Edited by: Caitlin Hafferty, Countryside & Community Research Institute, University of Gloucestershire.
Conference sessions can be an enjoyable and worthwhile experience for the session organisers, participants, and audience. Being a session organiser at any conference is a valuable and respected role, with benefits for not only those directly involved, but for the audience and wider community. The skills and experience gained by contributing to an exciting and dynamic conference programme are numerous – it helps build confidence, time management and organisational skills; expands your knowledge within a relevant area of research; is an excellent way to make new contacts in your field, with potential for future collaborations; improves your knowledge of conference organisation and structure; and is ultimately a great opportunity to meet and work with researchers from all over the world!
While the benefits are clear, the process can quite often be confusing and even daunting, particularly for a first-time organiser. With the call for sessions for the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual International Conference 2020 (RGS-IBG AC2020) now open (see here for more details), this blog post contains some reflections from members of the geographical postgraduate community on their personal experiences of organising an RGS-IBG conference session. You can find all the information you need to know, including some great ideas for creative session formats, on the RGS-IBG website.
In this post, we hear from four postgraduate researchers – all at different stages in their research, and from different backgrounds in geography and related subjects. Each reflective account sheds light on different aspects of their experiences, in an honest and informal manner, to provide support and a valuable source of information on the process of organising a conference session during your PhD. This includes their experiences of choosing a session theme and format; arranging session sponsorship by RGS-IBG Research Groups (you don’t need sponsorship to have a session included in the programme, however it can be useful in terms of branding and promotion of your session – see here for more details); advice on time management and meeting deadlines; and tips on overcoming any issues faced during the organisation process.
We hope that this provides some helpful insights, guidance, and top tips to support postgraduates who are considering submitting a session proposal for AC2020 but are unfamiliar with the process, could make use of some support from fellow postgraduates, or are just not sure where to begin!
Faye Shortland, PhD Researcher at the University of Birmingham.
Faye convened a session at the 2019 RGS-IBG Annual International Conference in London, UK titled “Multiple Understandings of the ‘Rural’: A Diverse Methodological Approach”. This session invited contributions from researchers at any stange to engage in a vibrant discussion on different methodological approaches within contemporary rural geographical research. The session followed a paper presentation (with discussant) format, and was sponsored by the Postgraduate Forum (PGF).
How did you become involved with organising a session at the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference?
I became involved as I had previously attended the Annual Conference in 2018, and had since been on the committee for the RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum (PGF). I’m now in my second term as Annual Conference Officer for the PGF, with the responsibility of organising and coordinating the RGS-IBG PGF session sponsorship. This role really inspired me to want to convene a session for myself! I was familiar with the logistics of running a session, so thought that it was worth having a go myself on the off-chance that other researchers would like to participate. Myself and my colleague, Caitlin, then created our session and thankfully it was a great success!
What were your experiences of working to the deadlines set by the conference organisers?
The deadlines for convening a session might seem a bit confusing at first – you need to come up with your session idea preferably before Christmas, so that you can refine it and submit it by the usual (early) January deadlines. For some research groups, however, this will be earlier. As long as you have a fairly solid idea for your session pre-Christmas, you should have plenty of time to meet the deadlines. Doing it before Christmas also allows you the time to send your session proposal to various research groups and see if they’re interested in sponsoring you. The longer you have to do this the better, as research group Secretary’s may be very busy during this period!
How did you ensure that you had enough contributions to your session in case of any last-minute cancellations?
This is one of the more stressful elements of convening a session! You have to send your call for papers far and wide to ensure you have got enough coverage and enough people submitting papers. We did this via social media (Twitter is an excellent platform!), mailing lists like the Critical Geography Forum, and University departments.
Even if the call for papers is successful, however, life happens and people may drop out last minute – which is completely understandable and should not cause you too much stress! Have a list of back-up options if possible, for example people you had to reject but would have taken on had you the space. That way, if people drop out at the last minute you can ask these people if they would like to step in. Also, do not panic too much if by the time the conference comes round you have not got a ‘full’ session, my session was not full to capacity so instead we gave the three speakers longer to discuss their work – this made for a friendly environment and good discussions around different methodologies. Sometimes less is more!
How did you find balancing your PhD work alongside organising a session, particularly in the run-up to conference deadlines?
As long as you plan ahead and have a session idea in mind by December you shouldn’t struggle too much with the balancing of your PhD and the session deadlines. I was undertaking my fieldwork the year I organised a session and I still found it perfectly manageable. It mostly means you have to be on your emails a bit more – ready to answer questions, read session proposals, and ultimately decide which ones to accept by the February deadline. So you might want to just double check you have internet connection if you are away on fieldwork during this time period, or if like me, you convene a session with a colleague make sure they have access to internet and can update you in another way! Convening a session shouldn’t take over your life, it should be fun, and a way to make new connections and enjoy the conference.
What knowledge and skills did you develop from your experience as a session convenor?
I gained an insight into how a large conference such as the RGS-IBG Annual Conference works – it’s quite a feat! A lot of people are involved from staff to volunteers. As long as you stick to deadlines and frameworks given to you, it should be fine! I certainly developed the skill of quickly replying to emails and efficiently collecting all the session proposals and organising them away in folders, so none got lost!
Overall, what advice would you give to someone considering submitting a session proposal for AC2020?
I would say go for it! It will be enjoyable, and running your own session is particularly pleasing. You’ve put all the hard work into pulling it off and seeing members of the audience enjoying it is worth the work! The interesting conversations and contacts that come out of it are also vital – especially if your session closely relates to your own work. So definitely go for it, it is not scary, just requires a certain level of organisation, thinking on your feet if something goes wrong, and sticking to deadlines!
Viktoria Noka, PhD Researcher at the University of Glasgow.
Viktoria convened a session at the 2019 RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, titled “Emerging Voices in Political Geography: Reclaiming Success”. This session invited speakers to reflect on the ways in which we can reclaim success, large and small, in academia (for example applying for ethical approval, overcoming writer’s block, or managing complications in the field). This session consisted of three short presentations (10 minutes) followed by a world café discussion round and two discussants, and was sponsored by the Political Geography Research Group (PolGRG).
How did you decide on, and develop, the theme of your session?
Choosing a session theme is in some sense the hardest, but also the most enjoyable part of organising a session. You have complete control over what the session entails, but you also want to make sure that it attracts enough interest so that people will apply for it and come to it at the conference itself. In my experience keeping it relatively broad can be a good thing but offering suggestions on the kind of inputs that you might expect can also stimulate contributions. In our case, unfortunately no one applied to give a paper in our proposed session. This of course can happen and it’s often not a reflection of the session proposal itself but can come down to a whole number of things. In this case it makes sense to extend the deadline for paper submissions, if possible. If you know somebody who might be interest in your session it also makes sense to contact them directly to ask if they would be interested in giving a paper for your session. In our case, we decided to do the talks ourselves. There were three of us organising the session so that filled the short presentation slots at the beginning and the most important part of the session was the workshop and the contributions from the two discussants at the end, so for the format we had chosen it worked.
How did you select a format for your session?
In terms of session format, the more discussion elements you bring into the session the more organising it’s going to take. That being said, I found that organising it as a workshop format and having discussants was really effective in stimulating conversations and ensuring that the session doesn’t go stale. It’s also the best way to make the session more engaging and interactive, especially if you encourage break-out discussion groups. Those who are usually too intimidated to ask a question in front of the whole room might be more likely to contribute when in smaller groups. In terms of the workshop it is worth noting that the RGS does provide materials, i.e. markers and clipboard papers in our case.
Do you have any insights concerning the arrangement of session sponsorship by RGS-IBG Research Groups?
Because I was part of the PolGRG I also got some insight into how the session sponsorship works with the research groups. Each research group gets allocated a certain number of session slots that they are allowed to sponsor – I think that year PolGRG got about 20. If there are more applications to sponsor session that there are slots, which is almost always the case, the research group has to decide which session to sponsor. The session abstracts are made available to the committee members and each member can cast a vote on whether they think the research group should sponsor the session or not. Those session proposal with the most votes will get the sponsorship.
What were your experiences of submitting your session proposal, and working to the deadlines?
The process of applying to the RGS is quite specific, but easy enough if you know what to do in what order. The RGS will set a deadline for submitting a session proposal (usually in Feb), but for this proposal you already need to have the papers for the session confirmed. That means you have to send out a call for papers for your session before you submit it to the RGS without any guarantee that your session (and the papers in it) will be accepted. You also have to ask for session sponsorship from research groups before you submit your final session proposal to the RGS. The research groups will usually have a deadline around January for this. When you’re applying for sponsorship from research groups all you need to submit is your abstract for the session. That means you could either send out the Call for Papers around the same time without confirmation of sponsorship or wait until after you’ve gotten sponsorship from a research group, but this might get tricky with deadlines!
The (rather confusing) order of getting things done when organising a session:
- Decide on session theme (this includes writing an abstract).
- Decide on session format (consider interactive sessions and whether you may need two slots).
- Send out Call for Papers (with early deadline!).
- Apply for research group sponsorship (you only need to send your abstract, not the papers at this point; you might want to wait until after you get session sponsorship to send out the CfP but make sure you’re deadlines won’t get too close if you do!).
- Finalise paper contributions (decide which papers are going to be in your session).
- Fill out RGS application form (you can find this online) with your session abstract and the paper contributions.
What advice would you give to someone considering submitting a session proposal for AC2020?
My number one piece of advice would be to find one or two other people to organise the session with. Sharing the workload and, more importantly, having someone to discuss questions about procedure and content with makes the whole experience much easier and more enjoyable. It’s also a great way to connect with other postgrads who are working in similar fields. I would also recommend asking around in your department because chances are one of the other PhD students has already gone through the process of organising a session and can give you advice on the ins and outs of the whole process.
Aimee Morse, PhD Researcher at the Countryside and Community Research Institute, University of Gloucestershire.
Aimee is a first year PhD student who is currently considering submitting her first session proposal for AC2020. The theme of the session is to be confirmed, however will broadly relate to “Connected Rural Landscapes”. Aimee is hoping to have her session sponsored by the Rural Geography Research Group (RGRG) and the Postgraduate Forum (PGF), allowing the session to take up two time slots.
How did you become involved with organising a session?
I was made aware of the call for sessions while attending the Rural Geography Research Group’s interim meeting, and the session proposal form was sent round in an email not long after this. The RGS-IBG Annual Conference website is a fantastic place to start when looking for key information – it’s packed with tips. It’s also really helpful to talk to people who have previous experience of organising sessions, they’ll be able to tell you more about what to expect and things to be aware of! As it’s the first time I’ll be organising a session, I’m working with the few people from the Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI) who have done it all before – just so I have someone to go to if I’m unsure about anything!
What were your experiences of coming up with a session theme?
The theme actually came to me pretty quickly. I was thinking about my own research, and what sort of session I would choose to submit to if I were to present a paper this year. The idea of connectedness stood out to me as something that can be interpreted in numerous ways, and I felt that having a broad theme which would bring academics from different theoretical backgrounds together for discussion would be quite interesting, especially as we’re moving into a new decade of research, and one that’s likely to be important for rural areas in the UK!
In the early stages of session planning, what are your preliminary thoughts on a suitable session format?
This is still a work in progress, though as mentioned it would be good to have some discussion over research directions for the coming decade. With two sessions, I would hope to have some presentations, and then time for a longer discussion in the second session about the papers that have been presented and the key themes and take home messages that came out of them.
What advice would you give to someone who is also considering submitting a session proposal for AC2020?
Find a few people you can go to for advice, and think about research areas which interest you to make sure you find chairing the session as valuable an experience as possible!
Katie Brailsford, PhD Researcher in the School of Environment, Geography & Geosciences at the University of Portsmouth.
Katie is currently involved with planning a session for the 2020 RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, titled “At the border of family”. The session will comprise of 5 x 15 minute paper presentations, each with 5 minutes of question time each.
How did you become involved with organising a session?
I was inspired to organise a session, through attending several sessions organised by PGR and ECR’s at the 2019 RGS annual conference. If they can do it why can’t I? It was through conversations at the conference that the seed of the idea was planted and after talking with Amy Walker, a fellow PhD student, we decided to work as a team to organise a session for 2020. So far, this process has involved refining our ideas and following the guidance on the RGS website to produce an abstract, create a title and decide on the preferred organisation of our session. We have also applied for sponsorship from one of the RGS research groups, this is not mandatory but can help with promotion and support of the proposed session.
What advice would you give to someone considering submitting a proposal for AC2020?
Personally, organising a session scares me, but in every year of my PhD journey so far, I have tried to do at least one thing that scares me. In my first year of my PhD I presented a poster, in the second year I gave a verbal presentation, so the natural next step for me is to organise a session. BUT not all journeys are the same and whatever stage you are at along your journey, why don’t you just give it a go? You really have nothing to lose and so much to gain – confidence, friendships, networking, advancing knowledge in an area that excites you, to name a few. Importantly you are not alone, the RGS website gives a wealth of information about session organisation and if you decide to go for sponsorship. If you secure session sponsorship, you will also have a whole RGS research group behind you, promoting and supporting you the whole way.
Crucially, this does not have to be a solo mission. Reach out to fellow PhD students and start those conversations – it could be the start of something beautiful. Finally, if you decide to go for it good luck, Tweet about it and it would be great to meet up with fellow first-time session convenors at the Annual Conference in 2020!