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I am doing my PhD and presenting a paper at a conference, which I have already done a few times. However, I just saw an email from the organising committee asking if I am willing to chair one or more sessions. How should I decide whether to accept this offer? What are the reasons to accept, and what are the reasons to decline? Is it a very common thing to do for a graduate student, who does not even have a Ph.D, to be invited to chair a session? While I feel honoured, I am also somewhat overwhelmed and not sure if I should accept it.

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Yes, it is a common thing, not usually very demanding, and a good way to help you meet people at the conference. – Significance Mar 7 at 10:53
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The only reason I can think of to decline is: there is a different session at the same time that you want to attend. – GEdgar Mar 7 at 11:43
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It depends on the field. I know of fields where PhD students chairing sessions is very common, and others where it never happens. – David Z Mar 7 at 15:24
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I never saw a grad student chairing a session in life science conferences, but I don't see why you should not do it. Unless you think you might dose off during the talks. – Bitwise Mar 7 at 21:43
up vote 40 down vote accepted

Yes, you should.

Whether this is common depends very much on the conference. The last time I was at a conference, I was invited out of the blue by someone I didn't know to chair a session, in a very short and very informal e-mail as if it was coming from a long time friend in a hurry. This was less than a year after I obtained my PhD. A PhD student in our research group did the same.

All it means, really, is that you sit on a chair in front of the room, make sure the presentations are on the presentation computer, announce the speakers, etc. You will get detailed instructions. Unless you mess up (and why would you?), you really have nothing to lose.

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I love that you made it bold and alone that you should. This is like when congressional staffers run papers to another office for their representative, or when doctors as interns are filing charts for the doctor they're supporting. It's a small step, but it's a position of responsibility without which the whole process wouldn't happen. Gotta start somewhere! – corsiKa Mar 7 at 19:51
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Just a quick note that this doesn't quite cover the duties of the chairperson in all disciplines. In particular, in some fields there can be, depending on the situation, that the chair ask a question if there are no questions from the audience, so the chair is required to be competent enough to understand the talks and to pay enough attention to the talks to formulate at least one or two questions. – E.P. Mar 7 at 21:39
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@E.P. Indeed, that's the hardest part of 'chairing' a session. But nothing a couple hours with the respective papers won't solve. The questions don't need to be groundbreaking, therefore within reach of average senior phd students.. – Fábio Dias Mar 7 at 22:10
    
@Fabio yes, but the point is that it is not a purely administrative task and it does require nonzero academic capacities and attention, which the answer as posed does not include. – E.P. Mar 7 at 22:20
    
@FábioDias that depends on the conference format. In my field the chair may have access to the slides but not a paper in advance of the talk. This is also a field in which the chair is expected to have a question in reserve. – Chris H Mar 8 at 8:54

The typical duties of a session chair are:

  • Before the session, make sure all of the presenters are present and check A/V to minimize problems during the session.
  • Convene the session at its start, getting the audience to sit down and be quiet.
  • Introduce each presenter and their talk.
  • Keep the session on time, warning a presenters when they approach the end of their allotted time and cutting them off if necessary. This is especially important for big conferences with many parallel sessions, where people may be switching rooms in mid-session. You should typically ensure that about 5 minutes is reserved for Q&A, but the time may be shorter with very short talks (e.g., 3 minutes of a 15 minute talk).
  • Moderate the question and answer period.
  • Formulate a couple of interesting and respectful questions of your own for each talk, in case the audience doesn't have any questions. This is sometimes the hardest part of moderation.

These duties aren't too hard, and it's not too unusual for senior graduate students, postdocs or young faculty to be asked to chair. It's a nice little low-grade visibility and networking experience, and can be a first (small) step towards becoming involved with other aspects of conference organizing.

The only reason that I might recommend against accepting is if the session is early in the conference and you haven't been to conferences and seen how sessions are typically run before. This is something where I would recommend making sure you've watched others before you do it yourself---though you will see many bad examples as well as good.

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Major conference venues often have an A/V technician so the A/V aspect is more about being nice to them. One reason not to do it (yet) is if you're not sure about your ability to tell someone more senior to wrap up their talk. – Chris H Mar 7 at 13:30
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@ChrisH My experience has been that A/V is often theoretically supported by a technician, but in practice not really. – jakebeal Mar 7 at 14:18
    
I've been to a conference where the A/V was run by a bunch of random PhD students (inc. me) from the host insitution with borrowed kit. I've presented at a conference with an A/V technician per room (up to 4 parallel sessions) and room to upload and test slides (in this case you had to use their computer, PPTx or PDF only). That's two ends of a spectrum, most confereences appear to be somewhere in between. – Chris H Mar 7 at 14:52
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In a somewhat regional conference, supposedly there were 2 random students to help and a random kit as well... In practice, 5 minutes before the session, I was alone with the presenters in the room, with only the projector. The presenters ended up using my laptop. The "organization" showed up, 1 or 2 minutes before the scheduled start.... – Fábio Dias Mar 7 at 22:13

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