I just organized a conference. OMG.

Image: Puzzle pieces CC0 via pxhere.com

Well, not just me, of course.  I co-organized* a conference (this one).  Still.

So, quick post this week – as I write, I’m procrastinating some last-minute tasks; and when this posts, I’ll be on the conference centre floor putting out (hopefully metaphorical) fires.

Here’s what I learned organizing a conference (and it won’t surprise any veteran of the task): the task is much, much bigger than you think; and even after you’ve adjusted what you think because you know it’s much, much bigger than you think, it’s still much, much bigger than that.

I learned that a conference has an unbelievable number of moving parts.  And no matter what you do, some of them won’t fit together, so compromises have to be made.

I learned that a few people, inevitably, won’t understand that last bit and will complain angrily and publicly.   It takes hundreds of hours (not exaggerating!) to organize a conference.  It takes a few seconds to post an angry tweet about one little piece that isn’t the way you’d like it.

I learned that if your conference has 600 presenters (and that’s not even a very big conference), then the book of abstracts is 127,000 words long.  That’s about as long as my two books put together, and it all needs to be formatted and proofread.  And that’s only one little piece – the simplest one – of producing a program.

I learned that even if you make no mistakes at all, you can’t organize the perfect conference.  There are, for instance, always a few talks that don’t fit any session particularly well, and a few talks that fit one session well but can’t be squeezed into it and so have to go somewhere else.

I learned that “even if you make no mistakes at all” is a phrase that’s essentially irrelevant, because conferences are organized by humans and humans make mistakes.  They just do.

I learned that conferences mostly  survive all the difficulties I’ve just listed – because I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve ever been to (despite needing to conference as an introvert).

Now, learning is best when it results in changed behaviour.  In my case: what I’ve learned has led me to make a resolution. I resolve to never again complain about hitches in conference organization.  I know now the scale and difficulty of the work – much (sometimes all) of it volunteer work** – involved.  Would I call out malfeasance by conference organizers? I hope so – but I’m resolved to be very careful to separate malfeasance from imperfection, and to give the latter the accommodation it deserves.

By the way: I’m not telling you this to dissuade you from taking on a conference-organizing role.  Yes, it was an enormous amount of work.  Yes, there were some unpleasant parts.  But it was fun to work with some great people and we feel like we accomplished something really special. (You know what?  I just described the rest of my job too.)  Don’t be dissuaded: everyone should get involved at least once.

And I hope everyone at #EcoEvoEnto2019 this week returns home with a new idea, a new collaborator, or a new friend.

© Stephen Heard  August 20, 2019


*^With an enormous cast of characters. To start, we had four co-chairs of the Local Organizing Committee: Julia Mlynarek, Chandra Moffat, Rob Johns, and me.  Then we had a dozen or so subcommittees.  We got help from the Councils of the three Societies involved; from the association management company one of them contracts with; from staff in my academic department, my lab, and some collaborators’ labs; from my university’s conference services office; and no doubt from some other folks who I’ve forgotten in my current discombobulated state.

**^Large academic conferences – I’d guess most that are >1,000 in attendance – use conference management companies to replace a lot of the volunteer work.  “A lot of” does not equal “all of”.

4 thoughts on “I just organized a conference. OMG.

  1. Marco Mello

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I feel pretty much the same way, after having helped organize dozens of conferences and having presided one myself. Yes, the main lesson to be learned is to think twice, before complaining about the organization. And never to complain in public, or worse, on social media. I’ve also learned that being the leader of a conference is an honor I gladly pass on.

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    1. Matthew Holden

      I also just organized a conference, and I totally get everything said here. People have no idea how much work is involved. My general opinion is that big conferences run by societies should have checklists for organizers to work out some common glitches that could go wrong, but conference-goers should also not sweat the small stuff.

      I think it’s absolutely a good thing for conference-goers to complain about big-picture things like scholarships, costs, equity, etc. But small details less so. I found it annoying when a conference I attended scheduled the session “Topic A – 1” concurrently with “Topic A – 2”, but in the end, those sorts of mistakes can happen, and complaining really serves no purpose. However, if you schedule your conference in a developing country and the cost of attendance is so high that no one from that developing country is attending, that is a “big picture” problem and complaints should be made.

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  2. Marlene Zuk

    Ditto, ditto, ditto. I wish I could think of something more useful to say, but having done the same, all of this is true. Also, try to get help from people who have done it before, so you don’t spend too much time reinventing the wheel.

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  3. Pingback: Friday links: the gender gap in political science, birds=rabbits, cartoon vs. Jeremy, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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