22

Organizing a conference is very difficult for a scientist, you have to have the right collaborators, to find the right venue, to spread the word, to advertise it, to send the call for papers, to receive the papers, to check them, to organize the lunchs and dinners, etc etc.

All these tasks are very time-consuming, and stressful, and they will steal precious time to your scientific research activity, and also to your family/friends time.

So, why do people decide to organize conferences?

What are the main benefits and advantages of running this complex and time-consuming activity?

21

If everyone refused to organize conferences, we would have no conferences.

Yes, it's that obvious. The same goes for editing journals, refereeing papers, and most other service activities.

The main result of a research conference is that it helps attendees do better research, to find and understand new ideas, and to disseminate their own research, etc. By organizing the conference, you are the facilitator of all that. Furthermore, you get to influence the direction of the conference -- what it will focus on, who the invited speakers will be, how it will be run, and so forth.

Additionally, I would argue that academics are paid to organize conferences in the same way that we are paid to referee papers.

Finally, there are fringe benefits to you personally, including the prestige mentioned by @user3209815 -- you can list it on your CV under service activities. Frankly, this is not going to make or break your career, and you probably shouldn't be doing it early in your career, since (as you point out) it takes time away from things that may be more essential.

12

Arranging conferences is very hard work. You need to be prepared to organize a meeting place, be a "travel agent" for visitors seeking information on how to get there etc. and then make sure things runs smoothly during the meeting. Of course more individuals will be involved in arranging a meeting, how many depends on the size. So unless you are a despot and can order people to work for you, I would say that arranging a meeting is not for prestige and honour without being well-deserved through sweat and tears (I am assuming you want the guests to enjoy a productive and comfortable meeting atmosphere).

Arranging a meetings, from small workshops for tens of people to conferences for hundreds can be really rewarding. If you arrange for thousands you need to run things through a professional organizer, such as a conference centre. Even that can be rewarding but no less a lot of work. To be able to cope with the work load, which will likely start half a year to years before the meeting (depends on the size and format of the meeting), you need to have a good idea of what goals your meeting will have. For smaller meetings where all visitors are assembled for the entire meeting, you probably have a personal interest in the topics to be covered. In a larger meeting with many separate sessions, you and others in the organizing committee probably have invested interests in several different ones. In the end, successful meetings come from a deep interest from the organizers in having the meeting and its themes covered. At least in my field, I have never encountered anyone doing a conference just for glory and filling a CV. The benefits will definitely be there after a successful meeting but then, you have really deserved them.

So, in my experience, organising meetings is really rewarding, it is hard work, but pays of scientifically and socially if the organisation is done well and visitors return with a sense of value from the experience.

  • 1
    Just a comment: the work can definitely start more than 6-12 months before. Many venues will be reserved years in advance. Just as an example, the IIF usually discusses proposals three years in advance, by which time putative organizers have already had talks with the conference venue and local tourism bureaus, approached local bodies for sponsorship etc. – Stephan Kolassa Aug 26 '14 at 14:33
  • 1
    Yes, by yearS (plural) I was trying to indicate more than 12 month. – Peter Jansson Aug 26 '14 at 15:37
6

I'd say the main benefits are prestige and honor. To be able to organize a serious conference, you got to, as you pointed out, have a non-trivial amount of connections and be a respectable and accomplished member of the scientific community. At that point in ones life, some people may decide to use their status to promote their scientific community. In my experience, conferences are connected with the institution the leading scientist is from. So that also may be a significant amount of finances the institution will receive from organizing a conference on a regular basis. So, by contributing so much to the institution, the scientist will certainly hold a more favorable position among his colleagues and the institution itself. Besides, there might as well be a financial compensation for the scientist's efforts, which I (perhaps naively) think is a rare occurrence, since I know of only one such practice. Finally, many conferences are inclined to naming an award in honor of their founder, usually posthumously. Therefore, when/if the prestige of the conference rises, so does the importance of the award, and that is generally a nice way to be remembered and honored once you pass away.

So in a way, you organize a conference, because you can/want do demonstrate your ability to do so, i.e. proving the influential collaborators and accomplishments you acquired during your career. As awards you expect to be remembered and honored and to get satisfaction by the fact that you contributed significantly to your community.

5

It fills an acute need

Organizing a conference takes significant effort, but it also usually fills a need within a community. New conferences generally arise when some subfield or a geographic community within a field has a critical mass of research that they want to exchange, but that is poorly served by the existing options.

If ten years ago the FooBar conference occasionally got papers like "FooBaz is a nice new thing" but now there are many FooBaz papers that get rejected with reason "The paper is okay but outside the scope of FooBar" then everyone in the FooBaz community would benefit from a specialized conference on FooBaz - and if it is a success, then it often gets repeated and turns into a [semi]yearly tradition.

If you want to make progress in an emerging field, you are motivated to invest personal effort in making the field a success, to advertise your research and the related research that's growing out of it. If it's an estabilished field, then often you form some organization that unites the relevant scientists and is able to get funding and administrative resources for the explicit purpose of advancing that field - which involves organizing conferences.

It's a shared effort

I've actually never seen a scientist organizing a conference. Usually it would get managed by some university, institute or other organization (though through active initiative of their scientists) - it would piggyback on their existing administrative capacity. Similarly, organizing the papers and organizing the event is usually split among separate people so that the workload is manageable.

Also, I've seen many conferences that get 'rotated' among the community. If a conference makes sense, then multiple research centres are interested, otherwise you can just make a local seminar. If organizing a conference requires your [institution] involvement only, say, every 6 years, then it's not so tedious to make it intractable.

3

One benefit that I haven't seen mentioned yet, and one of the major reasons I organised a conference:

Once you've organised one, for the next few years after that, you have a good way to defend yourself against substantial pressure from colleagues to organise the next conference, on the grounds of it not being your turn, because you did it recently.

How long your immunity lasts will depend on the size and frequency of the conferences you usually attend.

  • Very interesting... so, is it like going to the dentist? ;-) – DavideChicco.it Sep 14 '14 at 0:55
  • 1
    No. Much worse. In my experience the conference organising involved more discomfort and over an extended period of months, as compared to a dentist's visit which may just be one hour. – Alnitak Sep 17 '14 at 9:30
2

Preamble

Having organized 3 different small-scale (~60 participants) events with international speakers on a variety of topics (one of which evolved into semi-annually workshop series), these are my personal rules of thumb for keeping it enjoyable (when done right it really is enjoyable!):

Separate the logistics from the contents

This is the hard part, and you are right to be dreadful about it. The solution: ask for help! For anything beyond 100 participants, you should consider hiring a professional conference organizer and forming a multi-person programm committee etc. For small-scale stuff, this is what I usally try to do.

  1. Start on time: 6-12 months is a good range. Remember that academic speakers have teaching loads they need to navigate in their schedules.

  2. Secure a budget from your manager (professer of your research group, or dean of your department)

    • it should cover speaker's travel reimbursements, catering and accomodation
    • optionally: speaker's gifts (bottle of wine, book etc.), after-conference dinner
    • for my events, $2K turned to be plenty (and there was no admission fee for participants!), and typically management won't think twice about it
  3. find a good office manager / secretary to take care of the practicalities:
    • beforehand: managing the mailinglist of participants, travel arrangements of speakers
    • during the day: name badges, coffee during breaks, drinks afterwards, printing handouts
  4. find support in the IT department for website related stuff:
    • announcements, registration, publication of presentations
    • live feed video is a whole different ball game (I have no experience with it, best left to the pros)
  5. find at least one colleague willing to share the burden with you:
    • this really helps to cover each other's workload peaks (teaching, papers etc.)

In my experience, asking people for help with such events is usually enthusiastically supplied. Especially office managers relish at the chance to break their daily routine and they will work wonders to get things done. Make sure to properly and publicly praise them at the closing of the event (e.g. give them flowers / small gift in front of the audience. Also invite them to the after-conference dinner).

Concentrate on the contents

The logistics out of the way (okay, you will need to periodically monitor people for their progress and potential hiccups, but that's no big deal), you can concentrate on what you do best: content!

  1. Find your niche: which unique gap in the world of conferences (both geographically and topic-wise) does your event fill?
  2. Define your audience: which people should attend and with what knowledge would you like them to return afterwards?
  3. Find good speakers
    • they should be familiar with -but not necessarily known to- the niche/audience that you are targetting (this depends a bit on your goal: getting the state-of-the-art from a world expert is different from getting an interesting and intellectually stimulating view on a topic from a relative outsider)
    • you should have witnessed them present at least once (either on video or live)
    • you would like to pick their brains afterwards (which is why after-conference dinners for speakers/organizers are so great: you get priviliged access to experts in the field, and they are usually in a great mood over a good meal / glass of wine)
    • this is really the main benefit: close interaction with experts. If you are professionally competent and nice to talk to, they will form a good opinion of you and this might give you career opportunities (speaking invitations, job offers based on word-of-mouth etc.)
  4. Find a good conference chair:
    • should be knowledgeable of the nice/audience
    • should be firm but not a dominant personality so as to get a focussed but also lively discussion between audience and speakers
    • you should have witnessed this person perform in that role at least once
    • if you yourself fit the bill on all three accounts above, just put yourself into that role. It will give you great exposure to an audience and will be a rewarding experience. But don't force yourself into it for the exposure alone (e.g. because you are too shy or too dominant to facilitate discussions).
  5. Mingle with the audience: apart from the speakers, talking to people in the audience is also very rewarding.

    • Obviously you will have to check up some of the logistics but with good support there is usually enough time to talk to a few people during the coffee breaks or at the drinks afterwards.
    • Even if you have no other role at the event, the fact that you are the organizer will register in people's minds and they will associate you to the topic of the day and this can lead to interesting future career opportunities (mostly small, like speaking invitations).

The worst two things that ever happened to me were:

  • a disappointing speaker (great-looking resume, nice phone interview before, but I had never watched that person speak and it was terrible, so now that's on the checklist)
  • a last-minute cancellation by a speaker (you cannot really plan against it because no-one would like to be a reserve-speaker, luckily the speaker enlisted a co-author as a substitute and that turned out to be a good experience)
  • 1
    Your answer is a little off topic but very interesting indeed :-) – DavideChicco.it Aug 27 '14 at 10:57
  • @DavideChicco.it I guess my main message is that you have to plan the benefits, it won't fall into your lap. But if you plan it right, the rewards are huge! – TemplateRex Aug 27 '14 at 10:59

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