Monday, January 23, 2012

Brainstorming conference sessions for young researchers

I've just been asked to help organize a "young researcher" section of a conference. This boils down to having some control over the formatting and content of 4-5 hours of talks given by current PhD students and post docs. I also have some leeway to organize other events (pending approval by the main organizers) that would be seen as beneficial to these young researchers.

I'm excited by this prospect. As a grad students, I would have loved to be to more conferences that broke from the 5-6 hour long talks a day, and did something really creative and different that helped students and post docs get more involved in research different from what they are currently working on. I've been to a few different formats that have attempted this:

1) There were Q&A sessions with experts that happened after the day's talks. This worked fairly well. Students who really wanted to engage a particular PI could do so in a classroom like setting, and there was a lot of open discussion between participants who wanted to attend a particular PI's Q&A session. However, after a full day of conference, a 2 hour Q&A session was just exhausting.

2) A round table discussion of open problems. I like this in theory, but the time I've attended something like this, the formatting of the session didn't leave time or the means for in depth discussion of proposed problems. The PIs spoke often spoke in broad sweeping terms. It is possible that others approached the PIs afterwards with good questions. The session did not inspire me with such questions so I do not know if it was effective for others.

3) Problem sessions for students. Like the Q&A sessions, but they involve speakers giving lectures, like one would in a classroom, often with homework problems. Again, a great idea to get someone who is missing a chunk of knowledge up to speed. The time I saw it implemented, the sessions were pitched at too slow a speed.

I'm wondering if anyone else has any other ideas for different formats to help young researchers enter or branch out into a field. What have you seen in conferences that have worked, or not worked. What have you always wanted to implement/see implemented if you had the chance?


  1. Conference 'speed-dating'? Seen it done with a range of 'people with interesting careers' not just the top academics, interested post-docs/grads could sign up and get to talk one-on-one with people for 5-10 minutes and of course having met once could then meet again in the conference venue...

  2. Given how the job market is, it is best to organize sessions that would make young researchers as miserable as possible, so that unless they are incredibly talented or a minority of some sort, they rush for the door.

    To quote from the Simpsons, grad students have made a terrible life choice :) Help them :D

  3. Society for Research in Adolescence runs some great conference sessions for students / emerging professionals. They are very well attended and feedback from first two years was overhwelmingly positive (coffee sessions and lunch are very popular) - described here