What follows is an account of my experience organising a student conference and some tips and advice as to what to prioritise and avoid, and most importantly was it worth it? By no means is this an exhaustive guide to planning and organising the perfect conference, as this will differ markedly based on what type of conference you are taking on: national, international, student led, multiple day, single day, low budget etc. Our conference was to be student-focused, with a relatively small budget (< £3,000), had to include participation from all students within our cohort (around 20), and the rest was really left to our own imagination.
The first key step for us was deciding on a theme, and probably more importantly who was going to manage our team and the organisation. Although we all study topics related to the natural environment, our PhD’s vary massively – from water quality and volcanoes to microbes and animal behaviour. We decided to pick the title ‘Our Changing Planet’ given that most of us could relate our work to some element of environmental or human induced changes. As to who would lead proceedings, it was fairly obvious from the start that being the most enthusiastic, I should take the lead on organising things and divvying out tasks. As a piece of advice (though my team were great): team selection and task assignment is probably one of the most important steps to get right from the start. If you have several people all chomping at the bit with loads of ideas and momentum, it’s important to assign one person who ultimately has the final say in key decisions and who can assign the right tasks to the right people. In our case I inadvertently took on the lion’s share of jobs, which was surprisingly time consuming and stressful.
The second point I think is good to consider is to be realistic and manage expectations. If your budget is small, don’t go looking around venues that will clearly be out of your price range. We ended up holding ours at the University as ‘training’ which saved us a lot of money, as essentially it was free. Don’t underestimate how much things cost – when you start working out catering prices and conference packs you will be staggered at how much these add up to – even in-house services. Deciding on how many people your conference will cater for is particularly important, as this dictates a lot of other aspects. You also need to decide whether to charge a nominal fee to attend the conference. As ours was part of our training, we felt that we had to make it free for everyone. Holding a conference over several days also adds to the cost massively and has other considerations too, such as what is a reasonable start and finish time and what are the accommodation options nearby. Another point to make on the managing expectations front is deciding who your key speakers are going to be – or who is likely to agree to speak at your conference! As I said, being overly enthusiastic, I thought that the most obvious person to open our conference was Sir David Attenborough. This may sound silly, but I don’t think you should completely rule people out because you think they surely have better things to do with their time. I actually had a very sweet hand written reply from David, saying sorry but he wouldn’t be able to make it. We did get the TV presenter Professor Alice Roberts to agree to give a talk, but unfortunately we later had to move the conference date (another thing to be sure of from the outset) and her schedule wasn’t free.
Lastly, getting people to respond to emails is harder than it may sound, so allow plenty of time and send reminders! This applies to things like arranging a date that most people can make, food requirements (allergies etc.), title and abstracts, chairing sessions and poster submission (especially if you are offering to print them). There are also a whole host of other small things that you can underestimate the timeframes for: designing and printing conference packs, website creation (we didn’t have one in the end, but this is a good idea), twitter handle, venue maps, audio/visual, signage, poster boards, and the list goes on.
This is all sounding a little bit shambolic right now, but we did manage to pull off a great two day conference and had some really good feedback from attendees. Our conference packs and hang labels looked great, and the food went down a treat. We focused our guest speakers on public engagement, something which was and still is a hot topic for PhD students to consider getting involved with. We had a speaker from our media team at the University and a news reporter for the BBC as well as a Professor of engaged research from one of our partner Universities. We invited students to participate who were not part of our funding cohort, which worked really well by giving them experience of presenting in a relaxed environment and also widening the scope.
So, was it worth it? For me I would say yes it was, I gained a great deal of experience in managing my time and others, and maximum respect for those who organise the huge week long, international conferences which must require an enormous team. If you were to ask me however, would I organise another conference, my answer may be different! I hope I haven’t put anyone off too much though, as it was a great experience, and good luck if you do decide to give it go.
Lucy is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham, where she studies the social and genetic networks of colonial seabirds.