From the Science Student Council

Symposia, simplified

A primer on proposing a scientific conference symposium.

By Todd Chan

Scientific conferences are a great way to keep up with the burgeoning research in your field, network with like-minded researchers and collaborators, and disseminate your own latest research findings. In the past, the Science Student Council has shared tips for those who are navigating their first conference. In this article, I share tips for those who may be looking to get increasingly engaged with scientific presentations, by proposing and presenting at a symposium.

Why organize a symposium?

Programming at a scientific conference usually involves poster presentations, brief data-blitz talks, individual paper presentations and focused symposia sessions. Focused symposia allow for multiple presenters — who conduct research on a common theme — to share their perspectives on a unifying question, issue or topic through brief research talks.

Proposing a symposium that you will “chair” means organizing and facilitating this symposium session. Organizing a symposium is a great way to get involved in the conference, give a research talk, and in the process, work and network with fellow researchers who share your interests and discover potential future collaborations. You will also be able to discuss your work with audience members interested in this broader area of research.

Below, I review the general steps to developing and proposing a symposium for a conference.

Generate your idea

First, generate a list of ideas or themes that your symposium could be organized around. Start with your own research projects. What broader questions are you studying, and how can other researchers inform this question with their related work? Your proposed theme or question will ideally be broad enough for other researchers doing similar work to relate to, and will allow for a variety of perspectives. For example, if you study relationships, perhaps you may want to organize a symposium around factors that influence first impressions.

Recruit presenters, early

With your theme or idea in mind, start recruiting potential presenters. Reach out to your field (and your reference lists) for graduate students or faculty members who you know are conducting work related to your symposium topic. Although you may know several colleagues at your own department who have related research interests, try to diversify your proposal by recruiting potential speakers outside your institution — especially those from different subfields who may be able to offer a different data, theoretical or population perspective. Whose work do you admire? Your advisors or colleagues may also be able to provide suggestions. Although some reviews are blind, your submission may be bolstered by inviting a more senior or distinguished faculty member to speak. A symposium will generally require three or four presenters: although some people you reach out to will politely decline the offer, you also do not want to send too many emails out at once, in case too many people accept.

It may be helpful to send an initial email to gauge potential presenters’ availability and interest in attending the conference. Provide them with the conference requirements, brief summary of what you are proposing for the conference, and ask if they would be interested in speaking about their related, recent research. You should ask each interested presenter to submit a brief summary of their work to determine how it may fit with the symposium topic (or not). Unfortunately, you may have to turn down some interested presenters if their work is too distant from your symposium theme or question.

Synthesize your abstract

After all your presenters have been chosen and agreed to participate, you will need to write the proposal for the symposium. Often this consists of an extended abstract of the proposed symposium. As well, many conferences also require additional abstracts that summarize each individual presentation. Use this opportunity to show conference reviewers that your topic is novel, important and relevant to attendees. What gap does your symposium topic fill? What questions or ideas does it elucidate or unify? Highlight the cross-cutting question or theme that your presenters will address, and each presentation’s main findings and implications. You will want to identify the commonalities across all of your work as well as the unique contributions that each presenter’s perspective brings, whether in population studied, methodology used or processes targeted. This part may take some thought and discussion with your collaborators, as you may need to conceptualize and frame each of your talks in a way that is most congruent with the theme or question. During this process, individual presenters may also need to submit information about their individual presentations, like a brief description of their work that is shared with attendees.

As well, you will want to determine the order in which the presentations will best flow. For example, you may want research that is broader or best illustrates the concepts or questions involved to go first; research that tests more specific mechanisms may be best suited later in the symposium. Finally, don’t forget to give your symposium an eye-catching title that stands out amongst all the other programming during the conference.

Submit and notify

When all is ready to go, submit it by the deadline. Symposium sessions are often due early and several months before the conference is scheduled, so it is always a good idea to plan well in advance and keep your eye out for relevant conferences to submit to. As the organizer, it is often your responsibility to notify the other presenters of the outcome of the submission. Whether or not your symposium gets accepted, be sure to thank your submitters for their contributions.

Prepare for the symposium — together

If your symposium is accepted, the work is not over. As the chair, you will want to prepare well and work together with the other presenters to ensure a cohesive show on the day of the symposium. For example, when preparing for individual presentations, presenters may want to share notes and slides with each other and discuss how talks can best be framed to the symposium theme. Closer to the symposium date, you will want to collate all the slides of all your presenters (and triple check that the technology works smoothly). As the chair, you will want to determine how you will introduce the overall symposium and each speaker to the audience. Finally, there will be some important logistical decisions to be made. For example, based on the total time allotted, how much time will each presenter have to speak? Will questions be taken at the end of each presentation or only after all presenters have spoken? If there is time, it may be helpful to meet shortly beforehand to rehearse or discuss anticipated audience questions. In all, working with your other team members is key to preparing for a successful symposium.

About the author

Todd ChanTodd Chan is the chair and social/personality representative to the APA Science Student Council. He is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Michigan.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or policies of APA.