The Difference Between a Symposium and a Conference

Thursday, March 10, 2022 Tips and Tricks

Matthieu Chartier, Ph. D.
Matthieu Chartier, Ph. D.

Cofounder @ Fourwaves

The Difference Between a Symposium and a Conference
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When organizing an academic event, you may be wondering what to call it - is it a conference or a symposium, or something else entirely?

Similarly, when registering as an attendee, you may find yourself thinking that the schedule for a conference looks a lot like that of a symposium you attended in the past, or vice versa.

While the terms conference and symposium are often used interchangeably for events during which experts in a certain field gather to exchange knowledge and ideas, there are some important differences that can help organizers set their event apart.

Using the most appropriate term for an event will not only allow your attendees to know what to expect, it will also help with organization and improve the chances of securing funding from potential sponsors who want to know exactly what they’re supporting.

A large conference room.

In short, what is the difference?

The main difference between a conference and a symposium lie in the scope and size of the event. Conferences tend to be larger in size and wider in scope than symposiums, which are more focused on a particular subject or issue.

This also means that the target audiences are slightly different, with conferences attracting a more diverse group of attendees interested in a common topic, and symposiums appealing to a narrower and more expert audience.

What is a symposium?

Symposiums usually take place in one room or lecture hall with all participants attending the entire program in a single day. Besides regular presentations, symposiums include sessions that invite more discussion and exchange of ideas, such as panel discussions. The presenters and panelists are renowned experts in the particular topic of the symposium.

What is a conference?

Conferences take place in large venues such as a congress centre and have parallel sessions covering various sub-topics of a broad field of research over multiple days. 

They can be interdisciplinary, attracting participants from different fields of research interested in a common topic, and presenters range from students and trainees to established researchers and renowned experts.

The differences between a symposium and a conference

Conference differences

Conferences can be national or international. National conferences are attended primarily by experts in a particular field from within the country that the event is hosted in, while international conferences are much larger, attracting attendees from all over the world. 

Large conferences often happen every year and are seen as an important annual opportunity for exchange and networking among academics. 

For established researchers, international conferences are the place to be, serving as a great place to recruit promising young researchers to join their group, as well as an annual reunion with friends and colleagues.

Evening social events are an important part of large conferences because they provide a more informal place for participants to interact and network after the formal meetings during the day. They also help to give potential participants some extra motivation to travel (sometimes very far) to attend the event.

As a student or trainee, being given the chance to present your research at an annual conference is a great addition to your CV, and an excellent opportunity to network with potential collaborators and future employers. As an experienced researcher, an annual conference is a great venue for recruitment and a rare chance to meet with international collaborators to exchange ideas.

Symposium differences

In contrast to large annual conferences, symposiums are usually one-off events, organized when the need arises for in-depth discussion of a particular “hot topic” of research, and as such, the themes may change from year to year.

The presenters and panelists at a symposium are usually a group of people who already know each other at least a little because of their shared interest and expertise in the topic of the symposium.

Students and trainees who attend a symposium are usually there as audience members to learn from more established researchers rather than to present their own work, since flash talks and poster sessions are less common at symposiums than conferences.

There may be a social event such as a cocktail reception or a speakers dinner following the symposium, but it is usually a more formal networking occasion rather than a party.

For conference organizers

For conferences and symposiums

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Organizing a symposium vs a conference

In terms of the content and schedule, academic conferences and symposiums tend to look quite different. The most obvious difference is that a symposium is usually only one day long and takes place in a single room or lecture hall, while a conference may span over multiple days and include parallel sessions in a larger venue.

Organizing a conference

The schedule of a conference typically consists mainly of keynote lectures by renowned researchers. They also consist of short talks and poster sessions, in which less experienced researchers have the opportunity to present their work.

The keynote speakers are chosen and invited by the organizing committee. Occasionally, large international conferences will even invite a keynote speaker whose research is outside the expertise of most of its attendees in order to diversify the subject areas and increase interest in the conference.

Students and postdocs can submit an abstract in the hopes of being selected to present their work either in a poster session or as a short flash talk. The submissions are peer-reviewed by more experienced researchers several months before the event takes place in order to give the presenters plenty of time to prepare.

Since large conferences cover broad fields of research and attract researchers with different expertise, the schedules are usually organized in themed parallel sessions. This means that there may be a poster session on one theme happening at the same time as presentations on another theme, and attendees can choose which sessions interest them the most.

This does not mean that a smaller event cannot be conference - what matters most is the structure and content, not the number of participants. Smaller conferences will tend to have a similar structure to large international conferences, but scaled down to fit the number of attendees and presentations.

Organizing a symposium

The schedule of a symposium tends to be relatively simple in that the entire event usually takes place in a single room or lecture hall over the course of one day. The days proceedings are usually organized so that every participant is able to attend every session without having to choose.

Symposiums may be more formal and prestigious than conferences since the subject matter is narrower and the presenters and panelists are usually world-renowned experts in the specific topic of the event.

Submissions are reviewed by a group of organizers who carefully select the topics, presenters, and panelists, based on the particular issue they would like the event to focus on. This is in contrast to the more traditional peer-review model used for conference submissions.

While there usually are one or two keynote lectures, the sessions of a symposium tend to involve more formal discussions and fewer single-speaker presentations than a conference typically would. This could include panels or roundtable discussions during which a moderator helps to keep the conversation focused on the topic of interest.

What about other terms?

Besides conferences and symposiums, there are plenty of other words that you may have encountered to mean almost the same thing. Although less common for academic events than political ones, a congress can be likened to a conference, and a colloquium is quite similar to a symposium.

There are of course also workshops, which involve hands-on learning sessions, and seminars, which can be seen as mini symposiums covering one specific topic. Whatever the nature of the event, there are probably several different words that could be used to describe it, but usually one of them is more appropriate than the others - your challenge is to find it!

Conclusion

To some extent, how you name your event is just a matter of linguistics. There is no single correct definition of a symposium or a conference, and sometimes they are used as synonyms for similar events. No one is going to give you a hard time if your event resembles a conference they once attended but you named it a symposium or vice versa!

However, choosing the most appropriate name for your event is beneficial not only to you as an organizer, but also to attendees of your event, who will surely appreciate having a better understanding of what they are signing up for.

Hopefully these guidelines provided the insight you needed to decide how to name your next event.

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