Why Does Phi Beta Kappa Matter?

Phi Beta Kappa Induction Ceremony at Elmira College
Phi Beta Kappa Induction Ceremony at Elmira College. Elmira College / Flickr

Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest and one of the most prestigious academic honor societies in the United States. Founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary, Phi Beta Kappa now has chapters at 290 colleges and universities (see the list of Phi Beta Kappa chapters). A college is awarded a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa only after rigorous evaluation of the school’s strengths in the liberal arts and sciences, and students can be inducted into the honor society in their junior and senior years. The advantages of attending a college with a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and eventually earning membership are many. 

Key Takeaways: Phi Beta Kappa

  • Only 10% of colleges and universities and colleges have a chapter of PBK.
  • Membership is highly selective and requires both high grades and academic depth and breadth in the liberal arts and sciences.
  • If selected to join PBK, you'll be connected to a network of over 500,000 members.
  • Numerous U.S. presidents, Supreme Court justices, and other influential people have been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.

Phi Beta Kappa Colleges are Well Respected

Only 10 percent of colleges nationwide have a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and the existence of a chapter is a clear sign that the school has high quality and rigorous programs in the liberal arts and sciences. Unlike narrow vocational pre-professional programs, students who do well in a strong liberal arts and sciences curriculum have demonstrated a breadth of knowledge in fields spanning the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, and they have proven their critical thinking and communication skills.

Membership is Highly Selective

At colleges with a chapter, roughly 10% of students (sometimes far fewer) join Phi Beta Kappa. An invitation is extended only if a student has a high GPA and proven depth and breadth of study in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

To be admitted, a student generally needs to have a grade point average around an A- or higher (typically a 3.5 or higher), foreign language expertise beyond the introductory level, and a breadth of study that goes beyond a single major (for example, a minor, double major, or significant coursework beyond minimum requirements). Members also need to pass a character check, and students with disciplinary infractions at their college will often be denied membership. Thus, being able to list Phi Beta Kappa on a resume reflects a high level of both personal and academic achievement.

Only juniors and seniors can be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, and the bar for admission is a bit higher for juniors than it is for seniors. It's also possible to be inducted as an honorary member if you are an accomplished faculty member or an alum who has helped advance causes aligned with the liberal arts and sciences.

The Star Factor

Membership in Phi Beta Kappa means you’re part of the same organization as famous high-achievers like Condoleezza Rice, Sonia Sotomayor, Tom Brokaw, Jeff Bezos, Susan Sontag, Glenn Close, George Stephanopoulos and Bill Clinton. The Phi Beta Kappa website notes that 17 U.S. Presidents, 40 Supreme Court Justices, and over 140 Nobel Laureates have been members of Phi Beta Kappa. The history is deep—Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Franklin D. Roosevelt were also members.

Strengthen Your Resumé

Your resumé most likely includes a section that lists various honors and awards. Membership in Phi Beta Kappa will impress many potential employers and graduate programs. Unlike the often subjective nature of selection for many academic honor societies, membership in Phi Beta Kappa is an inarguable recognition of true academic accomplishment. 

Networking

For college students and recent graduates, the networking potential of Phi Beta Kappa shouldn’t be underestimated. With over 500,000 members nationwide, Phi Beta Kappa membership connects you to successful and intelligent people throughout the country. Also, many communities have Phi Beta Kappa associations that will bring you into contact with people of varying ages and backgrounds. Since your membership in Phi Beta Kappa is for life, the advantages of membership go well beyond your college years and first job. At the same time, recent graduates can often take advantage of the PBK network to make connections and help land a meaningful and rewarding job.

PBK Supports the Liberal Arts and Sciences

Phi Beta Kappa sponsors numerous activities and awards to support the liberal arts and sciences. Membership dues and gifts to Phi Beta Kappa are used to host lectureships, scholarships, and service awards that champion excellence in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. So while Phi Beta Kappa can provide many perks for you, membership is also supporting the future of the liberal art and sciences in the country.

Programs supported by Phi Beta Kappa include the Visiting Scholar Program that funds visits by preeminent scholars to 100 colleges and universities each year. These visiting scholars meet formally and informally with students and faculty members to share their areas of expertise. PBK also supports (En)Lightening Talks, a series of experts from around the US who present engaging five-minute presentations. Members can also participate in Key Connections, a series of events around the country designed to welcome new members and help them network.

On a More Superficial Note...

Members of Phi Beta Kappa also receive the honor society's distinctive blue and pink cords and a PBK key pin that you can use to help deck out your college graduation regalia. So if you want extra bling at commencement, push yourself to get the grades, language skills, and breadth of coursework that you'll need to qualify for PBK.