Frequently Asked Questions: 

What is Phi Beta Kappa?

Phi Beta Kappa is the nation's oldest academic honor society. Since its inception in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa has been committed to fostering and recognizing excellence in the liberal arts. The main function of the local Chapter is to honor undergraduates for outstanding scholarly achievement. While national guidelines recommend that no more than ten percent of the graduating class be elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the Alpha Chapter of Wisconsin (so named because this campus was granted the first charter in the state) traditionally invites no more than three or four percent of the University's bachelor's degree candidates to join. Election is therefore quite an honor. (For more information on the history of Phi Beta Kappa, see the History page on this web site.)

How are students selected for Phi Beta Kappa?

The local Chapter generates transcripts of all eligible students in January of each year. Eligibility is defined by 90 credits in L&S and a minimum 3.75 GPA. Those transcripts are then reviewed by the Chapter selection committee, which is made up of members of the faculty and academic staff, who were elected to Phi Beta Kappa when they were undergraduates. Students are invited to join on the basis of demonstrated achievement in breadth and depth of study in the liberal arts. (For more information on selection criteria, see the Election to Phi Beta Kappa page on this site.)

Why would a student want to join Phi Beta Kappa?

In addition to being the oldest academic honor society in the country, Phi Beta Kappa is also the most well-known. When graduate and professional schools and future employers see that someone has been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, they recognize that this is an extraordinary accomplishment. As the UW undergraduates who wrote Choose Your Own Adventure: The PSO Handbook put it, "Turning down an invitation to join such prestigious company is a serious mistake." (p. 152)

What does it cost to become a member?

Students invited to membership are asked to pay a one-time initiation fee of $115. This supports the national Phi Beta Kappa Society, and provides the member with lifetime privileges associated with membership. The lifetime privileges include the right to wear a PBK key and a subscription to the quarterly Key Reporter which contains an excellent section of intellectually provocative reviews of books. The membership fee also supports the local chapter and is used to pay for such things as: membership certificates, banquet and induction ceremony expenses, office supplies, and the annual Teaching Award. If paying the local chapter component of the membership fee constitutes a financial hardship, please contact the Chapter Secretary. Membership should not be declined due to financial hardship.  Each year Phi Beta Kappa awards 10-15 scholarships to help students pay for the fee.

Will I have to pay annual dues?

No. The $115 that the chapter charges as a membership fee is a one-time charge.

What are the "keys"?

The key is the only permanent emblem Phi Beta Kappa has ever had. Originally a square silver medal, the early keys varied considerably in size and detail because they were designed and manufactured locally by each chapter. In 1910 the Council adopted the standard key now in use, which is engraved like the original medal. The standard key is machine engraved with the inductee's name, college, and year of admission to Phi Beta Kappa.

The emblem is called a "key" because the original square medal was eventually modified by the addition of a stem. The medal was thus converted to a watch key (which was used to wind pocket watches).

The keys are available in a range of sizes and are made in both 10 karat gold and 24 karat gold-plate. They are fully described and illustrated on the Hand & Hammer web site. Hand & Hammer is the only vendor authorized to make Phi Beta Kappa keys. Because keys are available only to Phi Beta Kappa members, the vendor will verify membership with the national office before filling an order. However, newly elected students are not registered with the national office until the Chapter files its annual report in July. As such, the only way for new members to order a key and have it in time for commencement is to place an order through the local chapter.

Do I have to buy a key if I join?

No. The purchase of a key is entirely optional.