Organising Global Conferences for Early Career Researchers

Organising Global Conferences for Early Career Researchers

Organising a global conference for Early Career Researchers isn’t a simple task. So we asked ERG  convenor Saneeya Qureshi to share her experiences in leading teams of ECRs on the design, organisation, and execution of two major conferences – the global EERA Emerging Researchers Conference (ERC 2021) and the UK National Postdoc Conference (NPDC21).

These conferences followed on the heels of the fourth year of the thriving Making an Impact Series, which she led for the University of Liverpool since 2018, and which has recently received the recognition of being shortlisted for the ‘Academic Engagement of the Year’ category in the prestigious UK PraxisAuril Knowledge Exchange Awards.

For each event, the ECR teams engaged 2000+ individuals across various associated activities and sessions. Each flagship activity is co-created and co-designed with a community of Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and internationally recognised thought leaders.

So, what’s the secret of organising successful global conferences for Early Career Researchers? For Saneeya, the skills learned during her PhD were critical.

 

Working to such a scale, on time and on budget, juggling coordination with multiple individuals who are sometimes spread across continents, demands an entirely unique set of academic competencies for which my PhD had nominally prepared me. However, having now been the lead organiser for these exponentially growing events since 2015, it’s fair to say that I am now an old hand at the helm. In this post, I share my top tips for designing, planning, and executing conferences for ECRs, which I think are worth particular consideration by any conference lead – however small or large-scale an event may be.

Reflect on your Intended Return on Investment

Using the base of genuine co-creation and co-design of activities with those from whom they are intended, i.e. ECRs, it is advisable to ensure that all aspects of planning and organisation from the outset take into account the post-event benefits to participants and to their organisations/ research associations. Focus on the short-term and long-term outputs, outcomes and impact upon ECRs’ practice, knowledge, skills, and attributes. Allow time during a programme (and encourage post-event protected time) for participants to have dedicated time and space for reflections during and after an event – you could even provide your own self-reflection logs. These are examples of how to ensure that you plan for the best possible return on investment (Bromley & Warnock, 2021).

Consider Value for Money (but don’t compromise on quality!)

This is especially important in the post-Covid context of reduced financial capacities for institutions and educational associations. I am very aware of the expected versus final development cost per participant for all the events I lead. This usually involves discussions with session speakers and facilitators about pre-and post-session open access resources, along with a fair bit of pre-event negotiation about sessions with number caps, to account for high no-show rates.

With the advent of the online-pivot arising from the pandemic, and future hybrid and hyflex working approaches (Gaebel et al., 2021), it is worth being even more mindful of the pressures on ECRs’ time and the resultant impact on their abilities and best-laid intentions to engage with planned activities. This means ensuring that the programme design respects participants’ time and meets their needs simultaneously.

Shine a Spotlight on Accessibility and Inclusion across Every Aspect of the Event

The NPDC21 has been hailed as a sector-leading example of how accessibility, inclusivity and equity of access and engagement were at the forefront of every single aspect of the participant experience. This accessibility ranges from pre-event communications and networking activities to the manner in which speakers introduced themselves during sessions, and the use of sign language interpreters and professional transcription as the norm, to the post-event resources and sharing of best practices.

It is worth noting the difference between equity and equality (Hardie, Fernando and Turbill, 2021) – and that inclusivity considerations must also be reflected in the profile of the speakers and facilitators who lead sessions, and in the pre-and post-event resources that participants can access freely at any time, for instance, the NPDC21 Virtual Delegate Pack.

Don’t Lose Sight of Networking and Engagement Opportunities

Related to the above point about how time-poor we increasingly find ourselves, it is important to consider the immeasurable hidden benefits of conferences that result from ECRs’ networking and engagement activities (Merga and Mason, 2020). This includes not just the provision of opportunities for ECRs to network with each other and senior academics (such as this ERC 2021 session), but also incentivised activities that happen during and post-events, such as the EERA Best Poster Award and the Best Paper Competition.

Prioritise the Human Welfare Aspect

Mental health and wellbeing should be a cornerstone of any ECR event.
Johnson and Weivoda (2021) affirm that the “need to elevate and support ECRs at all stages to ensure they have access to peer networks, supportive mentors, mental health resources, information about alternative career options, and appropriate career-stage opportunities.”
Building on the excellent tips offered by Byrom et al. (2020), for the NPDC21, we created a Wellbeing Oasis that was signposted before, during, and after the event. These self-led resources include guided meditations, yoga sessions, relaxing music, nature observation, and more, coupled with active wellbeing sessions that were specifically facilitated during the event, showing participants how we prioritised their overall sense of wellbeing. We even included aspects of wellbeing in the Conference Bingo activity to ensure this priority message was communicated in different ways.   

Listen to the Voices of the Community

It goes without saying for any activity, organisers must put the individuals for whom the event is meant at the heart of all the planning, design, and execution. As one example that informs this aspect, the UK has recently witnessed a burgeoning focus on nurturing positive and inclusive research cultures and research environments. Indeed, the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers provides a framework around aspects of employment, culture, and environment, professional and career development for researchers.

To further bolster community voices, each event was led by a steering group consisting of a cross-section of diverse disciplinary, career-level, and geographically spread representatives who meet regularly to feed into and support every stage of the event from conception to post-event reflections.

Expect the Unexpected

It goes without saying that for flagship events, as lead organiser, you should have a backup plan for your backup plan! For me, part of the preparations involved:

Comprehensive pre-event briefing sessions with key stakeholders, speakers, and the wider team behind-the-scenes, supplemented with notes and useful resources that would help them add value to the overall event.

A regularly updated FAQ section to empower participants to troubleshoot any issues themselves first. We signposted the NPDC21 FAQs in every single communication that went out before and during the event, whether via email, social media or in-person meetings and sessions. We did the same for EERA’s use of the OnAir Platform via an eminently visible and accessible ‘Help’ Button, through which participants could video call a support colleague, or simply type in their queries for an interactive chat.

For wholly online events, plan for backup platforms, in case the main platform goes down.

A constantly-manned helpdesk and email address, which has a pre-scheduled auto-response message answering commonly-asked questions, and flagging the FAQ page.

And Finally, Enjoy the Event! 

A well-designed and well-prepared event means less stress for you on the day, and more opportunities for you to engage with participants, whether in person (via Zoom or face to face), or via social media. By having the time to dip in and out of all the 100+ Zoom-based parallel sessions during the ERC 2021, and the 30+ sessions of the NPDC21, I was absolutely delighted to meet participants, chat with them and understand even more about what the event meant to them.

It was, for instance, through conversations such as these that I talked with 3 ECRs who were between 7-9 (yes 9!) months pregnant, and who were so happy that the online programmes meant they could participate. Some sessions were also chaired by ECRs who themselves has small babies in their laps – upon whom I was able to bestow the titles of ‘Cutest’ or ‘Most Adorable’ or ‘Most Endearing’ ‘Baby EERA Emerging Researcher Award’!  

The impact of a well-organised and well-designed event is inestimable – not only on the participants and key individual stakeholders – but on the overall national and international reputational gain for an institution or national association. Having an engaged and committed steering group that makes teamwork and organisation easy is half the battle won, and I am constantly reminded of this quote,

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” – Helen Keller

As with a PhD, the most challenging parts of making any activity or initiative go smoothly are always the ones that are most satisfying at the end. Or in the words of the renowned  American opera singer: 

“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” – Beverly Sills

 

On a closing note, there is no better last word to be had than by the participants themselves across these events. The participant feedback for the NPDC21 can be found in this MURAL Board.

For the ERC 2021, feedback could be summarised in this testimonial,

 

“The Emerging Researchers’ Conference was useful in creating bridges and connections between students, researchers, and teachers, promoting open and critical reflections, discussions, and dialogues about educational research. I think that the experience of participating in ERC was very rewarding, since I was able to share my Ph.D. research work in a free and plural environment of critical reflection and collective debate.”

References and Further Reading

Bromley, T., & Warnock, L. (2021). The practice of the development of researchers: the “state-of-the-art”. Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Educationavailable at: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/SGPE-12-2019-0084/full/html

(accessed 26th October 2021).

 

Byrom, N., Jackman, P., Zile, A., James, E., Tyrrell, K., Williams, C. J., Haughey, T., Sanderson, R., Priestley, M. and & Cogan, N. (2020). Call to Action: How can universities support doctoral and early career researchers during COVID-19 (and beyond!), available at: https://pure.ulster.ac.uk/ws/files/91095601/Article_Suggestions_for_Institutions_and_Supervisors_FINAL.pdf(accessed 26th October 2021).

 

Gaebel, M., Zhang, T., Stoeber, H., & Morrisroe, A. (2021). Digitally enhanced learning and teaching in European higher education institutions. Survey Reportavailable at: https://eua.eu/downloads/publications/digi-he survey report.pdf (accessed 26th October 2021).

 

Hardie, G., Fernando, M., & Turbill, J. (2021). Equity, Equality and Digital Inclusion: Evidence of practice from an Australian University. In Academy of Management Proceedings (Vol. 2021, No. 1, p. 12677). Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510: Academy of Management, available at: https://journals.aom.org/doi/abs/10.5465/AMBPP.2021.12677abstract(accessed 26th October 2021).

 

Johnson, R. W., & Weivoda, M. M. (2021). Current Challenges for Early Career Researchers in Academic Research Careers: COVID‐19 and Beyond, available at: https://asbmr.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jbm4.10540 (accessed 26th October 2021).

 

Merga, M., & Mason, S. (2020). Early career researchers’ perceptions of the benefits and challenges of sharing research with academic and non-academic end-users. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-15, available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07294360.2020.1815662 (accessed 26th October 2021).

 

Vitae Concordat (2019), “Concordat to support the career development of researchers”, available at: https://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy/concordat  (accessed 26th October 2021).

Saneeya Qureshi

Saneeya Qureshi

Head of Researcher Development and Culture at the University of Liverpool, UK

Dr Saneeya Qureshi is the Link Convenor of the Emerging Researchers Group for the European Educational Research Association (EERA). She is also the Head of Researcher Development and Culture at the University of Liverpool, UK. She is responsible for the University’s provision for researchers at all stages of their careers. She manages activities related to the University's European Commission's HR Excellence in Research Award, liaising with stakeholders regarding Liverpool's commitment to the development of its Early Career Researchers.

She holds a PhD in Inclusive Education, and has over 15 years of experience in teaching and educational management in the UK and internationally.

Since 2015, Dr Qureshi has been a co-opted member of the EERA Council where she represents emerging researchers' interests. She leads an annual programme of EERA's developmental and capacity building activities for emerging researchers, including the annual Emerging Researchers Conference. She is also an Editorial Board member and a reviewer for several international educational journals. She can be found on Twitter 

Supporting a European Community of Emerging Researchers

Supporting a European Community of Emerging Researchers

In her first post, Saneeya Qureshi told us a bit about the history, goals and achievements of the Emerging Researchers’ Group. We wanted to know a bit more about Saneeya’s personal experience with EERA and the ERG.

Since 2015, I have been involved with EERA in my role as Link Convenor of the Emerging Researchers’ Group (ERG). Before this, I participated annually in the ECER Conferences and EERA Summer Schools as a Masters and then a PhD student. 

When I first took on the role of ERG Convenor, I worked closely with the EERA Secretary-General to review the general regulations relating to the ERG. One of the outcomes in terms of managing the operations of the ERG has been the formative element to the manner in which ERG co-convenors are engaged.

I initiated a mentoring programme during the ERC Best Paper Award review process, so as to ensure that the new co-convenors were mentored by experienced colleagues. I combined this with an extensive stakeholder consultation of past and present ERG reviewers, to redesign a more constructive double-blind peer review process for the ERC Best Paper Award. Colleagues from EERA Council are also involved in both the ERC Best Paper Award Competition and EERA Bursary Review process.

In terms of further supporting the development of emerging researchers who are not co-convenors, the ERC proposal review mentorship process via meta-reviews on Conftool was introduced in 2016. An increasing number of emerging researchers are mentored via this process each year, and to date 40 emerging researchers have been mentored in this regard. Since 2018, I have chaired a new system for the EERA Conference Bursary Review process, including clearer and more transparent application and review guidelines.

I am particularly proud of the developmental and formative nature of the ERG’s activities that I lead, and the collaborative approach that I have introduced in relation to managing the ERG. I work with the ERG co-conveners actively and encourage them to take on roles of responsibility whilst providing support.

I have also worked closely with the Senior Mentor, EERA Office and EERA Council across various ERG activities, including many new ones that I have introduced, such as an extended, specialised formative feedback process led by the network convenors on papers that are not shortlisted for the Best Paper Award.

 These collaborations underpin and augment numerous successful initiatives associated with the ERG that means we have an exponential increase year on year of emerging researchers’ enriched participation across the various activities.

However, I recognise that whilst these successful activities currently form a diverse and exciting offering for emerging researchers, there is still work to be done. Therefore, the ERG continues to work with researchers, supervisors and local institutions to ensure that collectively we provide the very best environment we can for our current and future researchers.

Indeed, an increasing focus in this endeavour has been garnering participants’ feedback and evaluation of ERG activities, so that the future of the Group’s initiatives can appropriately cater to their evolving needs.

Since 2018, for instance, on the basis of this feedback and evaluation, the ERC offers two informal lunchtime sessions: ‘Lunch with Local Academics’ and ‘Making the most of the Emerging Researchers’ Conference and ECER’. As Link Convenor, my intention is to continue to mirror this pattern of evaluation to evidence the value for money that EERA invests into the emerging researchers’ activities.

It is also a privilege for the ERG to contribute towards EERA’s objectives to encourage collaboration, communication and the dissemination of findings as contributions to policy and practice amongst educational researchers, international governmental organisations, research associations and institutes within Europe. Indeed, the ERG was an integral part of the EERA Strategy writing committee and ensured the inclusion of activities and interests of emerging researchers at all levels were represented in the Strategic Plan. As ERG Convenor, I also operate as a liaison between the World Educational Research Association (WERA) and EERA and furthering the ERG’s Links with the Doctoral and Early Career Network.

The excitement, dynamism and rewards of engaging with the EERA Emerging Researcher community drive my passion for leading an ever-growing offering of activities and collaborations through which colleagues can share and discuss their research findings via truly global forums.

I believe that belonging to a professional body like EERA, and contributing to the global academic debate is an important responsibility for any educational researcher and, that in order to do this, communication and sharing of research practice, through a range of mediums, is needed to ensure effective dissemination and, ultimately, impact.

Saneeya Qureshi

Saneeya Qureshi

Head of Researcher Development and Culture at the University of Liverpool, UK

Dr Saneeya Qureshi is the Link Convenor of the Emerging Researchers Group for the European Educational Research Association (EERA). She is also the Head of Researcher Development and Culture at the University of Liverpool, UK. She is responsible for the University’s provision for researchers at all stages of their careers. She manages activities related to the University's European Commission's HR Excellence in Research Award, liaising with stakeholders regarding Liverpool's commitment to the development of its Early Career Researchers.

She holds a PhD in Inclusive Education, and has over 15 years of experience in teaching and educational management in the UK and internationally.

Since 2015, Dr Qureshi has been a co-opted member of the EERA Council where she represents emerging researchers' interests. She leads an annual programme of EERA's developmental and capacity building activities for emerging researchers, including the annual Emerging Researchers Conference. She is also an Editorial Board member and a reviewer for several international educational journals. She can be found on Twitter 

What is the Emerging Researchers’ Group?

What is the Emerging Researchers’ Group?

You may have read about the Emerging Researchers’ Group (ERG) on our blog or website and want to know more. What is the Emerging Researchers’ Group, why was it set up and what are it’s aims and achievements. We asked Convenor Saneeya Qureshi to tell us more.

A Brief History

The Emerging Researchers Group (ERG) began life as the Postgraduate Network (PGN) in 2002. The remit of the PGN was to support postgraduate students; this support focussed mainly during the ECER pre-conference. With time, the remit, identity and scale of activities of the PGN have evolved as it has grown and diversified.

In 2009, the then pre-conference hosted almost 200 participants from over 15 countries, many of whom were engaged in doctoral studies. Today, a significant number of ERG members are emerging and early career researchers, and the PGN name was changed to the ERG to reflect this fact. The annual Emerging Researchers’ Conference (ERC) now hosts almost 400 participants from over 40 countries, in addition to almost 100 participants during the annual EERA Summer School.  

Aims of the ERG

The Emerging Researchers’ Group aims to:

  • provide a European research community for Emerging Researchers (including those undertaking a Doctorate)
  • provide a forum for the dissemination of Early Career Research at the Emerging Researchers´ Conference   
  • offer support and guidance for article production via the ‘Best Paper Award’
  • offer support for researchers from low GDP countries to engage with ECER

The main strength of the ERG lies in the support it offers to ‘new’ researchers in providing a space for discussion and collaboration with peers across Europe. In addition, it creates a new space in EERA, which allows emerging researchers to be supported to create a strong, independent ‘Emerging Researchers’ forum, which improves EERA’s internal democratic accountability.

Definition of an Emerging Researcher

An Emerging Researcher in EERA is someone who, within 5 years of completing a PhD, or during doctoral or master studies or research career, is interested in:

  • the broadening of research training and professional development experiences internationally
  • exchange of experiences and ideas about research and research training
  • development of research projects in collaboration with researchers of different countries
  • active participation in a European research community for Emerging Researchers

Members of the ERG are those whose membership details are held within the EERA database, as a result of their participation in ERG activities, including the Conference and Summer School. The annual meeting is held during ECER each year. Year-round contact is maintained between members through email and via the Emerging Researchers’ Group website.

Key Achievements of the ERG

Year on year, various ERG activities challenge participants to reflect on and debate the role of educational research whilst appreciating diversity. The activities are particularly referenced in evaluations for their high-quality discussion, research and collaborative opportunities that they provide to those that attend. The Annual reports can be read here.

ERG activities recognise that emerging researchers are uniquely supported to discuss and debate topical and thought-provoking research projects in relation to the ECER themes, trends and current practices in educational research year after year. The high-quality academic presentations during the ERC are evidence of the significant participation and contributions of emerging researchers to the European educational research community.

By participating in ERG activities, emerging researchers engage with world-class educational research and learn the priorities and developments from notable regional and international researchers and academics. The annual programme of activities is purposefully organised to include special activities and workshops that provide emerging researchers varied opportunities for networking, creating global connections and knowledge exchange, sharing the latest ground-breaking insights on topics of their interest.

Voices of Emerging Researchers

We asked some of the ERG members past and present to tell us about the impact of their engagement with the activities of our group. 

“I found it very useful to talk with other researchers and learn about how higher education works in their home countries. It helped me to see a lot of the positives about the education system in my country as well as areas that may need improvement. Although I was sometimes out of my comfort zone in terms of the methodological approach researchers are using, I felt their talks helped to make abstract ideas more concrete. It was also interesting to see that other students are looking at similar topics to my thesis, yet approaching things from a different perspective.”

“[The Emerging Researchers Conference has enabled me] to meet other PhD students from all over Europe and the world and to exchange experiences related to research projects. Learning about differences related to ethics in a European and global context was very interesting. Presenting a poster in a small group was an educative experience, and I received some useful questions and reflections to my project. It was my first time presenting a poster, and I felt it was a really nice atmosphere surrounding the forms of presentations.”

“Being part of ERC and ECER felt so eye-opening, I have learned so much from the sessions and the people I`ve met, I have had access to knowledge & perspectives that it would have taken me much more time to find on my own. The communication, the agenda, the selection of workshops, some of the papers showed that you & your team put a lot of thought into this. Also, even though I am discovering that the research field is imbued with competitiveness, I could see that people were doing their best to support each other in looking for answers to each others’ questions. I liked that! It is encouraging. Now it is up to me to grow from these seeds, and I will do my best. We have a long way to develop good research departments in my country, but with more access, we get better, and I know enough people who are eager to do the work. So thank you, thank you for your part, sustaining ERC. I have been a program coordinator, maybe it is not similar, maybe it is, but I think I know what it takes, from the logistic effort to securing resources, so good job and thank you! If ever gets hard, remember that you are planting seeds in places that you may not even think of.”   

Colleagues engaging with ERG activities should prepare themselves to be challenged, excited and inspired.

Saneeya Qureshi

Saneeya Qureshi

Head of Researcher Development and Culture at the University of Liverpool, UK

Dr Saneeya Qureshi is the Link Convenor of the Emerging Researchers Group for the European Educational Research Association (EERA). She is also the Head of Researcher Development and Culture at the University of Liverpool, UK. She is responsible for the University’s provision for researchers at all stages of their careers. She manages activities related to the University's European Commission's HR Excellence in Research Award, liaising with stakeholders regarding Liverpool's commitment to the development of its Early Career Researchers.

She holds a PhD in Inclusive Education, and has over 15 years of experience in teaching and educational management in the UK and internationally.

Since 2015, Dr Qureshi has been a co-opted member of the EERA Council where she represents emerging researchers' interests. She leads an annual programme of EERA's developmental and capacity building activities for emerging researchers, including the annual Emerging Researchers Conference. She is also an Editorial Board member and a reviewer for several international educational journals. She can be found on Twitter