Organising a conference – how hard can it be?

I love attending conferences.

You get to meet other people interested in your field of work, listen to fascinating presentations, and all of the conferences I’ve been to so far have had pretty decent food (this is very important!). So, last October when the University of Surrey were looking for volunteers to organise their post-graduate researcher (PGR) conference, I willingly offered my services. Had I known how much work was involved, I may have thought twice.

The PGR conference is a two day event held every year and the idea is that it’s run by and for PGRs across the entire university. This includes people involved in subjects such as chemistry, physics, the arts, humanities, health sciences, social sciences, business, politics, economics, law and pretty much anything else you can think of. It’s a broad spectrum, but this is one of the unique things about the conference. Its aim is to allow researchers from different areas of the university to hear about other work going on that may lead to possible collaboration that may never have happened without the conference.

I naively walked into the first committee meeting thinking that it would be a good experience, as well as an extra tick on my CV, without having to do too much work. Oh, how wrong I was. Somehow I ended up being deputy chairman of the organising committee and the next 6 months of my life were completely consumed by the conference. The other committee members and I had a never ending stream of emails to reply to, meetings to attend and logistical nightmares to try and figure out.

Saying that, the conference this year was a huge success. It was run over two days on the university campus. We had 4 guest speakers from a range of backgrounds; over 100 poster presentations from PGRs at the university,;over 40 oral presentations across two separate streams each day; a dedicated arts session that allowed for live performances, as well as workshops set up to help aid research development in areas such as networking and enterprising. We had Dr Ben Goldacre come to speak at our evening event on quality and rigour in research, as well as hosting a debate among senior academics on ‘what is good quality research?’. We also had the final of our 3 minute thesis competition, in which students have one static slide and exactly 3 minutes to present their entire PhD (not an easy feat!). A new social enterprise was launched that provides financial help and training for PGRs wishing to set up and start their own social enterprise. We also had to organise over 100 academic judges for best poster prize and best oral presentation, and we held a ‘peoples choice’ award, as voted for by the audience.

Needless to say, we had a full on 6 months prior to the conference and two days of absolute mania during it, but it was worth it.

Fortunately, we had a fantastic bunch of dedicated people involved in the committee, as well as the invaluable support of our Research and Development Programme (RDP) team who saved us many times from near implosion. We also had a chairman who was proactive, dedicated and had the energy and enthusiasm levels only previously thought achievable through the use of some form of pharmacological aid (though he adamantly denies this!). Without the combined efforts of everyone involved in the organisation of the conference, it simply wouldn’t have happened. This was certainly an event that highlighted the importance of good team work, and what it can achieve.

Though the work put in to the conference was of a magnitude I didn’t expect, the rewards were also more than that I anticipated. I learnt a lot about myself; I found I could work a lot harder than I realised; my confidence grew from contacting and hosting guest speakers; meeting with Deans, the deputy Vice-chancellor and the Vice Chancellor of the University; liaising with the PGR presenters and speaking in front of large audiences. All things I’ve shied away from in the past and not had the confidence to do. I made new friends through being part of the committee and really enjoyed the comradery of pulling together to make the conference happen.

I got to see the amazing research happening across the university that I would never have known about, and see the interest and passion that the PGRs have in their own work. At one point one presenter grabbed me while I was walking past their poster and said “Let me tell you about revenge porn!”. I must have stood and spoken with her for about 45 minutes while we discussed her research. Their was a tangible buzz during the poster presentation sessions, seeing PGRs, postdocs, lecturers, tutors and professors mingling together and discussing the important work happening all across the university.

So, for anyone considering organising a conference I would say go for it! Make sure you’ve got a great team around you to help; be prepared to take on a lot more work than you think and have a lot more issues than you could imagine to face. But if all goes well, when you’re sipping that stiff drink in celebration at the end of a successful conference with everyone else involved, it will all be worth it!

And, in keeping with my good record, the food was great!

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The 2015 conference committee ‘selfie’

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