Friday, August 17, 2018

How to successfully submit a conference session proposal

Conferences are a wonderful place to learn about exciting research happening in your field, to meet new people and/or potential collaborators and to catch up with old friends. Recently, I attended the annual Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) in Vancouver, Canada, which is the largest conference for statisticians in North America. One of the features of this conference is the program committee invites anyone to submit a proposal for an Invited Session. In terms of JSM, the due date is almost a year in advance of the conference. For example, Invited Session proposals for JSM 2019 (July 27-Aug 1, 2019) are due September 6, 2018. There are also other types of sessions called Topic-contributed Sessions and Contributed Sessions with due dates a bit later in the year. The problem is because this conference is so large, it requires a long time to read through the proposals and to organize all the sessions.

In previous years, I helped organize and participated in an invited session at JSM. This year, I submitted a proposal for a topic-contributed session, but it was elevated to a late-breaking session. Most recently, I organized an Invited Session, which was just accepted, for the 2019 Eastern North American Region (ENAR) International Biometric Society conference. Finally, I am on the program committee for the 2019 Symposium on Data Science and Statistics (SDSS).

Given my recent experiences organizing sessions for conferences and the JSM 2019 Invited Session proposals are due in a few weeks, I thought I would it would be relevant to write a blog post on strategies I use when putting together a proposal.

1. Come up with a interesting, timely and relevant topic. You might bounce ideas off of your colleagues to see if the topic would have wide enough interest and might be of interest or be relevant to a particular conference. This is often the most difficult part of organizing a session. If your topic is not really of interest to a wide enough audience, it is highly unlikely that it will be selected. However, you want it to be focused enough that you can reasonably talk about the topic in 1-2 hours.

2. Create a title and abstract for your session proposal. If you have thought carefully about the topic, this should be an easier step. The title should be succinct and representative of what you want your session to be about. The abstract should contain (1) why this topic is important and relevant, (2) the focus and goal of the session, (3) what the speakers will discuss. Ask a colleague to review the title and abstract to give you feedback.

3. Decide on speakers and send out invitation emails. First, think carefully about who is in your audience and who you want to invite. Some things to think about when coming up a list of potential speakers: their backgrounds, their expertise, their perspective, their ability to give good presentations and the diversity of the speakers. The last one is most commonly overlooked, but can bring such rich and valuable discussions if you have a diverse set of speakers.

Here is a suggested format to send the invitation emails:

Hi ____, 

I am organizing a <add name of session> session for the <add name of conference> conference in <add location> next year. The session will be focused on <add topic of session>. 

My goal with this session is for <add goal of session>. Instead of focusing on <a previously discussed topic>, I want to focus on <a new topic>. My hope for the session is that audience members will be able to <add what you want the audience to get out of the session>. 

As the <add the person's title, etc>, I would like to invite you to speak in the session <(or) join as a panel member to share your insight and perspectives (if a panel)>. Your expertise in <all the reasons why this person would be a good speaker> would be highly valuable and a great contribution to the session. 

I hope you will join the session if you plan to attend and aren’t otherwise committed. Could you let me know by <fill in the date> if you would be willing to speak? I plan to include 3-4 speakers <(or) panel members> and welcome suggestions for additional speakers. 

I am happy to answer any other questions that you may have. 

All the best, 
<add your name here>
<add your affiliation here>

Some will say yes, some will say no. If needed, send out more email requests. The main things are to explain (1) the details of the conference and session, (2) the focus and goal of the session, (3) why you are inviting them or why you think they would be a good contribution to the session, (4) and the date you need for them to respond to you by.

4. Submit a proposal to the conference by the due date. This usually includes at minium a title and an abstract. You also want to include the name of all the speakers who have agreed to participate in your session, their affiliations (departments / institutions / company name, etc), and usually an email address. This helps the conference organizers get a better idea of what will be discussed. This last one is often required, so check out what is needed for your specific conference.

5. Wait for a response from the conference organizers. This can be a quick or very long process, depending on how large the conference is. Typically the larger the conference, the longer it takes to go through all the proposals. JSM's Invited Session proposals are notoriously long:

And my favorite response from the amazing Shannon Ellis:

If your proposal is accepted, CONGRATULATIONS! Send an email to all the speakers to share the good news. They will need to register and may need to submit individual abstracts for each of their respective talks. Remind the speakers of any upcoming deadlines. If not, consider trying again next year!

Most importantly, if you are a student or postdoc, organizing a conference session can be a fantastic way to meet people in your field! You have the opportunity to craft a session on a topic that excites you the most and chair that session. Conferences need fresh perspectives and new ideas, and I find students and postdocs actively working on a research topic have some of the most insightful suggestions.

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