Organising and holding an event for PhD students

Organising and holding an event for PhD students: some helpful resources

Organising and holding an event like a symposium or a conference can be daunting - a never ending list of tasks and things to remember. Based on our experiences of developing a symposium for PhD students, based around the theme of ‘Materiality and Intangibility’, we hope to share some of the processes we went through and what we learnt along the way.

We found that when we were thinking of ideas there was a limited amount of resources available for PhD students attempting a similar event like a conference or seminar so we hope these resources will be helpful and maybe even inspiring enough for you to attempt your own event!

Coming up with an idea

It is important to have a clear purpose for your event. If you already have a theme that you wish to explore, design the event around that theme. However if you want to have an event but you don’t know exactly what it will be about, you could try the following strategies:
  • Brainstorming – as an individual or a group
  • Reading current literature in your field
  • Your research interests as a PhD community - are any commonalities or universal themes you could draw on?
  • Finding out about current events in your field – are there any gaps?
  • Design-boarding
  • Discussion and debates – these can include virtual discussions through the World Wide Web on forums and so on.
It can hard to be completely original but perhaps the event itself can approach a familiar theme in a new way?
Our ideas started with the type of symposium we thought would be beneficial to students. We wanted a more relaxed informal setting than traditional conferences. That is one reason why we called it a symposium rather than a conference because symposium suggests a more open, discussion-led format. We wanted to provide a creative and experimental forum for PhD students and early career researchers which would allow them to try out different styles of presentation and performance which might not be acceptable in more traditional or formal conferences.
Also integral to our idea was giving a platform for art practice alongside students and researchers from the museum world. Often theory and practice are kept quite separate. We wanted to bring them together to see if this would encourage new and exciting perspectives through which to explore material culture.

Choosing your event team

During the planning, organisation and implementation of an event you will need to rely a lot on people giving up their time to help. In practice you will probably end up with a small core team - a committee if you like - who will be able to commit to overseeing all aspects of the event and a number of people at the margins who can contribute to discrete tasks.
We had a very flexible team, with some individuals taking very specific roles and others taking on tasks as and when they arose. You might want to be more specific and assign proper jobs with a description and title so that everyone is clear about who is ‘in charge’ of specific activities. However an advantage of more flexible roles was that we could assign jobs depending on who had the most time, as students’ other commitments ebbed and flowed over time.
You will also need to include people who have different skills. These might include:
  • negotiation;
  • administration;
  • technical support (computers, presentation);
  • creativity (ideas, imagination);
  • writing.
If you don’t have all these skills in your PhD community you may wish to develop these skills as the organisation of an event can provide an excellent opportunity to undertake training. You can write this into your funding bid.
Getting the support of your department or school might seem an obvious thing to say but it can bring many benefits. We were able to use our school’s new building as a venue for the symposium, thereby saving on costs, and we also approached academics to be keynote speakers and introduce the event, something which proved to be popular with those who attended.

Speak to people in your school, department or faculty. They may be willing to provide information about organising an event, give ideas and look over any materials that you produce as part of the event.

What about the venue?

Some questions to ask about your venue.

Is it big enough?
Your venue needs to be large enough to accommodate the number of people you intend to accommodate.

You may need a space that offers the ability to hold a number of different activities. As well as a lecture theatre or hall for presentations you might want ‘break-out’ spaces where people can network or hold smaller workshops. For our symposium we also needed spaces for art performances and small display cases which were loaned to us for the event.

Is it accessible?
You need to make sure that your chosen venue provides safe and appropriate access for everyone attending, including disabled people.

How will people get to your venue – is it served by public transport or will you need to provide parking? People may need to stay overnight so think about the types of accommodation that are close by, preferably with a range of prices to suit different budgets.

Will your event be catered?
Whether you provide refreshments during an event may make a difference to your venue. As well as ensuring that all dietary requirements have been catered for, you will need to make sure that there is a suitable place in your venue where food and refreshments can be served. Liaise with the catering team in the first instance.

What technology does the venue support?
Technology needs will be partially dictated by your presenters but it might be useful to be able to say in the call for papers and in communication with presenters (and artists in our case) the kinds of technology that the venue supports.

We also found it helpful to be able to link ‘virtually’ with a presenter who was unable to make it in person to the conference but who still wished to participate. This can be done through Adobe Connect or Skype for instance.

Online conferences are also starting to surface - maybe you could stream your conference live to an audience on the web if your venue has the technology available?

How well do you know the venue?
It is important to know the venue well beforehand, in order that you can assess any problems which may arise.  Vital information that needs to be given to participants at your event for their comfort and safety include position of fire exits, what to do in the event of a fire drill and where the nearest toilets are.

Finding sources of funding

Depending on your subject there will be different sources of funding available for your event.  Let’s not beat around the bush, finding funding is hard, but necessary, work.

Research funding sources well before you want to hold your event. It can take a while to hear back depending upon when committees get together to decide which proposals to fund. Use as many sources as you can - the Internet, academics including your PhD supervisor, other PhD students in your department, faculty or other universities for instance. Make the most of any support given by your University in terms of training or relevant departments,

Funding sources often give examples of successful funding bids on their websites so have a look at as many as possible or ask around your department to see if anyone has an example of a successful bid you can look at.

We positioned our symposium as a training opportunity for PhD students, which offered a very different environment to a more traditional, formal conference. If you are applying specifically to a student-centred bid like we did - where the objective was to promote links between students across different universities and student training initiatives - think about how PhD students will benefit from your initiative and use that to frame your bid.

Don’t miss out on the opportunity to re-submit a bid if you are unsuccessful the first time. That is why it is so important to build in enough time between submitting your bid and the event itself. We re-submitted our bid after it was unsuccessful the first time and were awarded the funding on the second attempt. We were much clearer about how the event would benefit students in the second version of the bid.

Writing the call for papers

Writing the call for papers is not an easy task. You need to be specific so that potential presenters know the theme and intention of the conference and what you want from them, but not so specific that you stifle people’s imagination and creativity. If you are too inflexible it might prevent people from responding in the first place.

We wanted our symposium to be an opportunity to present ideas and research in an innovative and creative way, so eschewing the usual PowerPoint or paper-based presentation. Suggesting ideas of the kind of alternatives we wanted was therefore critical. This can provide a meaningful framework in which potential presenters can position their own ideas and give them a better idea of what you want from them. For instance, if you want to get people thinking beyond PowerPoint (as we did) suggest workshops, performances, display cases, artworks or other creative media such as film, music, creative writing or poetry.

These are the kind of things you might want to include in your call for papers:

Description of the theme - just enough to give potential presenters (and participants) a flavour of the theme and why you have chosen it.

Description of the event - the aim of the event, how long it will be (one, two days), the kinds of presenters, if you have any keynote speakers, when it will be held and where.

Description of the presentation - how long you expect presentations to be, what format they should take (e.g. PowerPoint, performance, workshop), the kinds of technology you have available.

Details of the proposed presentation - how long the proposal should be (you may want to impose a word limit for abstracts to keep content succinct especially if you are expecting to receive lots of interest), what it should include, what format it should be in, and who it should be sent to.

What you will pay for - can you provide travel and accommodation for speakers? Or just their conference fee?

Deadline for proposals - allow yourself plenty of time before the event to receive the papers, go through them all and communicate back to successful and unsuccessful presenters. Try and give an estimate of when potential presenters will hear back from you in the call for papers.

We were a bit too hasty in putting out the call for papers before we had secured funding for the event. This caused some anxiety about how we were going to pay for the event especially when it took a very long time to hear back about our funding proposal. Be kind to yourselves and allow a long lead in time.

Choosing between proposals

Once proposals start to come in it is helpful to set up a virtual folder where everyone in your event team can have open access to them. There are a number of websites which offer this facility, like Windows Live and Google. We set up a Google account, which gave us access to an email address and a document store.

Following your call for papers hopefully you will end up with a good pile of proposals to sift through. After the deadline we sat down as a team and went through them all individually, giving them a score based on how they fitted in with the symposium theme and how creative or innovative the approach to the presentation was.

We then came together with our scores to compare notes and see if we could whittle the proposals down to number of presentations which would fit our two-day timetable. This is one way of doing it but you might want to take the opposite view, e.g. construct the timetable depending on the number of proposals you receive. Whichever way you do it, give yourself plenty of time.

Sometimes proposals can be a little vague. If you are unclear about anything there is no harm in contacting the presenter to get some more information.

Putting the timetable together

Are you going to have a one, two or even three day event? The longer the event the more expensive and time consuming it will be. It might be worth seeing how many expressions of interest you get through the call for papers before deciding how many days you want to run your event.

How many presenters you have depends on how intensive you want your conference to be. Do you want to offer single sessions during the day or run concurrent sessions and/or workshops? How flexible you can be depends on the capacity and layout of your venue.

Do you want to have any keynote speakers? We approached academics in our department and academics at different universities who had been former students in our department. Those we approached were very happy to speak at our event. We offered a limited payment towards travel and accommodation costs where required. We asked our head of department to open the conference.

We thought very carefully about how to arrange the presentations. We needed to include time for delegates to relax and meet other people, to have lunch and refreshments and to network. We needed to give time so that people could visit the live art event that was taking part alongside the presentations. We didn’t want to exhaust people so we kept to one session at a time rather than concurrent sessions.

Other opportunities may be presented that you might want to take advantage of. One of the keynote speakers was about to have a book published that fitted in well with the aims of the conference so the idea was mooted to have a book launch as part of the event. Unfortunately this did not take place in the end but it would have been a good addition to the event activities.

Remember, you need not schedule presentations for every day; you could include a visit to an organisation which illustrates or has some connection to the theme of your event. Staff might be able to offer a tour, talk or presentation for delegates if you contact them well in advance. Draw on contacts in your department, school etc or amongst your presenters for ideas.

Do you want any social events? We decided to have a conference dinner, which was catered for by the University and included in the price. A cheaper way of doing it is to provide the opportunity to visit a local restaurant where everyone pays for their own meal - this was done at an earlier conference and worked well too. You can include maps and leaflets from the local tourist information centre in case people have an opportunity to go out and explore the local area.

How much to charge?

The cost of your event will depend on many things:
  • The length of the event
  • Refreshments and catering
  • Venue hire
  • Your intended audience and how much they can afford
  • What you have offered to speakers (e.g. travel and accommodation)
  • Delegate packs
  • Any visits or social events.
It is very hard to estimate how popular an event will be and how many delegates will attend. We timed our symposium out of term time, as we thought that might attract more delegates, and also our department was free and available - there were no clashes with teaching.

In terms of catering, some conferences only provide tea and coffee rather than a full lunch. So you don’t always need to offer lunch but that might be an attractive prospect for delegates who don’t know the local area so well.

We decided to offer lunch and a conference dinner and offset the costs through the delegate fee. In the end we did not make enough money through delegate fees to cover the full cost of catering, which ended up being one of the most expensive elements of the event. Fortunately we had money left over from travel and accommodation costs (which the keynote speakers did not use) and the funding was flexible enough to allow us to use the funding elsewhere. However if we did the event again we would probably be more careful about catering and limit the costs to lunch only.

Other costs include delegate packs and things like name badges. It is possible to use stickers and keep information given to delegates at a minimum - perhaps you could even email all the information to them prior to the conference? Have a few spares on the day in case people forget them.

We decided to provide physical delegate packs. We bought cheap-ish canvas bags and got a designer to make us a logo for them (this logo was also used on all our publicity). We then printed the bags ourselves and got free leaflets from the tourist information centre to go with the information on timetable and presentations. It was worth the effort because they looked very professional and provided delegates with a long-lasting reminder of the event.

Publicising your event

When publicising your event it is very important to consider WHO your audience is, HOW they will access the information about your event and WHAT they need to know about it.

We advertised using online networks as much as possible to keep costs down. These included our PhD community blog, The Attic, , Museum-L , H-Museum, the network for Museums and Museum Studies, University of Leicester MA and PhD student mailing lists, the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) mailing list, Museum 3.0 and Museopunk. Details were also sent to the relevant departments of UK universities.

We also used the University marketing team, who approached us but there is nothing to say that we could not have approached them. They had access to different networks which we had not considered.

Draw on contacts in your school or department that academics may have established.

On the day

It is important to know who is responsible for what on the day – even if specific roles have not been assigned before you need to know who is supposed to be where to ensure that things run smoothly.

Recording the event through sound or visuals can be useful to promote it as well as provide material for PhD student blogs. Presentations recorded digitally or recorded on video can be put onto the web. It also creates an archive which can be added to as the PhD community holds more events. It ensures that we don’t end up repeating ourselves!


Have fun!

If it goes wrong, don't panic. People are more understanding than you think, and if you are clearly trying to resolve a problem, then people are very tolerant.

Evaluating your event

Evaluating the event is often critical to provide feedback to your funders. Our funding source required that we wrote a report to inform them about the initiative, how successful it was in achieving its aims, what we spent the money on and what challenges we encountered. Undertaking evaluation with the delegates meant that we had some quotes to draw on to include within the report so that it wasn’t just from our perspective.

But how to capture the views of delegates? Many conferences include a short questionnaire in the delegate pack to be completed at the end of the conference. Whilst this is a good method, it can also be challenging to get delegates to complete the forms, especially when they are leaving in a hurry to catch trains!

We held our evaluation of the symposium during the event itself, using a technique called the ‘World Cafe’. Participants took part in small group discussions about their experiences of the event. This ensured that the views of people were captured during the event itself. Like any method it only provides a ‘snapshot’ of peoples’ views which may well change in the long-term but it was critical for getting a sense of how participants felt about the event and how effective it had been for them.

Another approach is providing a comments box with slips of paper and pens so that people can write their opinions down throughout the event. You might want to provide a focused question (or set of questions) which participants can respond to so that it meets the aim of your evaluation. A comments board – where people can post their comments as they write them – also works, although it is less anonymous.

It is also important to take time to reflect as a team what went right and what went wrong and record that information somehow. It is really useful when you, or other PhD students in your department, come to develop another event that the same mistakes aren’t made again. Or you might want to repeat elements that worked well!

When things go wrong

Throughout the planning stages it is important to think beforehand about the potential problems which may arise during an event, so that if they do happen you can respond to them with as little fuss (and panic) as possible.

Conducting a risk analysis of some kind may help here. Risk analysis involves thinking about what might prevent you from achieving a specific objective or goal and how you might go about managing or preventing that risk.

For instance these are some of the problems which might occur when planning and holding an event:

PhD student community do not have the right skills to plan and hold an event
Look at training available inside your University and outside it which can help you gain the skills you need.  Training sessions could potentially be written into your funding bid.

Not securing funding
Have several funding possibilities – a mosaic of funding rather than one source – in case funding bids are rejected, decisions are made late or are unexpected!  Think about charging extra delegate fees or investigate sponsorship opportunities

Suitable venue is unavailable or prohibitively expensive
Always have a ‘Plan B’ venue or venues – what about making use of your own University Department or School?

Speakers are ill or pull out on the day
Be flexible with the timetable – be prepared to move speakers around or give longer breaks (opportunities to network!) and lunchtimes.  If speakers are unable to make it to the venue but are still able to participate Investigate the use of technology such as Adobe Connect or Skype via a webcam – but check it works in advance of a session!

Final thoughts
The symposium was a lot of hard work but it was worth it for helping to create a vital, vibrant and active PhD community in our department. We also impressed the academics in our department with our event, which will help to continue their support for future events.
It helped us to make links with PhD students outside our department and outside our University. PhD research can often be quite insular and isolating and events can help to overcome this with opportunities for networking and sharing ideas and experiences.
The symposium gave us and other PhD students a chance to experiment and try out presentation ideas that might not be accepted at more formal conferences. The combination of academia with the art world also helped to generate new perspectives through which to view our central theme.
Planning, organising and holding an event provided massive learning opportunities for PhD students, particularly in terms of skills. Many of these are transferable skills which will be useful both during the after the PhD experience. These included:
  • Writing a funding bid
  • Managing money
  • Peer review of event proposals
  • Writing for a variety of audiences and objectives e.g. Call for papers, event publicity, report for funding body
  • Communication skills
  • Presentation skills
  • Organisational skills including administration, recording, evaluation
  • Negotiation skills.