So you've never been much of a joiner, you say?

Well, that's too bad, because professional associations can be a great way to jump-start your career.

Almost every profession has at least one group, and many have dozens. Some are very loose affiliations, requiring only that you pay dues to be a member. Others have strict standards, requiring that members pass tests or provide proof of education or work experience to join. The toughest may even require you to be sponsored by a member.

The cost of joining varies considerably and can seem steep to a student or young worker. Signing up, however, can be a worthwhile investment and may not be as pricey as you fear. Check with the organization about student or young professional rates. For example, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers uses a graded membership system, with dues adjusted accordingly. Graduate student members and unemployed workers pay $50 a year, compared with $100 for recent grads and $199 for those who completed their undergraduate degrees before 2002.

Also, many associations are able to secure group discounts on such things as auto and health insurance or movie tickets. You may find that the bargains you tap through these services more than offset the cost to join. For example, members of the Emergency Nurses Association are eligible for discounts on Dell computers and car rentals.

But slightly cheaper car insurance and a discount on a new computer are not why you join an association. These perks are minor compared with the serious advantages that associations can provide your career.

For one, membership looks great on your resume. It implies a level of seriousness about your chosen livelihood that's hard to convey any other way when you are starting out.

Another key benefit is access to education and training programs. Even if they are available through other outlets, it's doubtful they are as inexpensive. Continuing education becomes very important once you have been out of school for a few years.

Access to special members-only job listings is another potential perk. Applying for jobs through such ads is far more efficient than applying through general job boards such as Monster. Employers like posting these targeted ads because they can be more confident that they will attract qualified applicants.

The greatest advantage of joining an association, however, is the opportunity for networking. Look beyond the boring presentations and mediocre food found at most professional conferences to see where the real business is being done: at the bar, between panel discussions and over croissants and coffee. There is no more efficient and reliable way to meet people in your field from around the country, as well as potential employers.

Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of professional associations:

* Be picky. It is better to join one or two groups, and be actively involved in them, than to sign up with 10 groups for which you do little more than mail dues checks. It's a waste of your money, and there's no room to list more than one or two groups on your resume.

* Think local. Many large, national organizations also have local chapters that allow members to get more face time with their fellow professionals. The American Marketing Association, for instance, has chapters in most major cities, including Washington. If you're intimidated by the sheer number of people at major conferences, these local affiliates provide a way for you to network or even find a mentor.

* Don't be shy. Volunteer to help with registration or to run the coffee station at a conference. It's grunt work, but you will meet lots of people. As you advance in your career, participate in panels and give presentations. If getting up in front of 100 (or even 10) people isn't your cup of tea, write an article for the group's newsletter. The important thing is to get your name out there.

E-mail Mary Ellen Slayter at Join her for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 11 a.m. July 12 at