I have been in the computer science academic community for at least five years, and I noticed that there are several so called summer schools organized every year everywhere. I have been knowing just few people attend them.

These summer schools are addressed mainy to MS and PhD students, last around 3-7 days, and may include a final exam. They often include important international speakers coming from overseas. I have been thinking about them, and there are two issues that concerns them, in my opinion.

The first problem I notice is that is very very hard to make students learn something important in just 3-7 days. They should have more time to re-process all the things that they learned, do some practice, and think about. They include a hipe of subjects that is sometimes very large.

The second issue is that, since the students are studying their own courses, why should they spend their time and money to go to a summer school instead of attending a course at their own university? It's not clear to me.

So, in the end, why do some people organize summer school? Is it just teaching passion? Or is it a way to advertise the organizers and their university? Or is an occasion for networking?

Or, is it something that I am missing?

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    I found your question a bit confusing. Speakers and organisers are two very different things. Speakers are invited by the organisers to give a talk. So is the question: why people give talks in summer schools or why people organize summer schools?
    – seteropere
    Apr 19, 2014 at 4:48
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    I have some experience with summer schools in mathematics. They are a little different from what you describe in CS, but I can post an answer if you are interested. Apr 19, 2014 at 5:56
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    If you have education model of pouring knowledge in heads, true - a week is little. But if you think that education is about inspiring students to learn by themselves, then an intensive week may be worth more than a few months of doing standard coursework. Apr 19, 2014 at 17:26
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    It seems to me like we could change the question to "why do people organize conferences?" The motivations Suresh and Nate give in their answers are very much analogous. Apr 19, 2014 at 18:57
  • But summer schools and conferences are organized for very different reasons (in CS). In other communities, the similarity might be greater.
    – Suresh
    Apr 19, 2014 at 19:07

2 Answers 2


A summer school is usually a way to have a focused series of lectures on a specific topic. The best analogy I can think of is that of a master class for musicians. The audience are students who are usually sufficiently adept that they can handle the intensity and focus of a short program taught at a high level. For example, if you're just starting out in grad school in computer science, a summer school in specialized aspects of (say) deep learning might not be very useful. This at least partially answers your first question.

Summer schools are useful because they can bring a set of experts on a topic together in one location, at a venue where this expertise might not otherwise exist. In computer science, this might also be part of the explanation of why there are so many summer schools in Europe: since many topics in the field are dominated by the US, it makes sense to have summer schools in Europe for the reason above.

The speakers of course get the opportunity to travel and teach a focused group. It's a prestigious thing to be invited to such an event. The organizers make their mark (and benefit their institution) by organizing such an event. The students learn about a topic that they might not otherwise get exposure to, from the experts in the field. And that is an answer to your second question.

  • Thanks for replying. What do you mean for "master class for musicians"? Apr 21, 2014 at 23:55
  • There's a tradition of master classes for musicians, where performers who have talent of their own take a class/set of classes under a famous artist: the goal here is to hone some technique, or learn some advanced skills. Such a class is useless for the beginner.
    – Suresh
    Apr 21, 2014 at 23:57

There are similar summer schools in mathematics, though there are some differences from what you describe. I've helped organize a summer school so I'll try to answer some of these questions.

The math summer schools I know about are somewhat longer, usually 2-4 weeks. They don't provide formal academic credit and there are no exams. They are aimed at PhD students who are at least a couple of years in, though often postdocs and junior faculty are also welcome. Usually there are several lecturers, each of whom is a well-known expert on a particular topic, and their lectures are tightly focused on that topic. The lecturers may come from all over the world; they are not just faculty at the institution hosting the summer school. Sometimes there is also time set aside for students to give short talks on their own research.

As to your first question, it is true that this is a short amount of time; it's an intensive learning experience. (I'd agree that 3-7 days would seem too short; that's more like what mathematicians call a "short course", which is usually organized in conjunction with a conference rather than as a standalone event.)
I don't think it's expected that the students will absorb all the material right away. Rather, they will gain exposure to the topic and its main ideas. For an in-depth understanding, they'd be expected to study related books and papers on their own over months or years, but the summer school will give them a place to start and some preparation for the task. There would certainly be advantages to a longer program, but the logistics would become prohibitive.

For your second question, you must realize that a summer school course fulfills a very different purpose than a regular graduate course. Regular courses typically give you a broad view of a subject (e.g. probability theory) and focus mainly on its basic techniques and classical results. They provide a foundation for research on any topic in the subject. A summer school course covers only a specific topic (say, random walk in random environment), which is usually the focus of active research, and tries to acquaint the student with the state of the art. Very few universities would offer a regular course like that. (At best, if they happened to have an expert on that topic on their faculty, they might occasionally give a one-time "topics course".) At the summer schools I knew, students were expected to already have taken 2-3 semesters of standard graduate probability theory, which is all that most universities would offer.

As to money, summer schools often have their own funding. Students do not pay tuition and usually receive free housing, and may also have some of their travel expenses reimbursed by the summer school (and hopefully their home institution provides some travel funding as well). So students usually pay little or nothing out of their own pockets. And regarding "time", these are summer schools. At least in the US, most graduate programs don't offer regular courses in the summer, so the student isn't sacrificing regular coursework to attend. They may be sacrificing research time, but the hope is that the summer school provides new ideas that will ultimately make them more productive.

Networking is a consideration as well. A summer school gives students the opportunity to meet renowned experts who they might otherwise never come in contact with. Just as importantly, they get to make connections with other students with similar interests from around the world, with whom they may someday form collaborations.

Finally, they are fun! You get to travel to a new part of the world and meet interesting people. There are usually social events, outings, hikes, etc.

I think the main motivation for summer school organizers is to create a program that will ultimately benefit and build the research community in a discipline. Exposure for the institution, networking opportunities for the organizers, funding, etc, are also nice, but secondary.

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