Top Ten Tips: Running an Academic Conference

     
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By Dr. Catherine Armstrong

As a junior academic one of the best ways to get known in your field is to host your own conference. This can be done jointly with someone else or as a solo effort, but whichever way you choose to approach it you will find it hard but rewarding work. Here are some tips on organising and running a great conference.

  1. Choose your topic carefully
  2. Get your institution on board
  3. Seeking outside funding
  4. Invited speakers, or a call for papers?
  5. Devising the programme
  6. Promoting your conference
  7. Getting big names to attend
  8. Don’t try to do everything yourself
  9. Technical help on the day
  10. Food and drink

1. Choose your topic carefully

So, you want to run your own conference? Choosing the subject matter is the most important decision. If you make the parameters too narrow then no one will want to come, on the other hand something too broad will make the conference incoherent and unfocussed and again no one will want to come. So, make sure that your subject is popular enough to attract speakers and delegates, but also offers a fresh approach. There are a lot of conferences out there, especially in the summer months. Yours will have to be different to attract a good crowd.

2. Get your institution on board

If you are a postgraduate or a member of staff at a university, chances are you will be hosting your conference using their facilities and attracting people trading on their name as well as your own, so get them on board early. This is especially important with the administrative staff in your own department and the university’s dedicated conference team if you have one. They will make the job of organising the conference much easier, so it’s important to establish a good working relationship from the start.

3. Seeking outside funding

Your event will be more prestigious if you can attract extra funding. You could invite an extra speaker, offer a drinks reception or simply take some of the burden off your university. Each different discipline has its own funding bodies for this sort of money – your conference might be eligible to receive this supplement. But think outside the box, too. You could ask a commercial company or a local firm with connections to your discipline.

4. Invited speakers, or a call for papers?

Getting people to come to speak at your conference is another task that needs a lot of thought. Do you want to invite particular big names to come and speak? This is a good idea because you are in control of the programme from the start and can suggest topics that they cover. However, invited speakers can be expensive, and you always run the risk of them having a prior engagement. Submitting a call for papers will attract much more interest and will make people aware of your conference, but you are then not in control of who comes forward to propose a paper.

5. Devising the programme

Conference-goers often find the programme has not been given enough thought. Sometimes the event feels too rushed, other times there is too much space in the programme and people want to get on with things more quickly. This is a difficult skill to perfect the first time, so ask for the advice of someone who has run their own conference before. You will also have to decide whether to have one single strand of speakers or to accommodate parallel sessions. Parallel sessions can be unpopular, but are an obvious way of giving as many people as possible the chance to speak.

6. Promoting your conference

Again, each subject area has its own websites and mailing lists which can be used to advertise your conference. You should be familiar with those in your own field. But do not forget to promote your conference in plenty of time; academics get booked up very early, especially in the holiday times, so advertise at least 6 months in advance if you can. If you do have the programme finalised then publicise that too, as people like to know what they will be listening to in advance.

7. Getting big names to attend

It may be that your conference is designed for postgraduates, but it is always helpful to have some eminent scholars present to offer advice and encouragement to others. By having a strong programme and advertising well in advance you should attract some top class scholars. If you have some world-renowned speakers these will bring in many more people in the audience.

8. Don’t try to do everything yourself

When it comes to the last few days before the conference and the event, you can’t hope to do everything by yourself. If your institution has a conferencing department they will take care of things such as payment and preparing registration packs, but if you are running the show yourself then recruit an army of colleagues or students to help you. They will usually be happy to do so, especially if it means they can get into the conference for free!

9. Technical help on the day

Make sure that you know where the nearest IT advisor is located on the day. Someone’s memory stick, laptop, OHP or slide is bound not to work and it can really hold things up if no one in the room can solve the problem. If your conference is being held at the weekend in a university building you may have to arrange for technical support to be present in advance.

10. Food and drink

Obviously the speakers are the main event of your day, but the food and drink and socialising are important too, so don’t go for the cheapest option with these. This is often what people remember most about a conference! And the socialising times are when some of the most fruitful discussions take place, away from the classroom and in the bar or restaurant. So allow plenty of time and provide plenty of sustenance for these occasions.

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