Organizing a conference
a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial
Conferences can be a great opportunity to have an intensified exchange and debate on a particular research issue of your choice. They allow you to emerge from the solitary working conditions of doing PhD research and make contact with colleagues in your field. The chance to verbalize and discuss your ideas face to face as well as to find out what other students and academics have explored in related areas can be invaluable and further the development of your research.
You may find though that you are so absorbed in your everyday research tasks that the organization of a conference would be too much of a distraction. In this case you can still inform yourself about suitable conferences matching your research interests and submit a proposal for giving a paper at one of them, without having to organize a whole conference yourself. There are increasing numbers of conferences taking place now which are organized by, and aimed particularly at postgraduate students. These tend to be one-day events, drawing largely on speakers based in the UK. Especially in the first year when you are still involved with defining the main directions of your research project, or indeed when you are frantically writing up, organizing a conference could be counterproductive for your PhD progress. Immediately after submitting your PhD might prove a more suitable moment. Apart from participating in conferences set up by other scholars, as a postgraduate student, you may also become involved in the organization of larger, international conferences through departmental colleagues or your supervisor.
If you do decide to follow up on the idea of organizing a conference, discuss the feasibility of this plan carefully with your supervisor, so you won't find yourself after 3 years of PhD research having invested all your energy in organizing a conference and not having completed your PhD. Moreover, avoid trying to set up a multiple-day conference. It will be too demanding at this stage in your career.
So let's say you and your supervisor have come to the conclusion that organizing a conference on a particular topic may be a productive and realistic plan for you (perhaps in collaboration with one of your PhD colleagues), then this will present you with the opportunity to:
- invite experts you would like to meet
- compare your research findings with those of others
- raise your profile
- acquire transferable skills
- enrich your CV by publishing your paper, or editing a volume of conference papers.
In order to support you with the different aspects of organizing a conference we have prepared the following topics as part of this tutorial:
1.1 Different types of conference
Conferences can include a variety of events such as roundtables, workshops, lectures, etc. Depending on what you want to achieve with your conference, you might find it useful to familiarize yourself with the different types of conferences:
The most general term to indicate a meeting for discussion - most commonly adopted by associations and organizations for their regular meetings. It is usually associated with the most traditional type of presentation, that is, papers followed by questions.
|Annual Conference of the Society for French Studies
Biennial Conference of the Society for Italian Studies
Nowadays, this describes a meeting to discuss a particular subject, but its original meaning defines it as a drinking party devoted to conversation and following a banquet. A symposium thus has a slightly more informal character than a conference.
|Spanish and Portuguese Studies Postgraduate Symposium
The first meaning of this term refers to a group of students studying under a professor with each doing research and all exchanging results through reports and discussions. Its second definition: 'debating special issues' preserves the conversational character of the term 'seminar'.
|IGRS: From Textual to Visual
Departmental Research Seminar (Italian, UCL)
This term indicates both a traditional conference and a conversational seminar. Colloquia tend to privilege the aspect of debate.
|Colloquium for Police History (SSEES)
Taken from the language of manufacturing, the term workshop indicates a brief intensive educational program for a small group of people that focuses on techniques and skills in a particular field. In academia, it is adopted to describe meetings reserved for small groups of specialists who come together for concerted activities or discussion.
|Mutual Perceptions in Travel Literature (SOAS)
The roundness of the table clearly symbolizes the equality of all participants. Each of them will have the same right to take the floor. Roundtables commonly bring together academics who usually are invited as key-note speakers. Discussion nevertheless plays the leading role in this kind of meeting.
|Berkeley Germanic Linguistics Roundtable
Urban Environmental History
1.2 Time and venue
When to start planning?
As a rough guide, you should start planning a one-day conference 12-18 months ahead of time. Although it is possible to put something together more quickly, you are more likely to achieve your aims with a long lead-in. Two-day or longer conferences will require 18 months plus. The importance of thinking ahead in seeking funding should also be noted.
Finding a suitable date for your conference
Unless the conference you are organizing is run on a yearly basis, you will have to decide what date will be most suitable for your speakers and delegates. If participants are mainly PhD students, the most effective choice is probably during term-time or reading-weeks. If on the contrary, your prospective guests will mainly be post-doctoral researcher, lecturers and professors, a time outside term-time may be preferable. Do not forget - from this point of view - that vacations vary from country to country. Likewise, rule out right from the start any date conflicting with other relevant academic events or with national holidays (and even very important sporting fixtures, as for example, the World Cup may deter potential participants to commit from coming to your conference).
Once you have identified a date, check the availability of conference rooms in your institution or your chosen venue. Ifyou are cooperating with a conference office at your university, the date is obviously crucial information to be negotiated with them, so they can move on with their organizational tasks. It is also essential at this point to check the availability of your keynote speakers, if you have them.
The timetable of your conference
It is unusual for postgraduate conferences to last more than a day. (Large international conferences rarely last more than three days.) This may require you to schedule some papers to overlap with others. Papers are usually grouped in sessions, although keynote papers may have sessions to themselves).
The length of a single paper commonly varies between 20 and 30 minutes. Occasionally it can be reduced to 15. The presentations of keynote speakers however can last up to one hour. There is no compulsory limit for the length of a single session, but if it lasts more than two hours consider a proper break. Also include in your planning enough time for questions at the end of each paper or session. Make sure that all speakers and chairs are aware of the question format. When putting together the programme of your conference, it is important to be aware of your speakers' and delegates' comfort, and to schedule adequate breaks.
As a postgraduate student you are most likely to want to make use of university facilities (either your home institution or another). It is unlikely that you will have a great deal of choice in terms of conference venue. University space is the norm for postgraduate conferences. Do bear in mind that different events have differing requirements. In case you are given a choice between different rooms or venues consider the following points:
- size and shape of rooms: traditional lectures, workshops and roundtables all require completely different kinds of rooms
- technical facilities: rooms with built-in audio-visual equipment may work out cheaper than renting equipment
- accessibility of location: this may affect both costs (travel expenses of speakers) and the appeal to other participants.
1.3 Speakers and chairs
Once you have decided on a date and place for your conference, you can start selecting the speakers. The most common way to do this is either by a
- call for papers (we have prepared a another subsection within this tutorial on what to consider when putting together a call for papers)
- or by personal invitation.
A call for papers will allow the participation of students and researchers that you do not know but who could offer a significant contribution to your event. Personal invitations will ensure that established scholars will be informed about your conference. It also acts as publicity; some people who will receive your call (or invitation) may decide to attend your conference, even without giving a presentation.
When planning the programme of your conference, a chair should be assigned to each of the sessions. A chair should have at least the same status as the speakers she or he will present. Entrusting a PhD student with the task of introducing a renowned scholar may be inappropriate. Each chair must be personally invited to act in this role, and informed of her/his duties well in advance, even if she or he will take part in the conference as a speaker, too. Bear in mind the nature of the session when assigning chairs: some people are firmer than others. For instance, to allow one speaker in a session to overrun so badly that the others will have to trim their papers is offensive to those speakers and makes all participants uncomfortable. Where speakers are known to overrun, or where debate might be heated, or when a session is tightly timetabled, pick a chair who you can rely on to cope. A chair aslo has to organize the question and answer session, and may need to get things going with a question of their own. If possible it is good to select someone who knows something about the topic of the session, and who will therefore add substantially to the debate.
Contingency plan if speakers cancel
Do not finally forget to have some 'second choices' as standby, in case a speaker withdraws at the last moment. In this case you can
- read her/his paper yourself (provided that s/he prepared it)
- replace her/him with another speaker (someone who was, for example, in two minds about participating)
- extend the time reserved for questions
- bring forward all the papers and present an 'unplanned' event (such as the screening of a video linked to the subject of the conference)
- if the person who withdraws is a chair you can ask another chair to preside at a second session, or
- ask a speaker to chair that session.
This is probably one of the most complex organizational aspects of any conference - certainly it is the most worrying one. That is why it is advisable to organize your conference in your home institution where you may be able to draw on the assistance of a central conference office and you may have recourse to funding.
The list of your costs may include:
- keynote speakers' travel and accommodation expenses
- session chairs’ travel and accommodation expenses
- students’ bursaries
- conference packs
- secretarial staff
- porters and security staff
- room bookings
- rental of technical equipment
- meals and refreshments
- office costs (photocopying, postage)
- administrative charge
Your income in order to cover these costs may come from:
- grants from sponsors
- participants’ registration fees
- speakers’ and chairs' registration fees - if you decide to charge them (this is sometimes difficult with invited speakers. It is crucial to make clear when you first make contact what the financial arrangements will be since this can vary from meeting all expenses and offering a fee to meeting no expenses and charging conference registration - or anything inbetween.)
- book displays
- (possible) collateral events
- The British Academy (but usually not for one-day conferences).
The most important source of finance, after the participants’ fees, is obviously represented by sponsors. The first place to contact from this point of view is your own university, that is, your own department or post-graduate school. It is essential that you approach them as early as possible in your conference planning. But it is also possible to receive funding from national bodies, such as for example the Society for Italian Studies, embassies and cultural institutions. For their contact details click on to our language resource pages.
If your university supports a special centre or society dealing with the subject of your conference - or if it is part of a larger consortium of universities, it is worthwhile contacting these institutions, too. Finally, do not forget that you can refer to British branches of any private company or bank of the country whose culture your conference is devoted to. Certain foreign companies may pay attention to cultural events concerning their country of origin.
1.5 Call for papers
Researchers regularly receive – directly or indirectly – 'calls for papers' , which means that yours will have to be catchy, neat and informative if you want to attract their interest.
It should indicate in the clearest way:
- aim of the conference
- format of the conference (symposium, workshop, round-table, etc.)
- issues to be covered
- date and venue
- length of papers
- deadline for provisional titles and abstracts (as well as a word limit)
- address for submission
- fees (if any)
- scholarships (if any)
As to its dissemination, it should be sent to
- academic departments and centres dealing with the subject of your conference
- specialized mailing lists and newsgroups
1.6 Technical assistance
An increasing number of researchers use audio-visual facilities to present their papers (from the traditional overhead projector to the more spectacular Powerpoint slide show), which means that you have to take this aspect into account when you select the venue for your conference. Ask your speakers well in advance which facilities they might require. This might range from video and sound facilities to computer and network connections. Checking that these facilities are available at the venue of your choice, is not enough: you will also have to enquire whether the institution hosting your conference is able to put some technical assistance at your disposal - microphones and computers have a well-known disposition to stop working when you need them most. If at all possible, familiarize yourself with the audio visual equipment (and do it before the day of the conference!).
1.7 Lunch and hospitality
The first rule about hospitality is not to make any promises that you cannot keep. This said, hospitality can include many aspects, such as:
- travel expenses (from airplane to underground tickets)
- conference fees
- information material (e.g., city guides)
All these items can be offered
- both to speakers/chairs and participants
- only to speakers/chairs
- only to keynote speakers
In fact, very few organizations can afford to cover all these expenses, just as very few scholars expect to be refunded for every single expense. What really matters is that you (as well as your call for papers and invitations) are clear and precise from the beginning and that what you promise reflects the level of the registration fee. If you set a high fee, participants expect more, so again be precise about what is and is not included.
If you offer to reimburse expenses, remember to ask speakers to retain receipts or other documentary evidence of their expenditure. This is normally required by sponsoring bodies before they will release funds. It is essential to make clear to speakers what sort of expense you will cover (economy air fares, second class rail fares, no taxis, etc) at the outset. Try to avoid offering to book incoming speakers' travel: this is time-consuming and very unlikely to result in cost savings. On the other hand, conference offices can sometimes book local accommodation very cheaply.
Remember to include regular breaks for tea and coffee, and to allow adequate time for lunch. If possible, a reception at the end of a conference provides an opportunity for more relaxed socializing. Make sure that it is made clear to all participants beforehand (speakers, chairs, delegates) whether their registration fee includes refreshments.
Participants often welcome the opportunity of breaks in the programme to explore the city and its monuments and/or to debate at more leisure specific issues and exchange opinions with individual speakers. They will appreciate finding in their conference package a list of major cultural institutions, events (such as concerts and exhibitions) and bookshops.
These are not only a pleasant distraction but in some case can also present a source of income. They are commonly placed in the hall, or, when possible, near refreshments, so that participants can have a look at books on sale between sessions.
Anyone who has tried to organize a conference knows that the hardest thing to establish is the programme. This often goes through several different stages or order of speakers before being finished. One effective way of controlling this variability might be:
- Set out the aims of the conference and its format (symposium, workshop, round-table, etc.).
- Set out issues to be covered.
- Identify a proper title.
- Release the call for papers and send all personal invitations.
- Collect abstracts from speakers (rejecting - if necessary - those extraneous to the conference subject or devoid of any academic relevance) and confirmations of availability from chairs.
- Verify what technical devices each speaker needs.
- Verify if and how many overseas speakers you can afford.
- Divide speakers (and chairs) into coherent sessions on the basis of the subject of their paper, taking into account the technical devices they asked for when assigning the rooms and remembering to allow time for questions and for refreshments breaks.
- Send speakers and chairs the draft programme and ask them for confirmation.
- Type and release the definitive programme. At that point, your programme should not change any more, but it is possible (or rather, probable) that this will turn out to be necessary. This is the reason why you should not remain without a contingency plan.
1.9 Conference pack
Even if some of your conference participants know each other, they are unlikely to be familiar with the host institution, so it is important that you offer them a conference pack as soon as they arrive. This kind of pack should include:
- the definitive programme
- abstracts if possible
- name tags
- a map of the conference rooms
- a map of the city
- a list of all participants (with their e.mail)
and may include:
- a list of useful telephone numbers (starting from your own and including those of hotels, taxicab services, medical assistance, etc.)
- the list of major cultural institutions and events currently available in the city, including advice on where to eat
- some white paper
- a pen
- fliers from external organizations (publishers etc), who have paid for the inclusion of their publicity.
1.10 Conference offices
You can plan a conference by yourself, but you cannot conduct it alone: you need some assistance. You can obviously ask your postgraduate colleagues for help, but if you do not get any positive support, try to turn to your own home institution (or, to the institution that is going to house the conference), since many academic institutions offer this kind of service through a central conference office. You can delegate any duty from the early stages, but some help becomes absolutely essential when the conference starts, since at that stage you will not be able to deal with everything by yourself.
1.11 What to keep in mind during the conference
Once the machinery has been set in motion, you should be able to reduce your tasks to:
- smiling, always and whatever may happen
- receiving speakers, chairs and all other participants
- being present whenever possible at all lectures and events
- indicating who to turn to for assistance
if possible leaving to assistants (postgraduate students, friends who offered their help) the duty of
- registering participants
- distributing conference packs
- collecting conference fees
- collecting receipts for all payments to be refunded
- receiving people during all conference sessions
- giving general information
- checking daily that direction signs are on/in place
- solving minor inconveniences
- reporting to you (and to all other organizers) any major inconveniences.
1.12 Things to do after the conference
A conference is only finished on the last day of its programme for the speakers. For organizers its conclusion simply marks the beginning of a new series of tasks to be carried out. You must take care in particular of three bodies: your institution and any other sponsor, speakers and the research community.
Your institution and any other sponsor
All institutions which have supported your conference with financial assistance have obviously the right to be informed about the conference itself and, above all, to check if and how you spent their financial contributions (not to mention that many sponsors do not make their funds available until they receive these items of information). You have therefore to let them have as soon as possible:
- your final report (taking into account both informal feedback and evaluation forms)
- the final budget of the conference.
Major academies and graduate schools may have their own forms to fill in, which means that you cannot simply send the same documents to all your sponsors, but you have to adapt your data to the format specifically required by each institution.
A special group is constituted by conference speakers and chairs. If you undertook to cover their travel (or other) expenses, it is a good rule to refund them quickly. Do not forget to ask them for receipts, since you have to present those documents, in your turn, to your sponsors.
A completely different kind of obligation to speakers is the publication of their papers, since it does not only concern the people who took an active part in the conference, but the research community as a whole. However, all your efforts to keep single speakers informed of any progress of the proceedings will be greatly appreciated.
The research community
By organizing a conference you may incur one or both of the following obligations.
- If you are not yet finished with your PhD, you could start thinking about the publication of the proceedings, eg A newsletter, bulletin or internet publication. However, conference proceedings in the UK are very difficult to place with publishers and the whole exercise can be very frustrating even for established scholars. The habit of spending years and years to complete the publication of proceedings is unfortunately widespread and must be avoided at any price when you are still involved in writing up your thesis. Set a clear deadline for the speakers and when it is getting close remind them of their commitment. At the same time verify the availability of the publisher, so that the publication of the proceedings can start as soon as you collect all the contributions. From this point of view an effective solution can be represented by the publication of the proceedings as a special issue of a periodical dealing with the conference subject. This will reduce printing costs and speed up its process in its entirety.
- If you have just completed your PhD, you will be in a better situation to organize the publication of your conference proceedings (so read the above paragraph), but you may also want to think about promoting a possible follow-up conference. This will allow you to consolidate the results of the first one (especially from the point of view of networking), and a fair chunk of your previous sponsors are likely to be ready to renew their support for your project.