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Researcher Development

Researcher Development

Define goals and objectives

So, you have decided you want to organise a conference? What fun and congratulations! The road ahead takes a little bit of planning but all in all, it will be an exciting and rewarding experience.

Before going any further, we would recommend that you decide on the five key elements of the conference which include but are not limited to: What? When? Where? Who? and How?

  1. What are the main aims of the conference? What format do you wish to follow – in person, online or a hybrid format?
  2. When would you like the conference to take place?
  3. Where is the conference going to be held?
  4. Who is the target audience?
  5. How are you going to make sure you have a team to plan and run this conference with you?

Let’s take each point in turn and address it. More specific details can be found in other chapters of the Handbook.

These are arguably two of the most important questions you will ask.  Quite rightly, figuring out the main aims and what you hope to achieve from the conference are key when it comes to recruiting help, obtaining interest from sponsors, candidates and attendees and advertising the conference.  We would recommend being clear from the beginning about what you want your conference to address and the message you wish to portray.  You could think of showcasing the broad research that is performed within the faculty or an opportunity for postgraduate students (to practice) to present their amazing work at a friendly conference. Will it be a general audience (ie university/faculty level or the public) or are you targeting a specific theme or group (ie departmental level or postgraduate students)?

In addition, think about the type of format you wish to adopt.  This might very well be dependent on the venues, technology and budget that you have to hand, so it is worth doing some research, scoping out some suitable venues and then, getting in touch with the booking teams to start a conversation about availability (see Chapter 3).  Also, check what equipment is available.  If you are organising a conference online or in a hybrid format, you will need to ensure that you can use the equipment and technology on the run-up and event day(s).

This will be partly dependent upon the format and venue that you choose.  If in person, then the availability of the venue will dictate exactly when you might be able to hold the conference.  If hybrid/remote, then you will have more flexibility in when and where you would like to hold the conference.  This part really requires research – lots and lots of it, don’t underestimate how long this can take!  So, key advice is to start looking at venues early on in the planning process.  Further, did you want the conference to try to team up with a specific themed week in the academic year?  Do you want it to overlap with other conferences internally or externally? Is it best to hold it in or outside of school holidays?  Spring, summer, autumn, winter?  Consider whether it will run across one day or a couple of days?

General rules of thumb apply here.  Try to avoid exam season or when assessments are taking place and/or busy holiday times too, especially when considering those attending.  Think about the target audience – what time of year is likely to work the best in order to maximise attendance. Furthermore, think about those factors like accessibility – lift access and stair-free access for those with limited mobility. There are many things to think about here and it is worth taking that extra time to pick a suitable date that works for as many people as possible.

Establishing your target audience early on will help ensure that the format, timing and advertising of the conference are the best they can be.  Where the choice of audience is technical, this offers more of a chance to tailor content to specific themes and address some of the learning objectives that academic and industrial communities benefit from.  The type of technical content will also suit those who are attending and presenting, with more opportunity for subject-specific feedback to be provided.  Furthermore, the opportunity for collaboration is maximised with this format and it is easier to target and advertise to specific groups.

Conversely, a conference that is aimed at the public will reap many benefits.  You are likely to reach a wider audience, you will be able to advertise with a broader remit and some interesting conversations and partnerships can emerge.  Not to mention the additional benefits that public engagement with research can bring, whereby more support and funding is generated for topics that might otherwise be quite hidden away.  Where younger audience members are invited, content may well inspire the next generation of researchers too, so it is well worth thinking about what age groups you are hoping to attract.  Finally, think about how many people you can suitably accommodate – less than 50, 50-300, 300-500, 500+.

It is no lie that organising and running a conference takes a LOT of work.  We highly recommend that you consider building a team who will help support the conference from day 1.  Your team size and the amount of help you require will tally in with the size of your conference.  You may well have this in place already but if not, there a few things to consider:

  • It is always helpful to recruit teams across a wide range of departments, faculties and roles. Consider asking people who you know and those you work well with but do feel free to let the net fall wider too.
  • Consider sending out an initial recruitment call to various faculties, organisations and the like to gauge interest – at this stage you could tie in an expression of interest call to both potential team members and speakers. This, in turn, will generate interest in your conference from the beginning which will pay dividends later on down the line.
  • When you have received interest, consider the strengths of each member and assign to different sections in your team. For example, does Person A have experience of working with sponsors and catering?  Does Person B have a knack for creating an eye-catching poster and website design?  Does Person C have experience with working with speakers and writing well?  Feel free to ask in initial or follow-up contact about what each member can offer – you may discover something new!

Ensuring that you have an inclusive team that will echo a wide range of interests and backgrounds is the key to a successful conference.  See Chapter 2 for more detailed advice on building a team.

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