The best laid plans…10 top tips for planning a conference as a PhD student!

By Meg Booth, University of Cambridge

At the start of my PhD I decided to seek out some careers advice. I was told that many PhD students spend 100% of their time in the lab and neglect their all-important CVs. For jobs both in and out of academia, having a couple of stand-out points on your CV is as important as the PhD itself. During my undergraduate degree I worked part time doing event promotions for a national radio station and the University of Liverpool. Therefore, the logical decision was to organise an event for other PhD students!

lecture theatre-MB post

As an impressionable first year student in my first term of a PhD, I decided it would be good idea to organise a one-day professional development conference, single handed, and apply to various societies for money to help with the costs. There were a couple of set backs, including one conversation where I was asked, quite seriously, by a senior academic “What is the need for this anyway and why do you feel the need to take time out of your PhD to do this”? I also had to delay the conference by four months, due to said pesky PhD getting in the way. However, despite all this, the day was a huge success.

The programme involved talks from various prominent scientists within the department and even a BBC Horizon star (Dr Giles Yeo), as well as a careers event and networking time. My lunch time was spent panicking that delegates would go back to their labs and not come back! Whilst this did happen with a few people, the careers event in the afternoon was a success and many people did return (perhaps the promise of afternoon coffee helped)! By 5pm I was ready to sink into a comfy chesterfield in the local pub with a well-deserved pint!

The event was great fun to organise and I would recommend that other early career members do something similar. Not only did I gain a lot from the organised sessions, but I also developed my time management, budgeting, and organisational skills. I had to organise the whole conference programme at the same time as teaching, lab work and having a social life, and being able to successfully juggle everything has boosted my confidence. It is important for personal and professional skills development to show on your CV that you can do manage various projects around your PhD or Masters programme. Here, I share with you some of the things I wish I had known at the start and top tips for you to organise your own conference!

My top 10 tips to anyone thinking about organising a similar event:

  1. Do it – it may seem like a daunting task, but it is great fun and you will develop a lot of skills.
  2. Apply for a small grant to help you with costs, for example, from a Learned Society like the Biochemical Society – if you want to go in academia, showing that you can win grants at PhD level will look great on your CV. Even if you don’t want to go into academia, the experience of managing a budget is a valuable experience.
  3. Find a committee to help you – I organised the conference on my own, but it would have been much better to have a team of people each doing different jobs. I underestimated how many tasks were involved and the time it would take. On the day I ended up running around like a headless chicken, trying to split myself into 10 pieces! Luckily, I had a couple of fantastic people who turned up to help (even my Fiancé got dragged into helping with logistics!)
  4. Advertise early – you don’t want your hard work to go to waste when no one turns up! This was very nearly the case with me when I got to a month before the event and realised I had 10 people signed up! In the end around 60 people turned up (that was a huge relief)! So, make posters, send emails and maybe even have a stall at a relevant event (eg, Fresher’s week).
  5. Contact guest speakers early and give them a strict brief to stick to. This will prevent speakers from presenting very similar talks and the sessions becoming repetitive.
  6. Sign up to a free event management website so that you can track sign ups.
  7. Give people an incentive to attend! This could include free tea/coffee or a free lunch.
  8. On the day get there early and have someone managing sign ups – i.e. handing out name badges, programmes etc.
  9. Check audio visual equipment and make sure slide formatting carries over.
  10. Have fun! If something goes wrong, don’t worry. Be proud of yourself for organising a great event!

About me

Meg Booth2-croppedI’m Meg Booth and I am a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. I am an avid science communicator and huge science geek with a passion for biochemistry. When I’m not doing lab work, outreach or editorial work, I can usually be found horse riding, playing squash and eating nice food! I have recently joined the Editorial Board for ‘The Biochemist’ as the student representative, so you will be hearing a lot more from me over the coming months!

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