How to Organize a Panel for a Conference

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been engrossed in CV Advance Strategizing Sessions with many clients. The work has gone well, and we quickly move through all of the elements required for a powerful and effective academic record for next year’s job market. All, that is, except for my injunction to organize a panel for the major national conference. That one, without exception, stops clients in their tracks. “But HOWWWWW????” they wail, by email. “How do you organize a PAAANELLLL????”

I’m always surprised by this. Organizing a panel is not that hard, and in some ways its actually kind of fun. Why don’t people know how to do this?

Well I could ask that about many things I write about here, until the cows come home. For now, I’ll just explain how.

The first thing you do is find your major national conference, and check the website. The conference will likely have a theme. If it does, think about the theme. Is there a way to relate your scholarly project, in a broad sense, to that theme? If you can, that helps your chances of acceptance. But it’s not absolutely critical.

Note the deadline, and start work about 2 or 3 months before submission deadline. You need to start early because you are a small person with no social or academic capital. Thus, to grab participants to your panel, you must act early and quickly.

Note that many conferences have a special kind of status for some panels, ie, an “invited panel” or some such. Those are typically reviewed by sub-disciplinary units, and have earlier deadlines. If you feel your work fits beautifully into such a sub-disciplinary unit, then try to make the earlier deadline. It is a smaller review pool and your panel with get more attention.

Think of a panel theme. It should derive organically from your dissertation research, but be bigger and broader than the research itself. It should be an “umbrella” concept that can hold both your dissertation research, as well as 3-4 other related papers. It should not be so broad as to be entirely dull (Gender and Asia, for example). But it should not be so detailed as to be impossibly narrow (Japanese Women Who Study Abroad and Marry Foreign Men). It has to hit the sweet spot of a topic broad enough to appeal to a decent audience, while being specific enough that it marks your particular and memorable scholarly world view. Let’s say “Women and Globalization in Japan”, or, “Gendered Transnationalism in Japan”, or, stepping a bit wider, “Gendered Transnationalism in Asia.” The first would get the smallest audience, the second a slightly larger one, and the third larger still.

Once your theme is decided, you choose a title, and write a panel proposal abstract. This will follow the instructions for panel proposals given on your national meeting website. For some insights on writing a proposal abstract, see this blog post. It is about individual paper proposal abstracts, but it will help orient you in the right direction. Start with a broad topic of general interest, refer briskly to the existence of scholarship on this topic, note a gap in the scholarship, observe sternly the scholarly stakes of such a gap, declare the thematic of the panel addressing the gap, give examples of projects that the panel will cover, and end with a gesture to the wider contribution and significance of these projects and the panel theme writ large. As commenter MB notes below, you might actually wait to write the final panel abstract, or at least tweak your earlier version, AFTER you have solicited and received all of your participant submissions, as you’ll undoubtedly get new insights and inspiration from them.

Now, armed with the title and panel abstract, you solicit participants. This can happen in several ways. First, you can ask friends and colleagues. Second, you can send out a “Call for Papers” to your disciplinary listservs, discussion boards and the like. Third, you can find people around the country whose work you like and admire, and email them to ask. All of these are legitimate means of acquiring participants, bur for graduate students the first should generally be avoided.

This is because the most important thing is that you DO. NOT. ASK. OTHER. GRADUATE. STUDENTS. First off, because the point of this exercise is to launch you as a highly visible young star on the year that you first hit the job market. Huddling around the fire of an obscure little panel on Wednesday night or Sunday afternoon with a group of other unknown graduate students is going to do nothing to achieve this goal. Secondly, the “graduate student panel” is a kiss of death conference-wise—I’m not saying you won’t get accepted; you might. But your audience will be miniscule. And that is demoralizing, for you and for the audience.

So, focus your efforts on young assistant professors. More senior people will probably already have panels lined up with old friends and so on, but some young assistant professors will still be up for grabs, and getting increasingly anxious as the submission deadline for the major annual conference nears.

Make sure that you have a good topical range (ie, if the panel is on an “Asia” theme, don’t have all the participants working on Japan). Get provisional titles from your participants, as well as paper abstracts as early as you can.

Once you have collected your participants you need to find a discussant. [Please note that disciplines do differ in their conference panel structure, so my advice here may not apply perfectly to your disciplinary context.]  You will scan the national horizon and think about what famous tenured professors are working on themes similar to that of your panel’s. You will compile a list of candidates. You might ask your participants for their recommendations. You want a well known, indeed famous if you can manage it, discussant because that discussant draws audience to your panel that you—unknown graduate student that you are—cannot equal, and also lends credibility to the whole project. You will then put them in order of preference, and you will take your package of material—the panel abstract, and list of participants, and the paper abstracts—and you will send an email of inquiry to the first Dr. Famous Professor on the list, inquiring politely but not obsequiously if she will serve as your discussant. She may say no, and you may need to move through 3-4 discussant candidates before you find one who is not already engaged. Don’t take this personally.

In choosing both panel participants and the discussant, attend to the institutional location. Don’t choose a set of participants all from one single institution. This is very common with inexperienced and frightened graduate students, who often will organize a panel with 3 other graduate students from their own department, and then a professor discussant FROM THEIR OWN DEPARTMENT. This is another kiss-of-death move for a panel. If you’re wondering—do people even notice this? Yes, they notice, and they avoid like the plague.

[Parenthentically, if you are a professor and you are asked to serve a discussant for a graduate student panel that is comprised entirely of students from your home department, be a mentor and tell them “no,” and tell them why: because they need to put their big girl pants on and go find a famous and potentially intimidating discussant from another campus whom they don’t already know.]

Once you have collected all the participants and the discussant, you can then submit the whole package to the conference review committee. You may have to solve small organizational problems such as, “who will serve as chair of the panel.” As organizer, you will likely want to serve as chair, as long as it does not prevent you from delivering a paper. You need to deliver a paper. And Dr. Famous Professor needs to SPEAK, because in speaking she will draw the audience that you want.

Et voila, you have organized a panel. If the panel is accepted, you hope that you will be given a decent time slot, ie, not Wednesday or Sunday, but as a graduate student, you don’t always get that wish granted.

Once the panel is accepted, then you have the task of setting a deadline for your participants to submit their papers to you, which must be early enough to be able to give the discussant PLENTY of time to read and think on prior to the date of the panel. You do not want an angry or alienated Dr. Famous Professor on your hands, and late papers are one of the leading causes of anger among discussants who probably feel they are doing you a favor just agreeing to be on the panel in the first place, and certainly want to be treated with considerable respect and appreciation, not to mention professional courtesy.

Being the panel organizer gives you one other ace in the hole, and that is the panel get-together. This can be breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even just drinks, but as the organizer you do get to bring your little group together, with Dr. Famous Professor, for a little socializing at the conference. And this is good, very good. You get to know the young assistant professors, and they get to know you, and you all get to know the famous professor. This is how reputations are built and careers made.

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How to Organize a Panel for a Conference — 25 Comments

  1. A few other tips:
    *Grad student friends/colleagues can be useful if used strategically. E.g., if you know a post-doc or recent grad, team up with that person and use their knowledge/networks to find the hotshot for your panel. They’ve probably been to a few conferences and have a sense of whose doing what, even if books aren’t out yet. If they have different institutional affiliation, you can be on a panel together that doesn’t look like “X program’s panel.” But just 2 of you, not 3.

    *Ask your advisor for recommendations — especially if you can then email them saying “Professor Awesome suggested I contact you….” A good mentor helps make his/her professional networks work for you (and can tell you whom to avoid).

    *At least in history, it’s often the junior people with a book out (or a book about to be published) who are hardest to get on your panel because everyone is asking them. In contrast, it’s easier than you might think to get major senior scholar as the discussant. It never hurts to ask, so ask (politely).

    *Know your field. In history, the chair is usually the commenter (or there is a chair and a commenter). The chair is rarely a paper-giver.

    *In addition to professional status diversity, try to form panels that are diverse in other ways as well (especially gender — I know several senior scholars who will not chair/comment on panels that don’t have any women, as a matter of principle).

    *Consider your drafted panel abstract a working abstract subject to change depending on who else is on the panel. Three sentences should be enough to recruit panelists, then flesh it out when you know what the papers will be.

    *Give yourself enough time to deal with the headache that inevitably is the conference panel submission process — the systems are often clunky and need random bits of info that don’t align with what the organization says you’ll need.

    • These are good tips for history panels…I would have written very similar ones.

      One other tip: at conferences, make sure to reach out to people doing similar work, as this can be a good way to build connections to use for future panels. Does a different panel have a paper that relates to your research? Is there a well-known senior scholar from your sub-field in attendance? If you chat briefly with these people in person, it’s much easier to email them later to organize a panel.

  2. I’m in the process of doing this as a Jr. faculty member. What happens if the excellent discussant you invited has just never responded to your invitation and the deadline is looming? Surely you can’t ask someone else because that would not work if the discussant agrees at the last minute. Is it in poor form to resend the invitation?

    • Of course you re-send the invitation with a firm deadline in it! How wimpy are you? On a larger note, this is why you must always set firm deadlines for responses and deliverables for everyone. If they don’t meet the deadlines, then they are dropped. IN your case, once the deadline you give in the re-sent invitation is past (and make it a short deadline given your timeline), you move on to your next candidate.

      • Pretty wimpy in the end it seems. There was a firm deadline in the original email. It has not yet past and we should have made it tighter. Do I wait until that deadline has come and gone before resending it? Or do I resend it sooner? We’ve got a great line-up of speakers for the panel and this is the last piece.

        • Ah, that’s an honest error–the too generous deadline. I’d send the invite with a clarification, saying something like “I/we have moved up our deadline to xx in order to ensure the timely completion of the proposal by the conference deadline of xxx. I very much hope you can participate, but I will have to ask for your response by that day.” And then if still nothing, move on.

      • Karen, why the need to call people names? (“How wimpy are you?”) I think there is a lot of good advice in your blog, but have decided not to pay for more services from you because I do not appreciate the way you communicate. Being firm and being rude are not the same thing.

        • Eh, I didn’t take offense. I was being wimpy and her response to me in that tone helped me realize just how silly it was that I was afraid to write to this person. Had she been more gentle I still may have been nervous.

        • Well said, Carol. some of this advice is sound, other bits I would certainly challenge, but overall, I would dismiss this contribution as unprofessional. and if that isn’t enough to make you wary of taking career advice from her, I would add that Dr Karen’s overly-forceful tone is way out of touch with current academic cultures. perhaps not surprising, as she is no longer a practicing academic.

          • I disagree. I think that the offensiveness of her tone is culturally dependent (even within the U.S.). The tone of the language I hear academics in the Midwest use in their communications with students and colleagues is quite different from the tone I hear used by those on the East Coast, which is different from the tone I hear from those on the West Coast, etc. She reads like someone from the Northwest.

  3. I’ve organized several panels by sending out general CFPs on listservs and waiting to see the proposed papers before deciding on a concrete title and writing the abstract. In two cases, I was able to organize two panels because I got so many replies. (It’s just as easy to organize two panels as one, and then you can chair one and deliver a paper on the other.) I’ve also been happily surprised by Famous Professors offering to comment or give a paper — if you topic is fresh or interesting enough, this can happen. And every time I have written to a FP asking him or her to comment, if they have turned me down, they have done so politely and offers at least one other name as a suggestion.

    Also, I organized one panel when I was a jr grad student and before I had research of my own to present just because it was a topic I wanted to see a panel on. I chaired the panel and it was a great way to start networking with people in my field.

    However you approach it, though, I agree that the key is to have a diverse set of presenters: multiple institutions, career levels, genders (esp if you are in a field that trends one way or another), and nationalities (if you can manage it). I don’t understand why someone would organize a panel with people from their own institution — you can talk to each other any day of the week, the point is to make new connections.

    • I’m interested in this too! My panel has just been accepted, I will be the organizer and delivering the intro, but I won’t be giving a paper myself. I see some people put this under conferences and others under service. Which is more appropriate?

  4. Thanks Karen for this very clear outline. A quick question: if you’ve done this, is there a good way to distinguish in your CV this kind of conference panel (i.e., one you’ve chaired/organized and also presented on) from the usual panels where you are just the presenter? Apologies in advance if this is already in your archives.

    • Two identical questions in a row! For you and KH: read my blog post, Dr. Karen’s Rules of the Academic CV for info on this. Basically, you make a subheading under Conferences for Panels Organized. Then another subheading, Papers Presented. You list the panel under the former, but the paper that you presented for the panel under the latter.

  5. I just did this a few weeks ago, so thought I would share my experience. I had not been planning to submit an abstract for a major conference in my field for a variety of reasons, but late in the game I changed my mind. So I emailed an asst prof I know at another university (she had previously chaired a panel I was on at another conference) to ask her what she thought of this one and if she had any advice for submitting a proposal. She wrote back, and the two of us found a connection between our research and sent out a CFP, asking for responses within about a week. We got more than enough replies, decided on the ones that were the best fits, and then wrote up the panel abstract. No word yet on whether it’s been accepted, but I have a good feeling about it.

    All of which is to say that while Karen’s model would certainly have been a better way to go about it, it’s still quite possible to put a panel together late in the process, since you can catch up all of those profs who never got around to doing it themselves. But, it’s probably also much more likely to fall apart/never come together.

  6. Question from the other side: if you’re one of those junior faculty invited to be part of an organized panel of big wigs, is that something to annotate on one’s CV? Or is the invitation qualitatively no different than if you’d submitted an abstract on your own to the conference?

  7. Another question: I’m an ABD from Eastern Europe, and I applied to a reasonably reputable UK conference with a presentation. My abstract was rejected for “out-of-scope” reasons, but I was invited to be a panel discussant based on the ideas in my proposal. I was assured that discussions will be documented (in the proceedings, i assume) and the panel consists of several well-established scholars from my field. My question is should i interpret this as a setback or as something positive? Can i put “discussant at XY conf” on my cv after the event? If the discussions will be published in the proceedings, can i list my contribution under “publications” or “conf. presentations”? Or this is something that belongs to “professional service”?

  8. I love these conference based posts. I was wondering if you had any advice about how to follow up with someone you met at the conference. If you don’t have anything to send them research wise, but just want to send a “I really enjoyed meeting you” email, is there a proper quintette for this? I am particularly thinking of this as a grad student going on the market next year. I have met several junior to mid-level profs at conferences that I would like to further forge a connection with, but am unsure how to do so. A “what to do after the conference” post would be really helpful!

  9. Double sessions: yay or nay? For the AAAs it looks like we have enough papers for a double session, tied loosely together by a theme, but each with its own sub-theme. Is a double session or single session more likely to be accepted? (They could always split us up too, as the website mentions that’s at their discretion).

    Also, I’m still confused about what a chair of a panel actually does. Is there any negative to being listed as both chair and organizer? I see panels in conference programs that list a chair that is neither an organizer nor a presenter on the panel- what are their responsibilities? Or does this vary? If we do a double panel we’ll want to do an introduction in the first timeslot tying the two themes together- would this naturally fall to the chair?

    • Double sessions are good but also quite ambitious and risky; ti means you’ll be taking up two precious slots that the evaluating subunit has at their disposal…so, it’s got to be REALLY good! I would not submit for a double session just because you happen to have a bunch of papers. They have to be a bunch of excellent papers that all speak to one important and timely theme. otherwise, start turning people away, and pruning to be one excellent single session.

  10. Pingback: Reblog: How to Organize a Panel for a Conference | What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?

  11. I think people have a problem in asking people to be on a panel at a conference. I’ve had a few times where I was thinking “will they do it, is it beyond them” just to be surprised that they are more than happy to do it and actually prefer it over a speaking spot where they have to present.

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