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What I Learned From Organizing a Conference

From innovation to interdisciplinarity

April 6, 2014

photo of graduate conferenceKaty Meyers is a PhD graduate students in Anthropology at Michigan State University. You can follow her @bonesdonotlie or Bones Don’t Lie.com

Conferences are an integral part of developing oneself as an academic, especially for a graduate student. The fact that there have been multiple articles about conferences from GradHacker further supports this. A conference provides the chance to practice public speaking, is a great way to get feedback on the progress of one’s work, and is one of the best ways to network with others in your field.

But what if you want to be on the other side of the conference? What if you want to organize one?

This past year I have been the chair of the Graduate Academic Conference (GAC) committee at Michigan State University. The GAC is an annual interdisciplinary conference put on by MSU’s Council of Graduate Students. Since it isn’t a national conference or an association based conference, it is a safe place for students to practice speaking, maybe test out a new presentation format, and to gain some constructive criticism on their work.

The conference occurred last week, and in the aftermath, there are some things I’ve learned. Jill Kelly wrote a GradHacker post about running a conference last year. Her advice was to have a mission, elect a strong organization committee you can delegate work to, be professional, and don’t stress over details. Having gone through this experience, there are a few things I’d like to add and provide the perspective from running an interdisciplinary conference.

1. Don’t be afraid to say no to committee volunteers: As Jill noted in her post, having a strong committee of people who are dedicated to the conference is important. These need to be people that you trust and who will get their work done. One person cannot do it all, so you need to rely on others. That being said - while some people may be enthusiastic, they may not have a schedule that allows them to participate in the organization, and they may not be able to complete the work. You need to learn when to say no to people. Instead, ask them to be a volunteer on the day of the conference, but say you would need a bigger commitment to be on the main committee. It isn’t a personal thing - conferences are a big deal and you need people you can rely on!

2. Take a presenter perspective: When you’re developing the conference, try to take the perspective of someone who is going to be there as a presenter. Presenters need to be clearly aware of where their rooms are located, what the goals of the conference are, and how to get in touch with organizers. But there are little details that are the difference between a good conference and a great conference. Having free wi-fi and a constant stream of easy to access beverages like coffee and water are important. Finding free parking and providing swag bags are also important details. While these things aren’t necessary, they can really improve the overall conference feel and make presenters more likely to hang around and network with one another.

3. Be innovative, but not too innovative: It’s fun to change things up a little, to put a twist into the conference experience to show this isn’t your average conference. But changing things too much can be problematic for people who have attended previous years. We chose to switch up presentation formats to focus on broad topics rather than dividing groups by discipline. The goal of this was to get graduate students to network across the campus and get them to see the wide diversity of work done on campus. We also added a 3-minute dissertation competition (originally developed by University of Queensland). The year prior to this one, the GAC committee tried to do digital presentations through You Tube so that people who couldn’t attend would have an opportunity to present- while the idea was creative, only a couple chose this type of presentation and overall it wasn’t successful. Some innovation works, some doesn’t- but its a good idea to try to show in some ways the conference is evolving and growing.

I’m glad that I organized a conference- but honestly it was one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a grad student. It is a ton of work! My final advice would be not to organize a conference during the same year as your comprehensive exams and proposal defense…

What is your advice for someone who wants to run a conference?

[Photo by the MSU Council of Graduate Students]




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