For many early career academics, having a conference to their name is seen as a great way of adding something eye-catching and impressive to their CV. Conferences offer many benefits to the organizer – ideally, the opportunity to build your network, to enhance your reputation, to immerse yourself in intellectual stimulation, and possibly, even, the chance to organize a publication from the conference itself. But that’s in an ideal world. In reality, a conference (even the smallest, most humble colloquium) will make many demands on your time, patience, and diplomatic and organizational skills. Here’s a brief rundown of a few tips gained from experience:
Check your institutional support
Consult with your Head of School or Director of Research for their views on your conference plans. They will in all likelihood agree readily to your idea – as long as it fits with the department’s research areas, and doesn’t clash with another event of which you had no knowledge. You will also need to get advice from them on logistics. Will they encourage your colleagues to attend, for instance? Is there a University conference office? Can a member of admin staff be seconded? Are there any postgraduates to act as guides or assistants? Is there an international office to help with such matters as visa applications?
Conferences require funding to pay for costs such as keynote speakers’ travel and accommodation (think about whether you want to invite speakers from abroad, for instance). Consumables will need to be covered, as will accommodation and catering costs. You will need to find out whether there are internal conference support funds you can apply to, and/or whether you should seek matched funding from a research council or other body. In addition, you will need to sit down with your conference office, and work out the cost of attending the conference for each delegate. Think of any extras you might want to include – will you be offering delegates a trip to a local museum, for instance? If so, can you negotiate a group rate with the museum? All extras will need to be factored in to your costs.
There is little point in holding conference and not having some sort of vetting procedure. You may need to set firm limits on the number of delegates, and so could consider making it invitation only. Conversely, you may wish to invite a number of eminent keynote speakers, and ask others to send in proposals for panels, to a set deadline. This is a good way of ensuring that your conference is kept to a manageable size.
Make the boundaries of your role clear
To delegates you must act as the external face of the conference, but if you can, make sure you have a team of assistants who will cover various aspects of the process. Make it clear to your fellow conference attendees, for instance, that you will be responsible for the academic side of things, and that colleague X is the person to approach with details about registration, or funding, or dietary requirements.
Be prepared for the unexpected
The unexpected always happens at conferences. Have contingency plans in place – for example, be ready to step in (or have a colleague step in) to chair a panel if someone drops out, make sure you have told estate staff in the relevant building that you are holding a conference, know where the nearest photocopier is, have a spare USB stick to hand, and above all, have the contact number of an IT member of staff on speed dial!
The morning after
A conference isn’t over till it’s really over. And that can go on for weeks or even months afterwards, particularly if you decide to pursue the publication route.
In short, if you plan to take on a conference, be prepared for it to take up much more time than you expected, and to throw up all sorts of issues – logistical as well as intellectual - that you may not have considered. But above all, enjoy it! Conferences are a great way to make new professional connections, and to discuss your subject in depth with your colleagues in the wider community.