Planning a conference: An organisational step too far for an academic?

When the organising committee for the joint DTP conference were approached to write a blog on our experience, I wasn’t really sure where to start. What do I want to say? Do people even care? So, I did what any good PhD student would do, and turned to Google. The first thing that came up was a Guardian article on “How to organise an academic conference – 10 tips”. Great! Why didn’t I do this earlier?

Conference

Image used under a GNU Free Documentation License from Wikimedia

The article started out well, but then I read this: “As an academic you probably suck at management and organisation.” Hmmm. Ok…maybe… they go on – “Stick to the academic side of things, selecting special papers and keynotes and managing the creation of paper sessions”, adding “for the practical side of things, get help. There are many professional conference arrangers and companies out there. Use them.” Ah, right. Being half way through organising the conference, and already having hit a few administrative glitches, I thought The Guardian might be right. Maybe as academics we should have just stuck to choosing abstracts and inviting keynote speakers.

But then I really started to think about it. The opening paragraph of The Guardian article lists 5 reasons that you should get involved with organising a conference. Firstly, it looks great on your CV. Ok, I can’t dispute this one, of course it does. The second point, of being able to see papers early in their development, and being able to steer the future direction of your field, was slightly obsolete for a DTP conference covering the entire breadth of NERC research, but again, fair enough.

As far as their last points are concerned, I’m still waiting on the “nice dinners” with keynote speakers and being able to “bask in the glory of a well run event” (I won’t be holding my breath, especially for the dinner). There was nothing about working with people from other organisations, learning to time manage or improving your organisational skills (instead of simply delegating it to a ‘professional’). And although being organised is their top tip, they suggest you probably aren’t capable of doing this yourself.

Poster

Image copyright Marco Meschis

Yet four months into organising my first conference, with seven other students studying at five different Universities – we’ve prepared a budget, come up with a name, a date and a location, booked a venue, ordered catering, built a website, contacted keynote speakers, organised workshops, put together a programme, and organised evening activities. I’m starting to think that The Guardian are wrong.

Sure, a professional might have been able to do some things in half the time it has taken us. But how would we learn from that? Would I have had the opportunity to work with four students from Imperial? Remember the “it looks good on your CV” argument? It does, but even more so if you can say you’ve actually been involved in the organisation, rather than “well, we hired someone to do everything except read the abstracts”.

I’m not going to pretend its been easy; we’ve spent a lot of time and effort on it, balancing organising the conference with being 2nd year PhD students, and all the fieldwork, lab work and writing that comes with it. But, The Guardian seem to gloss over a lot of the learning experiences – they focus on the ‘make sure your presenters run to time’ side of organising a conference. So, these are my tips:

  1. Think about what you want from a conference. Ok, so this was on The Guardian article too. But it’s important. Talks, posters and workshops are important, but everyone likes coffee, lunch and social events (especially when there’s free drinks). For networking, obviously.
  2. Be organised. Note: you don’t need professional help. You’ve got this. Which brings me onto…
  3. Organise the whole conference. It’s a great opportunity to see the work that goes into these events, and we’re only doing it for 250 people. Bonus: it made preparing a session proposal for an international conference seem easy.
  4. Have fun. Yes, it can be stressful and you’re potentially working with new people, but it’s a great experience and they might just become your friends.
The joint organising committee 2016

The organising committee
Photo by Lucy Roberts

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