The PhD Files: Conference Planning

In a previous post, we explored the different options available to you if you are thinking about attending a conference. Today, we’re sticking with the conference theme, but this time let’s take a look at what happens when you decide to plan your very own…

  1. It may sound obvious, but the first thing you should decide on is your conference theme. If possible, it’s a good idea to team up with another researcher in your field, preferably someone working in a similar area. Not only is working together very useful when it comes to sharing the load, it could also help you to narrow down the era or the topic on which you would like to base your conference. It’s also a good idea to think of potential titles at this point. You will need this for your marketing documents and any correspondence. If you are going to charge a fee for your conference, then now’s the time to think about that. You may want to offer a discount for students, and include lunch and refreshments!

2. Once you have your theme in place, you need to decide on the length of your conference. Day symposiums are useful because they don’t necessary entail additional planning such as guest accommodation and concurrent panel organisation. On the other hand, a conference held over several days (bear in mind, these are usually bigger, and are planned by organisations, or several departments) allows for more papers, and could entice more speakers. Whatever you decide, make this decision a priority so you can get your planning underway!

3. Now that you have your theme, it’s time to contact potential keynote speakers. It’s important to do this way ahead of the conference date, so that your speaker can schedule the event. Depending on your conference layout, you may want more than one keynote. Remember to give them as much information as you can in your invitation, and be very polite!

4. Once the keynote is locked in, you can think about marketing your event. A good place to begin is the all important ‘call for papers’. This is usually a relatively short flyer that outlines your conference title, the keynote speaker, the date, the venue (this can simply be the institution, and perhaps a building, don’t panic yet about a specific room), and a list of themes the papers may discuss. While this list certainly doesn’t need to be exhaustive, it gives potential speakers (or delegates) an idea of what they might expect. Remember, your conference doesn’t have to be focussed on one discipline, it can be beautifully multi-disciplinary! Include a deadline for proposals, so you have a date to aim for. Don’t forget to include an email address (perhaps create one especially for the conference so correspondence is all in one place) so that you can be contacted, and can receive those lovely proposals!

5. While you wait for the proposals to roll in, it might be useful to advertise your event on your institution’s social media. If you are a part of any academic bodies or organisations, then consider asking them to pop an ad in their next newsletter. They are usually more than happy to help out a colleague – they might even attend!

6. Once all the proposals are in, it’s time to get planning the schedule! Decide which papers are likely to be a good fit with your theme, and think about how you will separate the day. If you have a large conference, you could think about organising concurrent panels across the days, based on similarly themed papers. A smaller symposium could be split into smaller categories throughout the day. Don’t forget to leave time in your schedule for introductions, refreshments, and all-important lunch!

7. Once the lovely (but probably preliminary at this point) schedule is complete, you can begin to contact the speakers whose proposals you have accepted. It’s important to give them plenty of time to put together their paper. Keep in mind, it’s likely they’ll be pretty busy with research, teaching, and everything else in life, so you don’t want to rush them.

8. When everyone has confirmed their papers, and your schedule is pretty firm, you can think about printing your final schedule flyer and some advertising posters. Normally, your institution or organisation can help with printing. When they’re all ready, put them up, hand them out, and spread the word! Exciting!

9. While it may seem that most of the hard work is done, there are still quite a few things to remember! If you’re offering lunch and refreshments, don’t forget to book these. Check with your guests for specific dietary requirements. If you want to include name badges, start compiling a list of attendees’ names. Consider putting together a booklet outlining paper abstracts and a short biography of speakers. Not only is it useful, it also makes a nice souvenir!

10. If any of your speakers have accompanying presentations, it’s a good idea to have them e-mail these to you in advance so you can download them, ready for streamlined talks.

Organising a conference takes a lot of work, but it’s also well worth it. Don’t beat yourself up if you suddenly realise there’s something you’ve forgotten – unforeseen things happen! When the day comes, though you’ll be busy, try to relax and enjoy it! It’s a great sense of achievement to see it all come together. Good luck!

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