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Maximizing a Student-Run Conference’s Potential

How to coordinate a successful event.

May 26, 2016

Jordan Reed and Leanne Horinko are PhD candidates in history at Drew University. Jordan tweets @jordanreed14 and Leanne tweets @leemused.




Graduate student-run conferences can be problematic. Often for the students in attendance, the program serves little purpose other than to fill out a CV. There tends to be  little cohesion between sessions and individual presentations. We can blame this trend on lack of preparation or organization, but these conferences do not have to be spaces of academic tedium. When students treat conference planning as a means to facilitate a meaningful conversation, and follow through with meticulous organization, student-run conferences can make significant contributions to their field.


In March we held Crossroads: The Future of Graduate History Education on our campus at Drew University in Madison, NJ. As graduate students, we read some recent literature on shifts in graduate history education and started to compare these changes to our own graduate history program. Our enthusiasm quickly turned our conception of the event from an early-evening symposium to a two-day conference among a broad network of history professionals, faculty, students and program administrators. Having experience in marketing and event planning, but not conference planning per se, we set our attendance goal at a modest 40 attendees. Then our program director challenged us to get 100 people to attend. Challenge accepted!


In the end we spent a little over six months planning and promoting Crossroads. We hosted 56 presenters over two days for 112 total conference attendees. We had 530+ tweets about the conference during those two days and over 200 views of the keynotes and featured sessions we livestreamed immediately following the conference.


Graduate student conference planning has a long tradition at Drew to varying degrees of success. So why were we so successful?


Finding a good topic matters. The American Historical Association’s Career Diversity Initiative represents a major force in raising awareness of the need for graduate history programs to adapt to changing job markets. A dedicated group of thought leaders outside of the AHA also contributed to the discussion at Crossroads, most notably Robert Townsend, Leonard Cassuto, Maren Wood, and Jennifer Polk. Together these leaders form the core of a discussion that has been percolating and gaining momentum for the last five years with concerned deans, program directors, and graduate students. Finding a topic with legs matters, and we certainly benefited from our forebearers. Very early in the planning we reached out to each of these parties asking if they would participate. Fortunately for us, they all agreed and even helped with questions along the way.


You have to know your audience. We set out to identify which segments of the historical profession are tuned into the discussion on the future of graduate education. Graduate students, administrators, and faculty members are the loudest proponents of change. As a result of identifying their key areas of interest, our call for papers focused on career preparation, faculty and administrative challenges, and the student experience. We added our own Drew twist within this framework, highlighting the public intellectual and the digital humanities, and served the broader profession’s interests.


Navigating your own institution is essential. It is important to know which individuals and offices need to be kept in the loop about conference developments. More importantly, keeping others abreast of your actions will solicit valuable feedback. For Crossroads, our call for papers was developed with input from all Drew University history faculty members. Our promotional strategy was assisted by our communications office’s input on content and logistics and the personal networks of faculty members and administrators. Talking to our IT department led us to livestream sessions and keynotes. Collaborating within your institution is valuable experience for jobs inside and outside of academia.


Having a promotional mindset goes a long way. Once we knew our constituency, we set out to make sure everyone knew about our event. We planned a monthly email blast, social media hashtag, website and print materials. We built out an email list of every single history faculty member across the United States--yes, you read that correctly. Then, we identified a wider group of thought leaders and added them to the list. Each month we sent out updates about the conference. First was the call for papers, followed by keynote, travel grant, plenary session, and featured panel announcements. We aimed for consistency in imagery between our emails, website, postcards and conference programs. We made sure to have a dedicated conference email address and website from the very beginning. Forming this comprehensive strategy made the message clear to everyone.


Service is also vital. Getting 100 people to a conference is great, but turnout is not all that matters. We had to make sure the conference was enjoyable for everyone. For us, this involved airport trips, driving to and from the hotel, and many quick email responses. We made it a rule that if at all possible we would respond to any inquiries within an hour and decided attendees would be well fed with breakfast, lunch, and a reception. Weeks later, we still feel guilty for failing to supply coffee on the first day! Trying to anticipate your attendees’ needs will cause less stress during the event.


Put accessibility above all else. We cannot overstate this enough. The people who attend your conference are not your only audience. We created  #FutureofHistory so anyone not at Drew with us could follow along. The conference hashtag allowed us to begin the conference discussion months before the actual event, and we posted related articles using the hashtag. Most importantly, our presenters used it when they posted their articles or promoted their sessions at Crossroads. Social media is your friend in conference planning. In the final months, we also set up each keynote presentation and featured sessions to be livestreamed across the country. Indeed, the reach of the conference extended far beyond our New Jersey campus. Furthermore, it now resides on the University’s livestream page for anyone to watch at their convenience.


In the end, all conferences are made or broken by a community of attendees.  A successful conference is a group effort by event organizers, presenters, and volunteers who are concerned with the issues. In the AHA Career Diversity plenary session we hosted, the University of Chicago’s Career Diversity Development Officer Lindsey Martin said, “It’s not enough that if you build it, they will come. You have to explain why you built it and why they should attend.” The same is true for conference planning. You must construct and articulate your purpose to be effective.


What strategies have you found successful in your conference planning?


[Image by Lee Cullivan courtesy of Flickr used under Creative Commons license]

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