Size isn’t everything: organising small conferences

The late afternoon sky drizzled softly on Manchester. The pubs along Oxford Road gently creaked with the weight of workers sinking pints following a long week of doing whatever it is that people who work in Manchester do. Sat in a beer garden, I relaxed and pondered the exceptionally busy previous 48 hours, the main feature of which had been the effective and successful running of a small conference. Having waved goodbye to 50 happy delegates, I had the time to reflect on what had made it successful.

The small conference in question was a joint meeting of two British Ecological Society special interest groups: Plants-Soils-Ecosystems and the Plant Environmental Physiology Group. Entitled ‘Carbon Cycling: from Plants to Ecosystems’, with its own snappy hashtag for the social media savvy (#psepepg), the conference took place over two days, attracted around 55 delegates, and featured three keynote speakers, 21 talks and 10 posters. After a lead-up lasting months, the two days of talking, problem-solving networking, coffee-drinking and chaperoning passed in a flash. My co-organisers, Ellen Fry, Sarah Pierce and I (I should emphasise that Ellen and Sarah did all of the really tricky bits of the organisation, like dealing with the budget and organising space and food), have received lots of positive feedback about the meeting since.

Lots of our delegates said that they’d liked the inclusive nature of the meeting. Its small size and demographic, comprised of many PhD students and early-career researchers with a generous smattering of more senior academics, meant delegates could be confident of having a chance to speak to everyone over the coffee breaks and lunches. With just 21 talks, we could be generous with coffee breaks, providing plenty of opportunities for people to chat and particularly for early-career researchers to interact with our keynote speakers. The format worked well and had been tested previously, at a similar meeting last year; it was helpful to have Sarah on the organising committee, because she’d co-organised that conference. Another important issue is access for disabled delegates – something that we probably didn’t address well enough and will certainly be higher up the agenda next time.

There was little I could do ‘on the ground’ (jobs like scoping out the rooms, organising poster boards, booking the food) from Dublin, so I contributed by promoting the conference on social media and various email lists, and designing the abstract submission process and programme booklet. Google Forms provided a straightforward, free method for collecting abstracts online: each response on the form was sent to a Google Docs spreadsheet, making it very easy to keep track of abstracts and, importantly, difficult to lose them. All the abstracts were in one place and in roughly the same format, ready to slot into the programme booklet. The only stressful element of the process was that, with a week to go, we’d still only received a handful of abstracts, mostly for posters – cue more frantic promotion! Of course, everyone submitted their abstracts on the last day before the deadline. We had a similar experience getting people to register for the conference, using Eventbrite – the deadline had to be extended several times. Academics, it seems, don’t like to commit (though I suspect a lot of the late additions were a result of summer holidays and fieldwork seasons – timing is important)! One thing to note is that, for many academics with families, travelling on a weekend is not an option.

So what are the perks of organising a small conference for the PhD student or early-career researcher?

  • They’re relatively easy to set-up, particularly through a society like the British Ecological Society. There are lots of people with expertise who can help.
  • You get lots of interaction, including taking the keynote speakers out for pre-conference beers, and of course chatting with all the delegates. It’s a great way of getting a snapshot of the research currently happening in your field.
  • Providing you have people who are willing to help, the organisation need not take over your life, though it probably will for the couple of weeks prior to the conference. Bearing this in mind, as long as the meeting stays small, the benefits outweigh the temporary hassle, and it’ll look great on your CV.

What went well?

  • Everybody came – we had no drop-outs, and one person came all the way from the USA!
  • We included panel discussions at the end of each four talk session, and these worked surprisingly well – I think the inclusive atmosphere at the meeting contributed to this.
  • As well as three organisers, we had enough unofficial helpers, in the form of PhD students and post-docs at the University of Manchester, who could be roped in to help out with running the registration desk and shepherding delegates.
  • Facilities existed for recording the talks, so we took advantage of this and put the talks online – a handy resource for people who couldn’t make it.
  • Live-tweeting the conference, and packaging the tweets up afterwards as a curated Storify story, seemed to be popular.

What was difficult?

  • Elements of the abstract submission / registration process were slightly fraught due to their last-minute nature. I’m glad that we allowed plenty of time for these: abstract submission two months in advance, registration one month in advance, and keynote speakers confirmed three months in advance.
  • Getting the food right turned out to be a nightmare for Ellen, who had to do battle with the catering department. It’s worth thinking about the format of food you’d like people to eat – something that is quick to dish out and mobile is best for interaction.
  • Although the venue was generally excellent, there was one stumbling block in the form of a door between the auditorium and the posters / food that could only be opened by certain people, which lead to a lot of ferrying delegates to and fro.
  • A broken-down train on the morning of the second day prevented some of our delegates from arriving on time, but luckily we were able to shuffle the schedule around so that nobody missed their chance to present.

Organising small conferences can be exhausting, but it’s also great fun and a very good way of meeting lots of people and broadening / deepening your network. I thoroughly recommend it!

This post also appears on Trinity College Dublin’s EcoEvo blog.

Academia and the infinite horizon

Last week I took part in a very interesting NERD Club (run by @EcoEvoTCD‘s @nhcooper123 – check out their marvellous blog for loads of useful information and perspectives on all things ecology and evolution) session on alternatives to academic careers. In a competitive field, making the choice between a traditional academic career and something that, well, isn’t that, is increasingly becoming a talking point among PhD students and early career researchers. The perceived process of getting a foothold in an academic career is frequently accompanied with expectations of long hours, continual transit between short-term contracts, and much heaping of responsibility – whether these perceptions are correct or not, the result is an increase in conversation about the alternatives.

As I fall into the ‘early career researcher’ box, I can’t really contribute much in the way of hindsight or perspective. However, there were two guests at NERD Club who could – they had both done PhDs and post-docs, and now had non-academic (but, crucially, not non-scientific or non-research) jobs outside of the university circuit. This first fact was interesting in itself, suggesting that, without actually trying a post-doc, it’s difficult to know if you’ll like it or not. If you’ve made the effort to get a PhD, it seems worth the further effort to try the academic route, to decide whether or not it’s for you, unless you’re completely certain that it isn’t for you. My own experience of a post-doc has been quite different to that of my PhD, in ways that I didn’t think it would be.

I got the impression that choosing a non-academic career involved a compromise between the ‘flexibility’ and ‘infinite horizons’ theoretically offered by academic posts, and something with more security, but less autonomy. This post isn’t intended to express a certain position on the issue – rather, I’d prefer it to prompt some discussion. Please do comment below if you’d like to. There were several other useful hints and pointers to come out of the meeting, which I’ll list below.

  • A ‘non-academic’ career doesn’t necessarily preclude ‘doing science’ – it could just mean that the pressure to publish is reduced. However, it might also mean that you have less freedom over the things that you do.
  • Consider approaching an organisation that isn’t a university. Kew Gardens, or the National Biodiversity Network, for example.
  • Do think about career alternatives – decide what you’d be trying to do if you weren’t considering an academic job, and start acquiring the skills that you’d need if you were to apply for a role in that field.
  • One particularly focused way of obtaining the skills you might need is to volunteer. Personally, I’m interested in science communication – I’ve managed to develop some of the relevant skills through maintaining this blog, along with others, maintaining social media profiles for the organisations that I’ve worked with, and maintaining websites. You may be able to pick up some of the skills you need in a way that enhances your current role.
  • The ScienceCareers Individual Development Plan site might be work a try.
  • There are some useful materials on Versatile PhD.
  • Dynamic Ecology has some interesting perspectives on the matter:

* It stands for ‘Networks in Ecology/Evolution Research Dynamic
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