Some colleagues and I were recently awarded some funding to organize a research workshop, in the format of a one-day conference. This sort of thing is worth thinking about for an ECR for a number of reasons. For one, it’s a good way of building networks and meeting the movers and shakers in your field. Second, organizing an event of your own provides tangible evidence of a number of important, but hard to quantify, drivers for promotion (leadership, industry engagement, outreach etc etc). The workshop itself was excellent experience on the day, and went really well. But the setup was an interesting process with a fairly steep learning curve, and there was quite a lot to reflect on afterward.
We were awarded money from the Experimental Psychology Society, and as you can see from our application here, we had a modest budget to work with. If you find yourself similarly fortunate, first take stock of what you have access to for free (i.e., provided by your university/department) and what you must pay an external company for. Usually finding a room will not cost you anything a university, but it’s not trivial to organize a big space during term time – we ended up in the University Council Chamber because there were no teaching spaces available (which was very plush). Also beware bespoke university conference facilities – even if they are in-house they probably are run as a profit-making enterprise, and will make you pay. Printing programmes and signs can usually be done for free. Poster boards, on the other hand, are unlikely to be freely available through your university, and if they are, they probably will be poor quality. Thankfully, there are plenty of companies which provide poster boards, but they are expensive, so budget accordingly. You should ask for these to be delivered as early as possible on the day (get in touch with campus services to facilitate entry to buildings and provide guidance about where to put a big van) and provide a diagram of the layout, otherwise you’ll have to babysit their setup. Similarly, make sure you have at least two (paid, probably undergraduate) helpers for the day, to staff the registration desk, guide people where they need to go, and help point the catering in the right direction.
Web presence is key for advertising and dealing with the logistics of abstract submission and registration, so spending some time looking at the options. Some universities will prefer this to be done in-house using their own platforms, which can mean that all registration fee-taking and abstract submission can be taken out of your hands (this could be a good thing and a bad thing). If you do it yourself, various free web platforms can automate much of the process – we used Wix to create our workshop website. Spend a bit of time testing it on various devices – particularly important is compatibility with phones/tablets. Of course, this is the perfect job to outsource to a skilled (and paid!) student helper, who will do a better job than you and gain more from the experience than you would.
If you’re providing food and refreshments, you’ll need this order placed about a week in advance, which means you’ll need to know final numbers and close registration around that time. Don’t take for granted the space you’ll need for all of this. We ended up with 2 rooms – one for the spoken portion and one for the lunch. Posters were split across both rooms. This worked well because it meant that the coffee break and lunch setup/clean-up wasn’t interfering with the ongoing talks. We could have been more explicit with the catering about exactly when we wanted the various clean-ups and setups to occur, but having the extra room really made all the difference to the available space to mill around, meet colleagues, and enjoy the posters.
We made a real effort to not over-stock the programme – our final schedule had a pair of hour-long coffee breaks, as well as an hour-long lunch break (all ostensibly opportunities to look at the posters) – over a third the day devoted to standing around not listening to talks. And we have no regrets on that front – although the talks were great, the real value of the workshop was getting to meet people properly. Similarly, the dinner after the workshop which we explicitly budgeted in our application gave the ECRs (and organizers) to really get to follow up on the science and get to know the speakers better.
Finally, some random thoughts/things we forgot/things we thought could have gone better for next time:
- There will probably be an administrative person who knows how to do everything you need – who to get in touch with to sort out cost, who to help book rooms, who to sort the catering. This kind of internal institutional knowledge is invaluable, particularly if you’re new. Find this person and make them your friend!
- Acquire a cost code and ideally a credit card for this cost code early in the process – you’ll likely have to pay for things up front.
- If you want name tags, figure this out in advance – the plastic holders cost money! Not having them wasn’t a disaster, but made small things like identifying the speakers that little bit more stressful.
- Do a final email sweep of those who have registered – particularly if your workshop if free. We had 76 register fairly rapidly, far outstripping our expectations, and had to turn away about 20 late requests. Only 50 showed up on the day, which was a real shame for those who we had to say no to. A quick email, or perhaps a token registration fee, would have changed things.