Classically Inclined

April 27, 2011

How to run a graduate student conference

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:31 am
Tags: ,

This post is the result of a #phdchat last week that looked at how to share your work at conferences. As a response to that, I reposted my observations and advice on how to behave at conferences last week. However, I also thought it might be helpful to share some notes I have about how to actually run a conference. In 2010, I organised the Rutgers Classics Graduate Conference, “All Roads Lead From Rome: The Classical (non)Tradition in Popular Culture”, which went very well indeed; afterwards, I wrote up some notes on what to do, what to expect, and how to generally go about things. These were written for the Rutgers institutional context, so things may differ in institutions in other countries and indeed in other American institutions, but they should provide a good starting point for anyone organising a graduate conference – or, for that matter, most other sorts of conference!

 I should mention that while in what follows, I suggest asking key members of faculty for help and support at particular stages, you should of course feel free to contact them at any point you would like their input or advice.  

A year before the conference

  • Decide you want to have a conference.
  • Decide on a topic.
  • Decide who will make up the organising team.
    • We found that a core team of three was perfect; we also included the Graduate Student Organisation chairs in financial discussions about GSO money.
    • It helps to break down tasks into areas of responsibility, so you know who is responsible for doing what. We broke tasks down into four areas: whole team tasks (e.g. deciding which abstracts to accept); financial and practical (e.g. booking rooms and dealing with caterers); participant management (e.g. responding to abstract submissions and processing advance registration); and publicity (e.g. poster and program design). 
  • Schedule the first strategy meeting.
  • Run the general idea past the graduate director.

Nine months before the conference

  • Have the first strategy meeting.
  • Think up a snappy conference title.
  • Decide on the structure of the conference.
    • We had three panels, an hour and a half each with three 15/20 minute papers, and plenty of time for discussion. We had one panel in the morning, the keynote speaker, lunch, two panels in the afternoon, a reception, and pizza and a film in the evening.
    • Other options include two day conferences, parallel panels (i.e. panels running at the same time in different rooms like the APA or CAAS), different organisation of panels/keynote, different kinds of post-conference entertainment.
  • Work out how many papers you will be able to include.
  • Decide on a range of possible dates.
    • Questions to ask – Friday or Saturday? Fall or spring term?
    • Make sure you don’t clash with graduate comprehensive exams, other scheduled lectures, Easter, Bank holidays, Thanksgiving or Spring Break. Also, beware April 15th, which for Americans is Tax Day.
    • Consider local weather conditions; make sure you avoid the possibility of snow or excessive heat.
    • Check the date with the graduate director and departmental administrator to make sure there will be no clash.
  • Work out a budget.
    • Things you will need to pay for: keynote’s honorarium; keynote’s travel expenses; printing costs for posters; photocopying costs for flyers and handouts; postage for posters; any venue hire costs; catering costs; incidentals like name tags and pens; bottles of water for the speakers.
    • Remember to include budget for service charges from catering.
  • Work out to whom you can apply for funding.
    • Graduate Student Organisation – the logisitics of how to ask for money from these bodies, and whether they have funds available, will vary between institutions, so get information from someone on the inside.
    • Local organisations who might have funding; we applied to the grants program of the Classical Association of the Atlantic States.
    • Department’s discretionary funds, if any.
    • Deans.
    • Other programs in the university who might want to be involved – for us, it was departments like Transliteratures, the other languages, the History department and so on. In the end, we didn’t need to approach them because our other sources of funding covered our needs.
  • Begin the process of applying to funders for the necessary money.
  • Create a shortlist of names for keynote speaker.
    • Run these by the graduate director before proceeding.         
    • Contact first preference keynote speaker.
      • Offer a range of dates and narrow down to what suits them best.
      • If refused, go to second choice, and so forth.
  • Write a Call for Papers.
    • Things to include – the word limit for abstracts (normally 300); the length that papers should last; that the conference is limited to graduate students only; date of the conference and name of confirmed keynote; any audio-visual needs (e.g. projector) must be specified in cover e-mail; not to include names on abstracts; who to send abstracts to; when people will be told if their abstract was successful.
    • Don’t forget to run the CFP past the graduate director and any other faculty members who may be interested.

Eight months before the conference

  • Circulate Call for Papers. For classicists, the following are appropriate venues:
    • APA on-line listings.
    • WCC (Women’s Classical Caucus) e-mail list.
    • E-mails sent to graduate directors of all local universities with Classics graduate programs.
    • Rogue Classicism.
    • The official Graduate Student Organisation venues.
    • Classicists@Liverpool.
    • CLASSICS-L@LSV.UKY.EDU
  • Locate a likely-looking graduate student or three from your department and gently suggest to them they would like to submit abstracts. It is very important to have the home team represented.
  • Set up a Facebook group; this will both publicise the CFP and the conference itself.
  • Make somebody responsible for processing received abstracts.
    • This should just be one person, for the sake of ease; their e-mail should be on the CFP.
    • They will need to keep a database of received abstracts, initially recording for each abstract the name of the person submitting; their university; their e-mail; the abstract title; any specified presentation needs; the date received and the date acknowledged.
    • They will need to acknowledge each e-mail, thanking the submitter for their abstract, letting them know it has been received, and confirming when they will hear the outcome of their submission.
    • They may also have to tell junior faculty that this is a graduate student conference and so they cannot submit. Be gracious and thank them for their interest.
    • It is easiest to create a running document of all the anonymised abstracts, so you have them in one place and in one format, rather than referring to lots of different documents. For this process, I highly recommend using Google Docs for ease of sharing material.

Six  months before the conference

  • Get a blog post up on the departmental blog, if you have one, publicising the CFP.
  • Decide on a possible venue and catering options.
    • You may need to make a field trip to check out the possible venues.
    • Your university’s student centres may hire you a room free of charge so long as it is done in the name of the official Student Organisation.
    • Things to think about – bathrooms, ease of travelling and parking, projectors, other practical issues.
  • Provisionally book the venue; it is vital to do this as soon as possible because they fill up fast.

 Five months before the conference

  • Send a Second Call for Papers about a month before the CFP deadline to remind people it is out there.

 Four months before the conference

  • Deadline for the CFP.
    • You may have to extend the deadline; be willing to do this, as it will make sure you get more papers. If you do, make sure you send the revised CFP to all the same venues as before.
    • The original deadline for our CFP was 31st November for a 9th April conference; we extended it to 12th December, and were able to let everyone know the outcome of their submissions by 31st December, as we had promised.
  • Create a shortlist of abstracts.
    • We did this over the now sadly departed Google Wave by sharing all the anonymous abstracts. We had 29 abstracts, and we wanted to create a shortlist of 15 to circulate to the graduates. We each cut 14 papers; anything with two strikes was out, which gave us a shortlist of 14.
  • Circulate the abstract shortlist for feedback from the graduate community as a whole.
    • This is, after all, the graduate conference, and people should feel they can give feedback and suggestions about their conference.
  • Decide which abstracts to reject and which to accept.
    • We did this in person after receiving graduate feedback.
  • E-mail people who submitted rejected abstracts that did not make the shortlist to let them know.
  • E-mail people who submitted accepted abstracts to let them know.
    • Ask them to confirm their attendance at the conference by a certain date.
    • We gave them a week.
    • Be prepared to chase if necessary.
  • Once all the accepted abstracts have confirmed their attendance, e-mail people who submitted rejected abstracts that made the shortlist to let them know.
    • If one of the accepted abstracts withdraws at this point, invite one of the shortlisters rather than rejecting them.
  • Finalise timetable of the conference.

 Three months before the conference

  • Create a draft program and poster.
  • Send draft program to all the speakers, including the keynote, for them to correct any typos and make sure that their university affiliation appears correctly.
  • Draft a document containing Useful Information for the speakers.
    • Useful things to include are driving directions; information about the nearest airports and train stations; local hotels; things to do in the evening if they arrive a day early.
    • You may want to offer the option of staying with a local graduate student if there are people willing to host.
  • Confirm the booking of the venue.
  • Decide on probable caterers.
    • Decide also on how many coffee breaks you want provided, as well as lunch and reception food. Don’t forget to cater for vegetarians!
    • Make sure you find out what the service charge will be.
  • Prepare a pre-registration form for the conference.
    • Pre-registration helps sort out numbers for catering and financial wizardry needed if you are dealing with a per-head catering budget. Pre-registration should be free, and not necessary to attend, but should close about a month before the conference.
    • We provided ticky-boxes for what people were going to attend (i.e. Panel 1, Keynote, Lunch, Panel 2, Panel 3, Reception, Pizza & Film); this helped us work out numbers for coffee as well.

 Two months before the conference

  • Send Useful Information document to speakers.
  • As soon as speakers have confirmed they are happy with the program/posters, begin to circulate publicity.
  • Nominate somebody to coordinate pre-registration.
    • Again, they will need a database, in which they will need to record the registrant’s name; their institution; their e-mail; their status (i.e. undergrad, grad, faculty, other); what they are planning to attend.
  • Circulate publicity and pre-registration materials.
    • The body of any e-mails should contain the timetable and the name of the person managing pre-registration.
    • E-mails should be sent to the WCC list; Classicists@Liverpool; the local classics departments; Rogue Classicism; the general departmental list; the GSA official channels.
    • Make it clear to faculty and grad students that, yes, you do expect them to register!
    • Also consider contacting classics teachers at local schools, if that kind of outreach seems appropriate. Ask any grads on your school’s MAT program, if you have one, for suggestions.
  • Send hard copies of posters to local schools, and make sure there is a spare one for the department (and any organiser who want one ).
  • Send pre-registration forms to the presenters directly and ask them to fill them out, so you know their plans.
  • Get a blog post up on the departmental blog, if you have one, publicising the line-up and explaining who to contact for pre-registration.
  • Ask all Classics graduates and faculty to publicise the conference in their classrooms.
  • Submit the event to the university’s on-line Calendar of Events.
  • Update your Facebook group with the conference details and details of how to preregister.
  • Check when the caterers will need final numbers by.
  • Address the question of alcohol.
    • At Rutgers, if you hold an event in an official Rutgers building, you are required to have a licensed bartender to dispense the alcohol. We decided against doing this, as it was far too expensive and too much hassle; we would advise you doing the same, as our conference was perfectly successful without alcohol.
  • Decide how to cope with audio-visual requirements.
    • You may be able to hire a projector, speakers and so forth from the venue, but this will cost; using a department projector is normally a better idea if possible, but you will need to check this is alright with the departmental administrator. We hired an a/v cart and screen from student support services, and provided our own laptops, projectors and speakers.
  • Make sure you know the procedure for processing the keynote’s honorarium and travel expenses – you may need to fill in forms on the day, and you want to be prepared.

 A month before the conference

  • Confirm the final design of the program.
  • Research biographical information to give introduction to the keynote speaker.
  • Ask the speakers to send you biographical information, and ask if they will need parking permits.
  • Arrange for parking permits if necessary.
  • Ask for volunteers to help with whatever needs doing on the day (e.g. human signpost, operating reception, heavy lifting to bring stuff from the department, etc.).
  • If holding conference in a student centre, meet with them to lock in the booking; make sure to ask for a set-up that includes a registration table and tables for food.
  • Send an approximate number of people to the caterer in order to book them for the day once pre-registration closes.
  • Prepare an evaluation form; we modelled ours on the one distributed by CAAS at their conference.
  • Make sure you know what you will need to fill out the post-event reports for any funders who require such things.
  • If you are going to show a film, make sure that you will have a copy of it on the day.
  • Sort out getting a poster framed for the department.

 A week before the conference

  • Provide caterers with final numbers.
  • Photocopy the programs.
  • Get volunteers to fold the programs.
  • Agree who is chairing which panel, who is introducing the keynote speaker, who is opening the conference and who is wrapping up.
  • Assign jobs to volunteers as necessary.
  • Print evaluation forms.
  • Print sign-in sheet, direction signs and any other paperwork that needs printed.
  • Buy any necessary sundries.
    • These may include name labels, pens, extra nibbles, water for speakers, cups, cutlery, napkins, plates, ice, extra soft drinks, rough paper.
  • Send speakers a final e-mail to check in; provide all contact mobile numbers they might need, potentially ask them for theirs in return; let them know how many handouts they are likely to need and remind them how long their papers should be.
  • E-mail the keynote to check their travel arrangements and provide phone numbers.
  • Ask all Classics graduates and faculty to remind their classrooms that the conference is this week.
  • Send reminder e-mail to classics departmental list about the conference, including times and date.
  • Nominate an official photographer or ask people to bring their cameras.

 On the day of the conference

  • Get there early enough before registration begins to check the room is unlocked and set up the registration desk.
  • Bring everything that is needed from the department.
    • Key things may include nice tablecloths; projector; departmental camera; laptop; speakers; programs.
  • Identify yourself to the main reception desk so they know who you are and where you are.
  • Set up reception desk.
  • Remind everyone to fill out evaluation forms.
  • Collect evaluation forms.
  • Make sure someone is always looking after the keynote speaker.
  • Deal with any paperwork associated with the keynote’s honorarium and expenses.

 After the conference

  • Write a thank-you letter to the keynote.
  • Write thank-you e-mails to the other speakers.
  • Write thank-you e-mails to all the graduate volunteers.
  • Ask everyone who took photos to share them.
  • Post photos and a final update to the Facebook group.
  • Write a blog post for the departmental blog, if you have one.
  • Make sure all the bills are paid.
  • Make sure reports have been submitted to all funders who require them.
  • Collate the evaluation forms and reflect upon their contents; make sure the results are sent to the graduate director as well as the organisers.

 Crisis Management

  • A speaker may pull out. If they do so at the last minute, there’s not much you can do except alter the program. If they do so a few months beforehand, ask them if they would be willing to have their paper read for them.
  • It is quite possible that someone will fall ill or not make it on the day for some crisis-related reason. Try to think of a back-up, or a paper that someone can deliver at very short notice, in case it’s necessary.
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