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155. How to Plan A Seminar or Scientific Event

At some point in your graduate training, you’ll want to host an event.

For many students, that will mean inviting a speaker for a special seminar. For others, it might be an outreach event or a departmental retreat.

But no matter the purpose, you’ll probably feel a little lost as you try to nail down all the details during weeks or months of preparation.

We can’t make every scientist a certified event planner, but we’re here with a step-by-step guide for making your seminar or gathering a roaring success!

Event Planning 101

We start by sharing the hilarious and helpful article that inspired this episode: How (not) to plan a scientific event by Adam Ruben for Science Careers.

In it, Ruben relates his recent experience as an invited speaker at a University, only to find out that everything has gone wrong. He uses that story as a jumping-off point for all the ways you could REALLY screw up an event if you wanted to.

The advice is instructive, as long as you do the exact opposite! For example, he writes:

“If it’s a virtual event, provide a Zoom link—but only on paper, so that participants not only have to type an overwhelming string of characters but also have to figure out which ones are capital O’s and I’s versus zeroes and lowercase L’s. It should take participants at least an hour to type the information.”

We pick up his thread on the other side – what exactly SHOULD you be doing if you want to plan an event?

Planning is all about the Who, What, When, Where, and How on Earth am I supposed to get all of this done on time? We’ll start with the Who and What.

Know Your Audience

A successful event starts with understanding your audience – who exactly are you hosting this event for?

It’s the first consideration because it will help you determine so many other things about the event.

For example, if you want to host a seminar for grad students in your department, you might choose a speaker with a relevant career, you’ll pick a venue that will fit your cohort, and you’ll supply pizza. A seminar for the wider community might mean a bigger venue, a speaker who can translate complex topics for a lay audience, and much MORE pizza.

Do your best to define that target audience. Write it down and share it with your collaborators so you’re all on the same page about who this event will serve.

Timing is Everything

Next up, the “When?”

For any event, your goal is to book it at that perfect moment when everyone in the target audience can, and will, attend. That means avoiding conflicts, and aligning with motivations.

Conflicts come in many forms. Check your department calendar to make sure you’re not double-booking your event with the journal club, weekly seminar, or fall retreat. Avoid the major conference dates when people are either attending the meeting or scrambling to create a poster.

And it goes without saying that you’ll want to avoid holidays or even summer months when many people take extended vacations.

The time is just as important as the date! Pay attention to the department’s normal rhythm for events like yours. If you book the talk at 8AM on Monday morning, you can be sure no one will remember or be awake. Same for 6PM on Friday afternoon.

Instead, think about periods where there may be a natural lull in the work day. Lunchtime might work, especially if you can provide said lunch! Or opt for a Lunch and Learn where people can brown bag it.

Finding the Right Fit

We’ve covered the Who, What, and When – now we tackle the “Where?”

Knowing your audience comes in handy when choosing a seminar room or event space.

If it’s a grad student round-table with an invited faculty member, the ten-person conference table makes a great venue. But if you’re inviting a Nobel laureate that the whole town wants to hear, you’ll need a bigger space.

It can be awkward for the organizers and the speakers if the venue is too small (“People are lined up in the hallway!”) or too big for the audience (“Can everyone please move forward a few rows?”) And you may not know until the day arrives just how many people to expect.

That’s why we recommend providing a way for interested attendees to sign up in advance. This might be a simple as a web form, or it could be a platform like Meetup to register your guests.

Either way, it provides a TON of benefits, including giving you a really good idea how many people to expect so you can adjust the venue to match.

Get the Word Out

Finally, you’ve got most of the details worked out. You’ve invited an amazing speaker, chosen the best space on campus, and created a dazzling sign up form. But even after all of that, your event is going to be a dud if no one actually learns about it!

This is where we ask How? How will people find out about the event? How will they remember to attend on the day in question? How many boxes of donuts am I going to have to eat by myself if no one shows up?

Again, following your department’s lead on this is a good start. How do you normally learn about seminars and events? Is there a department newsletter you can share your event on? Is there a listserv you can spam?

Find places that your target audience is already gathered and hang flyers. Great options include in front of the elevator, or by the cash register in the cafeteria.

And don’t be shy about pulling down expired flyers on the bulletin board. You’re doing everyone a favor by recycling that old news.

You’ll use your sign-up form to gauge how successful you’ve been at reaching your audience. If you don’t see sign-ups after posting on the listserv, you still have time to try a few more options.

You’ll ALSO use your sign-up form to remind attendees about the event. Depending on the lead time, they may have forgotten the details, so a gentle reminder or a calendar invite will make sure they save the date and fill the seat.

We discuss those topics and more in this week’s episode! Join the conversation and tell us about YOUR event planning tips, or seminar disasters in the comments below!

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