Tim is a 2nd year AHRC-funded creative writing PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. He has a BSc in neuroscience from the University of Manchester, a poetry MFA from Syracuse University and spent several years working in the pharmaceutical industry. Tim’s current research examines the writing of the Confessional Poets (Sexton, Lowell, Plath and Berryman), specifically their use of metaphor to characterise emotional and psychological extremity. Details of his creative publications can be found at timcraven.co.uk.
Last month, I had the pleasure of co-hosting the medical humanities conference ‘Madness, Mental Illness and Mind Doctors in 20th and 21st Century Popular Culture,’ with four fellow SGSAH researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling. It was a terrific experience and I’m proud that the five of us were able to devise a conference that was able to attract speakers and attendees from across the world, including the US, Israel, Greece, Ireland, Germany and more. The majority of the audience, however, was composed of researchers from SGSAH-member institutions who were able to benefit from the expertise of these global experts in Edinburgh.
Having gone through the experience, I would definitely encourage other PhD students to organise their own conferences. As we saw from our brilliant presenters and enthusiastic attendees, there is certainly a clear appetite for such events. And fortunately, thanks to the support of SGSAH and other funding bodies, there is money available to host them successfully. In fact, we were the fortunate recipients of a generous contribution from SGSAH’s Cohort Development Fund. Thus far, I’ve resisted the temptation to give a summary of our conference (not least because that has already been expertly done by one of our attendees, the University of Glasgow’s Sarah Spence, which can be found here) in favour of offering a few pointers that I believe helped us to construct a successful grant application to the CDF, and can hopefully be helpful to anyone else considering hosting their own conference.
- Articulate your purpose
Establish the objectives for your conference and make sure they align with those of SGSAH. In our case, we were able to confidently demonstrate that there was a need for a student-organised mental health/medical humanities conference in Scotland because it’s a growing, interdisciplinary field, with much relevant research taking place within Scottish universities. SGSAH wants to be confident that the conference is filling a true need, and that their cohort of Scottish graduate researchers will really benefit from the event. With this in mind, we ensured that the majority of our attendees were SGSAH postgrads, and that as many Scottish student researchers as possible got the opportunity to present, perform, organise, network, discuss and learn.
- Get technical
This may seem obvious considering most of you will be digital native millennials, but technology can be your best friend. Considering a requirement of CDF is that the conference organising committee is drawn from a minimum of three SGSAH-member institutions, various bits of software facilitated the work of our geographically-dispersed team. Using Google Drive, we were able to draft funding applications, devise spreadsheet budgets, and design and distribute registration forms. We set up a WordPress website so that the funding committee could see what we were planning. We were constantly keeping in touch over Facebook Messenger or Skype. Twitter helped to spread the word about the conference, and our mailing list was assembled and managed via MailChimp. All these services (free, by the way), helped us put together an effective and professional-looking conference experience.
- Think outside the lecture theatre
It was my fellow organisers who had the most innovative ideas about maximising the impact and engagement of our conference, so I don’t have to be modest on their accounts. Thanks to their creativity, our conference wasn’t confined to the lecture theatre: activities designed in conjunction with external stakeholders enabled the conference to have a greater reach into the community. The conference included a public screening of Girl, Interrupted at The Filmhouse followed by a discussion with a panel that included a mental health nurse, service users, and mental health activists. We also arranged a complimentary exhibition at Central Library and a tour of the Surgeons’ Hall Museum. By engaging with the wider community, we not only made our conference more relevant for partner organisations throughout the city, but also increased the attractiveness of our funding application.
- Embrace the process
Finally, I would suggest embracing the CDF application procedure. The application process was straightforward, but it required thoroughness and attention to detail. While the process itself had challenging moments, it was ultimately highly beneficial to our planning, forcing the committee to rigorously consider the logistics, organisation and desired outcomes of the conference. In the multi-step application process, we were required to answer probing follow-up questions which ultimately got us thinking about ways to improve the experience for attendees. Put those finely-honed academic writing skills to work – in our case, it ultimately led to a better conference.
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