Organizing a conference

a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

1 Introduction

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:

  • cost
  • 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.