Monday, 22 June 2015

Top five reasons to run a conference (Tseen Khoo)

Chalk trains
Photo by Ben Kraal | www.flickr.com/photos/newnowknowhow
Do you feel regularly exploited, wish you had more recognition for the things you did, or feel that your skills are being underutilised?

OK, first up, you realise you’re in academia, right?

More importantly, while these dissatisfactions are endemic to working lives in general, they seem especially visible in universities.

There are ways, however, of seizing opportunities and making them work for you.

This post presents you with the pros of convening a conference.

I’ve convened about ten major events and, while conferences are no doubt time-consuming, they were - for me - also the primary catalysts for establishing a research network and significantly boosting my academic profile.

When I suggest convening a conference, people often respond with fear and dismissal. Many people worry that they don’t know how to do it, or presume that it’s just grunt-work and no good could come of it.

Here are my top 5 reasons why you should convene a conference:


1. You reap the benefits of connection.
Getting involved with a conference committee, or becoming a convenor, is relatively easy. Research centres and clusters often host them, as do academic associations and all levels of the university ladder (i.e. schools, disciplines, faculties). Finding competent and enthusiastic people to help out can be difficult as everyone always feels that someone else should do this work.

If you are invited onto a conference committee or put your hand up to be a convenor, try to ensure that you undertake tasks that will generate associations between your name and the event. Be the contact person (yes, it may be a bit more work, but it’s better for people to know who you are), volunteer to go along to meetings with possible funding bodies and institutional higher-ups, or arrange things for the keynotes. There are perks to being the person who gets to associate directly with the delegates, or be in charge of the web page or program scheduling: keynoters and other delegates get to know you.

For many of the events I’ve organised, I did so because I wanted a particular field to gain momentum (that is, it was a new area of research and scholars were scattered around different disciplinary homes, as well as physically located across  a range of cities and countries). Without the benefit of an association and its attendant cash float, getting a conference to happen can be complex and sometimes frustrating. The value of bringing together the best, most active, and interesting researchers in my field? Priceless.

2. You gain professionalisation and ‘transferable skills’.
In running a conference, you gain excellent experience with planning, organisation, and negotiation. Because of time constraints and general apathy, conference committees are often willing to rubber-stamp things that you’ve already worked out, so you can let your autocratic side shine. This means you can quite rightly claim the fame for networking initiatives and event set-ups, industry links, whatever – the sky’s the limit (within your budget, of course…).

Conversely, a very buzzy and astute committee can be a dream to work with, and the mentoring within it by more senior academics can be excellent.

Event-management skills are highly transferable and would serve you well, whether or not you make your career home in academia.

3. You can get publications.
Most quality conferences will produce quality publications, and events that derive from grants will almost certainly aim to produce a publication as part of its reported outcomes. If there’s a possibility that you can participate in the editing of the subsequent publication, or have your work represented in it (even though you may not have presented), take it!

In my experience, those who were most proactive during the conference organisation end up being the ones who are worth working with to edit the consequent publication. Beware of editing with someone who has already proven their inertia or laziness during the conference experience; you will definitely be signing on for 95% of the workload!

4. You create ‘feel good’ factors.
Let’s take the focus off you for a minute, hey? Or should that be: ask not what a conference can do for you, but what you can do for a conference…?

I touched on this briefly in #1. The feeling that you’re doing something for a greater cause (i.e. your academic field) can be a great driver when organising a conference. Good reasons to have a conference (that aren’t regular association ones) are:
  • trying to redress under-representation in larger fields,
  • creating brand-spanking new areas, and
  • driving academic/community initiatives.
A good, inclusive conference showcases the latest, most interesting work in a particular field. For this alone, being part of the event is excellent. Additionally, you get to meet and hear the exciting new talent coming through the postgraduate ranks, and showcase themes or topics within your field that don’t get enough love.

There’s also a basic level of ‘making things happen’ with a conference that has always spoken to me. This is particularly because of the frustrating nature of deferred outcomes that are part of the academic research cycle.

5. You have FUN.
I amend that to say: A well-organised conference is FUN! Having to put out fires (sometimes literal) for an entire event is not good. If the gig comes together smoothly, you have time to enjoy hanging out with academic buddies, putting faces to names of delegates you’ve only emailed, meeting cool and incredibly prominent keynotes, feeling in the centre of all the buzz, and knowing that what you’ve done has longevity.

The outcomes stretch beyond resulting publications because good conferences almost always feed new research collaborations and connections.

[Note: An earlier version of this post appeared at the Research Whisperer]

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Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in the Graduate Research School's Research Education and Development (RED) team at La Trobe University, and one half of the Research Whisperer

In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer and research fellow. She founded - and still convenes - a national research network (AASRN), edited the Journal of Intercultural Studies (Taylor & Francis) for five years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. 

Other than that, she can be quite normal. She tweets at @tseenster.

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