How to get away with hosting a session at a national conference you’ve never been to.

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First timers can host awesome sessions too! Find the right people to present, and the rest is magic.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting is a bustling crowd of environmental researchers from around the globe.

This year, we convened in Washington. D.C. and celebrated the centennial of the organization. According to AGU online, the organization was established in 1919 by the National Research Council and independently incorporated in 1972. Current membership spans 137 countries, comprises more than 60,000 members, and is the world’s largest society promoting geophysical endeavors of Earth and space scientists.

This being my first time, I filled my week’s agenda with meeting and talks and naturally burnt out by Thursday. I also experienced my first event as a session organizer.

Here’s there scoop for other early career researchers on how to successfully pull off a conference session… especially one that falls on a Friday:

(1) Find your network and your purpose at this meeting.

Conferences are fun, ok? But, while you’re enjoying your time collecting freebies at the exhibit hall, try to remember why you’re there. Maybe you’re planting seeds for your future and seeking postdocs, jobs, or making connections with people you follow on Twitter (it’s a thing). Maybe you’re there to break into another subgroup of research. Whatever it is, make time to meet your goal or you’ll get absorbed by countless other opportunities.

For myself, AGU was about meeting alumni from my lab, introducing myself to places I’m considering for postdocs, and showing my willingness to volunteer as a graduate student representative. I used the session to meet people using various methods and models to solve a common question.

(2) Submit your abstract and once accepted, invite people to submit!

The abstract should be specific enough to your research purpose, but vague enough that someone with a creative approach will be welcomed. That is, unless, your session is meant to be very niche and serve as a reunion for long-standing collaborators. AGU had a guide for abstracts, so check your conference guidelines.

Once accepted, you can start inviting people on email lists and social media. Pick out your invited speakers and email their invite with the abstract attached. Patiently wait.

What also happens is your abstract is accepted, but you have too few abstracts submitted. This means you need to double down and reach out to outside session organizers in the same position. Together you can unite for a “Frankenstein” session— yes, this also happened to me. Things work out, too, as all of our invited speakers were kept on board and we filled a whole evening with presentations!

(3) Check in regularly with your co-conveners and volunteer for tasks.

Sometimes you know your conveners, sometimes you don’t. You’ll be communicating mostly through email, though, so it’s best to be clear, concise and set a deadline for what you want accomplished.

Volunteer to set up a social or recruit student poster/oral presentation judges! That is a great way to serve on your panel and an easy step for a first-time convener. From experience, it connected me with people beyond research small-talk and into the area of active engagement.

(4) Connect with your folks before/after the session.

It can be at your session’s poster hour, during a coffee or beer break or even over a meal. Invite your conveners and invited speakers, as well as those who were really excited for your session, to hang out. You don’t even have to talk about research! This is the time you get to build social capital— don’t waste it.

My session fell on a Friday. One convener couldn’t make it and I had to leave early to catch a flight. Even in the last minutes of break, I still made sure to personally thank the invited speakers and conveners for the opportunity. Even though I would have loved to spend more time getting acquainted, I knew to make the best of it. Don’t apologize or feel guilty if this happens to you too. They all probably hit up the free beer stand after I left!

(5) During the session.

Show up early. Definitely prepare a couple questions in the event your audience doesn’t have one. Maybe wear something nice that day.

That’s basically it. The rest of the time you’re sitting on stage and changing the presentations for your guests. The primary convener will be the one who moderates each speaker’s time and introduces folk. Speaking of, it’s good to make sure you can pronounce everyone’s name correctly!

(5) Follow up!

Don’t ghost. Thank your session judges, invited speakers and conveners one last time. Maybe there was something that you wanted to continue discussing or an idea for collaboration to be shared.

It’s like sending thank-yous after a wedding. It’s cool and an easy wrap up.



You did it! Convening a session is easy, right?

This opportunity came to me from a postdoc who suggested I give it a try. I realized I never considered it as a second year PhD student. Turns out, I had a better conference experience because of it.

Lessons learned: Find your people. Support your people.

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