Tips on Organizing Workshops and Symposia
This informal document summarizes some things I've learned (through
sometimes painful experience, both as a participant and as an
organizer) about organizing and running workshops.
Please let me know if you find this useful, or if you have any other
suggestions that I could add to future versions.
Call for Papers
Be sure the call for papers is clear-that readers will know what
areas you're interested in, and what types of papers are welcome.
Give authors clear directions about writing papers (e.g., include a
section on relevance to the workshop topic).
Encourage people to submit and present position papers or summaries of
relevant research. This broadens a workshop, and helps to give
everyone some common ground on which to base discussions.
Ask people you know who are doing interesting research in the area to
submit papers, or to participate in a panel or give an invited talk if
they haven't submitted a paper formally.
Planning the Schedule
Try to be creative with the format and structuring, but be prepared to
jump in if your creative ideas don't work out. Some possibilities:
Leave plenty of time for moderated discussion and questions after
talks. The goal should be exchange of ideas, not merely presentation
of results (which would be appropriate at a larger conference).
Often workshops work better with fewer people giving talks, and
more time for discussion, rather than inviting everyone who submits a
paper to speak, and having dozens of 15-minute talks.
- Send out a list of questions in advance. Invite anyone who
wants to, to prepare a slide and talk about an issue for 5 minutes.
- Break out into working groups to discuss and prepare a short
presentation on a specialized topic of interest.
- Pose a specific problem (application) at the beginning of the
workshop. Have people talk about it and work on it throughout the
symposium (e.g., how would different approaches be applied to solve
the problem; what are the hard aspects; how well would methods
discussed at the workshop scale to a large problem).
- Instead of (or in addition to) having authors present their own
work, have a discussant read it and present a summary, then have an open
discussion with the author participating.
Panels work better if (1) there is a well-defined topic, and (2)
presentations are limited in length, with the focus on general issues
rather than panelists' individual research work.
Invited speakers often work well, but be sure they're interested in,
and knowledgeable about, the specific topic covered by the symposium.
Be sure that presenters know well in advance what the format will be
(length of presentation, time for questions, how the discussion will
be organized) and what context they're presenting in (are there other
similar or related papers being presented in the same session?)
Try to group papers by subtopic or issue, and have the session chair
give a short overview of the papers, what important issues they
address, and how they relate to the topic at hand.
Running the Workshop
Arrange for the workshop chair or another ``distinguished member of
the community'' to give an overview talk at the beginning of the
workshop. This helps to define a common vocabulary and shared set of
issues, which is particularly valuable if you people from diverse
research communities are participating in the workshop, or if the
topic of the workshop doesn't have a commonly agreed definition.
Try to keep things on schedule. If you've scheduled well, there will
be some slack time in the schedule for open discussion that will
help if speakers run over. But try not to let this happen too much,
because that discussion time is often the most valuable part of the
Make sure the program committee members, at least, are prepared to ask
questions and initiate discussion
Marie desJardins (firstname.lastname@example.org)