On the conference I attended both oral sessions and symposia had topics and speakers in a row so it didn't become clear to me where exactly is the difference? Is it in the duration of the lectures or the expected audience size or something else?

  • 5
    A symposium is supposed to have barrels of wine. The name is literally derived from "let's all get hammered". – Ink blot Jul 24 '17 at 8:04
  • 3
    Relevant PHD Comic about what to call your academic event. – Ian Jul 24 '17 at 11:00

This may very well depend on the conference in question, the field, etc.

In the conferences I go to, which are in the biomedical/public health realm, broadly:

  • Symposia are all talks addressing a unified subjection/question/theme. "Should we be using universal contact precautions to address MRSA?", "Are causal inference methods and agent-based modeling methods compatible with each other?", etc. These talks are often deliberately solicited by the organizer.
  • Oral Sessions are often just collections of interesting talks on a much broader subject - "Infectious Diseases", "Bayesian Methods", etc. The talks themselves are often unsolicited, and just happen to be the best/most interesting/best fitting talks selected by the organizer.
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