t hurt to meet, know, and learn with other Phi Beta Kappa members,” said Angus.