The 6 Types of Academic Events (and which one to pick)

Wednesday, October 19, 2022 Industry trends

Matthieu Chartier, PhD.
Matthieu Chartier, PhD.

Founder @ Fourwaves

Organizing an academic event is a significant investment of time and resources, both for attendees and organizers. These events can take different forms and as an organizer, you must be cognizant of this when choosing the type of academic event you want to host.

The style and format of an academic event will have many implications on the way the event unfolds. It will impact the audience size, the types of sessions offered, the event marketing plan, and the sponsorship plan and requests. 

Here are the six main types of academic events that organizers can choose from and some key differentiating factors.

Attendee taking notes at a conference

1. Regular Conferences

Academic conferences, also called congresses, are the largest and most traditional type of academic events with audiences that can range anywhere from a hundred participants to a few thousands. They are usually associated with a university or research organization and follow a standard format. 

Conferences are organized around a broad, general theme, and invite industry experts to attend, present their work, and discuss a wide range of topics related to the overall theme. The invitations are sent out to researchers through a call-for-papers, and interested parties submit their work as an application to present at the event and solicit feedback from their peers. 

These submissions are then reviewed through a peer review process. This process ensures the legitimacy of the work submitted, which is an important element of any serious academic conference. 

Conferences can take place in-person or virtually, or a hybrid of both. Academic Conferences take place all around the world, attracting a diverse group of international researchers. 

Conferences can take place in a single afternoon, or they can last several days. They usually include a number of breakout sessions and networking opportunities, and because of their international nature, many conference organizers plan tours of the hosting city’s main attractions. 

2. Symposiums

Symposiums, also called colloquiums, are smaller meetings that are often organized to discuss a more narrow, specific subject than conferences. Symposiums also follow a more casual format than conferences. 

These meetings usually focus on interactive sessions like panel discussions and poster sessions, rather than the traditional presentations that are common for conferences. 

While conferences attract a large group of attendees with a wide range of research interests, symposiums have a small audience with a specific area of expertise and interest. Because of this, most symposium participants usually know each other before the event, meaning that networking is not as much of a priority for people attending symposiums compared to conferences. 

Because of their narrow focus, symposiums usually take place in a single room and are completed within one day. 

3. Workshops

An academic workshop is an action-oriented meeting among researchers with the goal of completing a specific task. Workshop organizers often plan their events with the goal of creating an in-depth learning experience in a concentrated period of time.

Workshop attendees participate in order to learn a specific, practical skill. Many conferences include workshops as one of their session types. There are usually only a small number of attendees, which is essential for the successful execution of the hands-on learning expected from a workshop. 

4. Seminars

Seminars are a short meeting, usually organized by an academic institution or research organization. There are typically no more than 10-20 attendees, who are often students led by the same professor or department.

Seminars take place as an opportunity for a group to review and learn about a specific topic, taught by an expert in the field.

Seminars can also include the sharing of information and research between academics with similar areas of focus, and the initiation of debate and the exchange of ideas. 

5. Poster sessions

While some poster sessions are organized independently, they are an increasingly popular element of academic conferences. They can take place virtually, in person, or have a hybrid format.They are structured around academics who create a poster that outlines their research and make themselves available to present that poster and explain the research to others who approach them with questions or interest. 

In-person poster sessions often take place in a large hall in a conference center, where each presenter sets up a physical location where attendees can visit to learn about their research and ask questions. These are excellent networking opportunities as they provide a forum for researchers to meet face-to-face, solicit feedback on their work, and potentially even establish partnerships and funding opportunities that could benefit them as they advance their career.

Virtual poster sessions are facilitated by conference management software platforms to provide breakout rooms where researchers can wait for interested parties to join and learn about their work. These are becoming increasingly popular alongside the increasing popularity of virtual events. Virtual poster sessions provide a more intimate experience, filtering out much of the noise and activity that can be distracting in an in-person setting. 

Hybrid poster sessions take place in-person, but require a team to record and post the sessions taking place to enable virtual attendees to participate. 

6. Unconferences

Unconferences follow a completely different format than conferences, symposiums, workshops, seminars and poster sessions in that they do not follow any prescribed format at all. 

The structure of unconferences is selected by the participants. They choose the agenda, the topics to be discussed, the speakers, the workshop topics, and even have input on where and when the event will take place. 

Unconferences are appreciated for the way they prioritize participation over observation – every element of an unconference is planned in a way that encourages engagement and discussion rather than passively attending a traditional research presentation. 

Which one to pick? 

There is no easily prescribed answer to the question of which academic event is the best for you. To make this decision, carefully evaluate your goals and objectives. 

Are you aiming to generate networking opportunities and help establish connections between researchers? Perhaps a conference is best for you.

Are you hoping to bring together a small group of academics with a narrow scope of research to discuss and ideate on a common problem taking place within that field? A symposium may be your best bet. 

Is there a certain skill or knowledge-set you want to share that will require intensive, hands-on participation? Consider hosting a workshop. 

While only you can decide which type of event will help you meet your goals, we hope this explanation of the various event types to choose from will help you select the format that is best for you.

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