How to organize a small workshop in your department

In academia, we have to serve the community in many ways, e.g. by reviewing conference abstracts and journal articles (see previous post), editing conference proceedings, organizing colloquia/workshops/conferences, representing faculty members/students or scholarly bodies, etc. I mentioned in a previous post pthat the “management skills” section of your CV needs to be filled by the time you apply for competitive postdoc grants. Organizing a small workshop is a great opportunity to learn those valuable skills, and to build connections with PIs and young researchers in your department.

In December 2017, I co-organized a workshop for the first time, and since I am repeating this experience once again this year, I thought I would share some practical advice.

Choose a theme.

The workshop should be innovative and unique to your department. Be observant. If you notice that your colleagues need to be informed about a novel practice in the field (e.g. new statistics, open science practices, guidelines for a grant proposal, etc.), then it means you found a worthy topic.

The workshops that I organize are providing practical information and advice for early career researchers and students about topics that aren’t typically formally taught or discussed (see the website for Academic Skills Workshop 2017-2018). The turnout was great, because a lot of students and postdocs were curious and felt as though they were not informed about these things by their advisors or during their lab meetings.

Build a team.

The first time I organized a workshop, I had the pleasure to co-organize it with Alya Vlassova, who was my office mate at the time. It was really convenient to work with her on this project, since we could brainstorm about new ideas and update each other on our progress on a daily basis. This time, I sent an email to the graduate students and postdocs of the whole department to ask for help. Three people came forward. We quickly fixed a day and a time for a casual weekly meeting, and created a google project with schedules, spreadsheets about emails exchanges, etc. The organization should not be too time-consuming, so don’t hesitate to set boundaries and share responsibilities with your teammates.

Get support.

Contact the head of your department to discuss your workshop idea well in advance (e.g. 3-4 months), because the budget for these types of activities is always planned ahead. During the meeting, you should present the main idea, the rough schedule of the day, along with the approximate budget. If you are not sure about the financial part of the workshop, the head of the department will refer you to a knowledgeable person. If you’re thinking of organizing a full day (or a half day workshop), you will need some money to pay for lunch and/or coffee for the attendees and speakers. If the planned workshop mainly targets your department, it should be free for the attendees. As schools usually deal with specific caterers, the budget can be surprisingly high. For example, a 500 euros budget should be enough if you expect about 50 attendees (coffee + lunch)!

Invite speakers.

Make a list of the people you want to invite based on their expertise. Have a tentative schedule ready when you invite them, and if you did not set a date yet, invite them to answer a doodle. For example:


Hi X,

X and myself are organising an inter-lab XXXXXX workshop with the help of DEPARTMENT NAME, to be held on DATE. The workshop will focus on providing information about XXX.

We were hoping you would be able to present on  XXXXXX. We think of you as an expert on this subject. We would like you to present for ~20 minutes (+10 minutes for questions). The tentative schedule for the day is available here.  

Please let us know if you would be willing to prepare a short talk on the topic, and if you would also be willing to participate in a general questions panel session at the end of the day.

X

Once they have accepted, you should guide your speakers while they prepare their talks through informal meetings or email exchanges. Since you evidently had an idea in mind for the topic they are covering, you should give them a list of questions to answer.

If you feel you are up to it, you can be one of the speakers. If not, you should nonetheless prepare a short talk at the beginning of the day, and prepare brief introductions for the others speakers.

Publicize the workshop.

If you managed to get some support from your department, you should have a bit of funding for publicity. You should advertise your workshop via emails (to the public), and via posters. Send an email invitation to the whole department, ask people to register (to get an approximate number of attendees for the food budget), and send an email reminder a week before. If your department sends emails on a weekly or monthly basis about upcoming activities and conferences, ask the person in charge to add your workshop to the list (hopefully posting it on the website too!).

Get some feedback after the workshop.

Send an email to the attendees after the workshop to get their feedback. The head of the department might like to get some stats in order to justify their investment. Prepare a simple form that is easily accessible (e.g. google form). Here’s a short list of questions you might use:

  • What is your position? (e.g., Master student, PhD student, Postdoc, Faculty, Research staff)
  • Which one of the talks did you attend? (Give a full list)
  • How would you rate the workshop from 1 to 5 (5 being the best)?

Attendees could rate the overall format, the relevance, the usefulness, and the quality of presentation.

You can also add open questions, such as:

  • What was your favorite part of the workshop?
  • Were you disappointed by the content of the workshop?

Finally, you can ask for ideas for a next workshop, and start again next year 🙂

Mireille Babineau

Mireille is a postdoctoral researcher at the LSCP, at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. She is interested in how young children acquire language and learn to map new words to their meaning.