The Academic Workshop Organiser’s Checklist

It’s been about a month since we wrapped our ‘Photonics for Medical Diagnostics Workshop’, organised jointly by my good friend and colleague Maria Chernysheva (Follow her at @MAChernysheva!), a Royal Academy of Engineering Fellow at AIPT, and myself. Even though it was a relatively short (2-day) and small (~30-35 attendees) workshop, it took us a good four months in total to put it together.

With the wounds of the battle healing, I thought it will be a good time to put together a quick checklist of sorts for posterity. I personally perceive the items on this list to be a bit off-beat – these are ones which have the potential to slip away beneath our radar, sometimes owing to our pre-existing cognitive biases, and more often that we would like to admit, the incurable human condition of optimism.

The items on this list range from organisational aspects, to budgeting, to on-the-day prep, and is prepared in the context of a workshop/event organised within University or similar premises, so the principle actors and stakeholders can change depending on the situation. Of course, the usual disclaimer of non-exhaustiveness applies. So, here we go!

1. Laser pointer

Don’t undermine the importance of the laser pointer/presentation device! If you are the main organiser of the workshop/conference, it is most likely you will also be the first person to come in. You then shalt behold the laser pointer, and spare batteries. Do not delegate this.

 2. Mac HDMI adapters

This occupies a similar priority as the above – as a main organiser, keep this on person. This too is a “non-delegatable”.

3. Have a dry rehearsal with the presentation devices

…even if you have worked with them, day in and day out. Like with printers which can sense fear and urgency, projectors may act up in the last minute. Also, a dry run may rule out any software and presentation incompatibilities. Or worse, Windows updates…

4. Bring your mobile phone charger

You need to be connected and available at all times, and it is not always possible to keep your laptop open. Keep replenishing your phone charge at every available opportunity. If you have a portable battery pack, then better. But remember to charge your battery pack the night before.

5. Essential phone numbers

Imagine if you suddenly find out that the poster boards haven’t arrived on to the sixth floor of the Main Building from the third floor of the North Wing two blocks away, or the tables haven’t been arranged as discussed – and your -poster session starts in an hour. You will need extra hands. Make sure you have essential phone numbers on speed-dial, or at least, handy. The most common ones are those of IT services, estates, and of course, security.

6. Co-ordinate with security personnel about timings

…especially if you are organising a workshop evening drinks session in premises, or if you are organising it over the weekend. Main entrances could be closed, and you might have to involve one of your student volunteers to show in the guests. Also, check with them about fire-alarm protocols.

7. The +10 catering rule

For instance if your guest list has 30 attendees, and you are booking for coffee/tea – book for 10 more people. There will invariably be guests or colleagues who pop by to network, or somebody might not have had breakfast because they were busy preparing their presentation, were hopping flights, or quite simply jet-lagged.

The same applies for dinner catering – especially at the earlier stages of budgeting. It is good to be prepared for last minute plus-ones and industry guests, or even someone you might simply run into. Ask your catering service provider beforehand if they can arrange for a few more heads (or cancel for some) on short notice. If you are tight on budget, bring down the number a bit, but be sure to make room for more than you require. You will know if your catering guys are experienced if they offer this themselves.

8. Dietary requirements

This is equally important if your workshop is multi-national/multi-cultural. Co-ordinate with your catering provider on what options they can work towards.

9. Point of contact for guests

Assign a point of contact for guests, or if possible, at least two – especially for guests from overseas. Having contingencies help, especially if the main organisers are fire-fighting elsewhere. Best practice – send out an email with important emails, phone numbers, twitter ids, and maps before their arrival.

10. Student volunteers

While it is not a prerogative to have them, student volunteers can be life-savers. As an organiser, you must be available to take those swift, on-the-fly decisions and actions (flight delays, guests losing their way, laptop crashes, last minute catering scares…). You cannot do those if you are also the one uploading speaker presentations, or helping delegates with their posters. Rope in a couple of student volunteers – and this is important – rope them in early on in the organisation process. Delegate tasks to them, and let them take leadership – in the process you will be training the next generation of organisers and sharing your legacy.

Anything you want to add to this list? Do comment below, and feel free to share this post!

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The Academic Workshop Organiser’s Checklist by Srikanth Sugavanam is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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