Confessions of a student conference organiser: 3 tips for keeping your sanity

Organising a conference is sort of like painting, the devil is in the details. Step back and the view is complete, whole and coherent.  Look a little more closely and you can notice a thousand minute details – the variety of brush strokes, the spectrum of colours, the layers of paint used.  Perhaps the part that you’re looking at seems insignificant, or maybe unnecessary. Step back again and suddenly every bit seems to make sense.

That’s sort of how I feel about being a student conference organiser.  It’s a hell of a lot of work and attention to detail which, I hoped, in the end made the PGR Student Conference 2012 a good one.  Historically the PGR Student Conference was organised by staff and was predominantly for PGRs studying at the School of Education at the University of Manchester.  My partner in crime, the brilliant Andrew Davies, thought that maybe this year the conference could student led and, if possible, extended beyond the School of Education.  The seed was sown and around this time last year we found ourselves starting to plan the conference.

Without going into the details of the process we undertook in hindsight (as always) I saw that I actually managed to keep myself sane during the whole process.  I’d like to share 3 tips for those thinking of planning large scale events around doing a full time PhD:

1) Your PhD is your priority, so plan ahead and plan strategically.  Speaking for myself I knew that the 4 weeks prior to the conference (basically all of July) were going to be primarily focused on conference related work so I planned my PhD accordingly.  This meant reorganising my schedule in order to make time to do what needed to be done to get this conference off the ground.  In terms of the conference itself, Andrew and I found it really useful to create a to-do list of everything that needed to be done.  We attached due dates to each item and allocated one of us to be responsible for making sure it’s done on time.  When this was done I could compare my PhD schedule with the conference to-do list and adjust my schedule as needed.  When unexpected things came up that needed to be sorted I was able to basically go with the flow.  I was more flexible with my schedule since I had an overall plan that helped me keep control of my time.

2) Let the team know what your thinking and what you’re going to do.  I realise that working in a team of two made decision making easy.  We consulted a number of staff and students about different aspects of the conference but ultimately the decisions were up to us.  These conversations were sometimes face to face, other times they were over email.  The key was letting each other know what the other was thinking (in terms of ideas), asking for feedback and, when the time came to getting stuff done, we knew the other was coming from.  I believed this eliminated feelings of “oh that was my idea” since ideas were shared, discussed and ultimately owned by us as a team.  This leads me to the last point…

3) Do what you say you’re going to do.  Andrew and I worked particularly well in that we kept each other in the loop by emailing or texting when we sorted something out.  Equally if we were having trouble and needed help we’d let the other person know.  There was an element of trust that was built because I knew that he’d get X done and that I wouldn’t have to worry about doing it myself.  This was particularly motivating for me because I was able focus on meeting my responsibilities which, in the long run, saved us time.

These tips sound like common sense yet they’re essential to managing your time and resources.  Andrew and I, bit by bit, task by task, contributed to the bigger picture so that on the day, when the fruits of our planning was put to test, we weren’t running around doing some last minute organisation.  Instead we were hosting the conference and having a great time doing it.  Was everything perfect – no. Did it go off without any hitches – not quite. Was it stressful – very! Did we manage to keep our sanity during the process – absolutely.  Doing a PhD is stressful enough to the point where sometimes feel you just don’t have time for anything else.  I found that putting in the effort to get organised allowed me to try different experiences that I can add to my CV without compromising my studies.  It’s well worth the effort.

2 thoughts on “Confessions of a student conference organiser: 3 tips for keeping your sanity

  1. Congratulations to you and Andrew on hosting a successful student conference. Many people don’t realize the time and effort that go into organizing such events.

    .. and thanks for the ‘keeping your sanity’ tips 🙂


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