Firsts: organizing a workshop (part 1)

Last week I heard that our workshop, LABELS, was accepted as one of the satellite events at MICCAI 2017. This is not the first time I organize a workshop, but I remember that as a PhD student, I had many questions about workshops. In this post I summarize some things I learnt so far that might help if you want to organize a workshop as well.

What is a satellite workshop?

In my field there are two types of workshops: stand-alone workshops or satellite events.
The stand-alone workshops are more flexible and are basically mini-conferences, but are also more work for the organizers. The workshops I co-organized (FEAST 2014, FEAST 2015 and now LABELS) were all satellite workshops.

Usually, a large conference will have several workshops associated with it. The conference organizers will send out a “call for workshops” or “call for satellite events”, inviting others to submit proposals. The proposal contains information about the workshop topic, the organizers, the invited speakers, how you plan to structure the day (talks, posters) etc.

After the deadline of the call, you wait for a decision. If accepted, the conference typically takes care of the logistics: location, registration, coffee breaks etc. The workshop organizers are responsible for the workshop website, inviting speakers, selecting papers, leading the day itself and publishing proceedings (if applicable).

Who organizes workshops?

Anybody who wants to! Perhaps explaining this is a bit of an overkill, but I do remember thinking that workshop organizers were very well-established scientists, who received special invitations from the conference organizers. When a researcher I was working with suggested we could organize a workshop together, I think I wondered whether we would be “allowed to”.

Of course, the “call for workshops” is already one hint that you don’t need a special invitation. As for being very established scientists, I don’t think that is a requirement. Of course, it’s good to have somebody more senior/experienced on the organizing committee. But it’s not a prerequisite for getting the workshop accepted.

For example, in 2015 as organizers we were one postdoc (me) and two junior faculty, and the workshop was accepted at an important conference in machine learning. In 2016, we submitted a similar proposal (to another important conference), but it was rejected* even though we all had more experience by that point.

*Here I should mention that the acceptance rate for workshops is a bit higher than for papers or grants. You don’t always get to hear the statistics, but in 2014 or 2015 we were among the 90% or so of accepted workshops. The time that our proposal was rejected, the overall success rate was about 50%: much less than 90%, but still not bad.

How to get started?

If you haven’t organized a satellite workshop before but would like to, here are some ideas to get started:

  • Think about which conferences you will probably attend, and study the workshops already organized there to get some ideas.
  • Are any topics missing? Do you know any people who you could team up with, and organize a workshop around that topic?
  • Are there any workshops which have different organizers each year, or perhaps haven’t been organized each year? Contact a past organizer to find out if there are plans for a new edition and offer to help.
  • Ask your supervisor or other researchers (not necessarily at your institution) if they have plans to organize a workshop, and if you can help out.

In the next post I will talk a bit more about some specific tasks related to organizing a workshop, like deciding on the content, inviting speakers, etc. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your experiences with organizing workshops, and if you have any other tips you can share with others!

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