‘Public Health PhD Symposium 2016’ – reflections on organising and delivering a postgraduate research conference

Rebecca Crook is a postgraduate researcher at the Public Health Institute at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. In this blog post, she describes her recent experience of organising a one-day symposium for postgraduate researchers and shares her lessons learnt for others who might find themselves in a similar position.

The following blog post is a reflection on my recent role as Symposium Director for the 2nd Public Health PhD Symposium at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU). I chose to focus on this topic for the blog hoping that it might encourage other postgraduate and early career researchers if they are considering organising a networking event, and give some hints and tips along the way.

Flyer used to advertise the symposium (© Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moores University)

Screenshot of the PDF flyer used to advertise the PhD Symposium (© Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moores University)

The invitation

The idea for the ‘Public Health PhD Symposium’ came about last year. Following a successful event in April 2015, it was decided that this would become an annual affair organised by a student from the Public Health Institute (PHI) at LJMU. Earlier this year the Director of the PHI, Jim McVeigh, approached me and asked if I would be interested in organising this summer’s symposium. Having attended and presented at the event last April, I accepted and looked forward to taking on this new role.

The preparation

Choosing a theme

The aim of these symposia is to bring together both UK and international postgraduate public health researchers to present, share, and discuss their projects in a relaxed and friendly environment. Last year’s conference had the broader theme of ‘PhD research allied to Public Health’, and whilst this theme is to be continued for each annual symposium, I was keen to give this year’s conference a more specific focus that would guide presenters when submitting their abstracts. After considering this and sharing ideas with other students and staff members at the PHI, I landed on the theme of ‘Methods in Public Health Research’.

Based on abstract submissions and the theme previously described, the symposium was split into six sessions:

  • Session 1- Reflections in Public Health research
  • Session 2- Qualitative methods in Public Health research
  • Session 3- Quantitative methods in Public Health research
  • Session 4- Public Health research with children & young people
  • Session 5- Mixed methods in Public Health research
  • Session 6- Systematic & critical reviews in Public Health research

On reflection I am pleased that I went down this route, as at times abstract submission and conference presentations can be slightly overwhelming for postgraduate and early career researchers, and I feel that having a specific focus is helpful. I also found that the focus on methods meant that the conference included presentations from a variety of fields within the wider ‘Public Health’ arena that were grouped into sessions based not on their subject area, but on the methods used. Hopefully this meant that delegates and presenters were introduced to peers that they shared research interests with outside their specific field.

Making it accessible

In addition to oral presentations, I invited delegates to submit abstracts for poster presentations, of which we had 15. I would always include poster presentations as an option for postgraduate conferences, as those who are new to disseminating their research may feel more comfortable presenting a poster than a longer presentation.

The symposium was free to attend and we offered free poster printing for those who required it. The aim was make the symposium as accessible as possible, and although we couldn’t cover any travel or accommodation costs for delegates, I chose to use a University building that was central and a short walking distance from the main train station.

The importance of the keynote speakers

We were lucky enough to have two amazing keynote addresses delivered by Dr Conan Leavey, Senior Lecturer in Public Health at LJMU, and Professor Antony Morgan, Interim Dean and Professor in Public Health at Glasgow Caledonian University, London. For those who might be considering coordinating an event similar to this, I would advise finalising your keynote speaker/s as early as possible as these can help gain interest when publicising your event.

Publicising the event

The use of social media and university contacts was key in publicising the symposium. I used the Eventbrite website (which I think is great and really easy to use) to create an event page and then shared this over Twitter and through emailing contacts at other universities. Then I crossed my fingers and hoped people would register! This was the most nerve-racking part, as you do feel pressure to receive a decent number of abstract submissions and registrations, but I got there eventually. My advice is to keep sharing/posting/emailing the information around and asking people to share the information with anyone they know who might also be interested. We created a PDF flyer attachment to the email invitation that meant that all the information could easily be forwarded and shared online (see screenshot of the flyer above). We also created a webpage on the PHI website: http://www.cph.org.uk/public-health-phd-symposium/, which we kept up to date with relevant information. We didn’t have any money in the budget to advertise the event formally, but if we had, I would have located a useful website or publication and enquired about advertisement to help promote the event further, such as The Times Higher Education Supplement.

PhD Symposium bag and flyer (© Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moores University)

PhD Symposium bag and flyer (© Public Health Institute, Liverpool John Moores University)

Funding

With thanks to Jim McVeigh, the Director of the PHI, I was able to access funds from within the PHI to cover the catering and any printing or small purchases. Having funds available was definitely helpful as although the lectures theatres and break rooms were available to book free of charge through the University, being able to provide a catered lunch was a plus. I also purchased some small items for the symposium, for example, a suggestion box that was used for audience feedback forms for oral presentations.

Time management

Honestly, organising the symposium was a very time consuming but rewarding experience. I would say that particularly in the weeks leading up to the symposium it felt like a full time job! It was important that I managed my time well and had concrete deadlines in place, e.g. abstract submission deadline/ registration deadline, to make things easier. It was a challenge doing this alongside my PhD work, but I feel that the experience it has given me was worth it.

Asking others for help

Finally, I would advise anyone who is considering taking on a role similar to this to not be afraid of asking for help! I was lucky enough to have the assistance of Jennifer Lovelady at the PHI in pulling all my ideas together and helping me publicise and organise the symposium. She has great experience in organising such events and the symposium wouldn’t have been the success it was had it not been for her support. Thanks to Jen and other members of staff for their help in chairing sessions on the day. I am also grateful to Becky Wilner and Laura Heeks, both graphic designers at the PHI, who created a really professional programme and posters for the symposium. See the final programme here.

The event!

Approximately 80 delegates attended and there were 18 oral presentations throughout the day, some parallel, some not, and two keynote addresses. All presentations were of an incredibly high standard and audience feedback has been extremely positive.

Overall I think that the symposium went fairly smoothly. The only setback was that the video recording equipment in one of the lecture theatres wasn’t working, so half of the presentations weren’t recorded. This didn’t affect the running of the day, but I was disappointed, as I was hoping to send all presenters an individual recording of their presentation along with collated audience feedback for their own records. Other than that, I was really pleased with how everything went and would gladly take on this role or something similar in the future.

If you are a postgraduate student or early career researcher thinking about organising an event similar to this, and you would like some advice on where to begin, please do get in touch by emailing me at r.j.crook[at]2014.ljmu.ac.uk.

About the author:

My name is Rebecca Crook and I am a postgraduate researcher at the Public Health Institute at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. My programme of PhD study aims to explore the development and expression of drug related identity in young adults, and to understand how these identities may influence their substance related decision-making. The research investigates ‘what it means’ to be a drug taker and how people may gain a sense of identity from drug use. In particular, the project assesses the role of health in the construction of drug user identities and how users negotiate problems and risks associated with drug-identity related behaviour.

You can read more about my work here: http://crookphd.weebly.com/.


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