Conference vs. Seminar vs. Workshop – what's the difference?

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There are lots of different types of academic event that you might want to attend, such as conferences, seminars, and workshops. But what is the difference between these sorts of events? We'll explain below.

CONFERENCES

Conferences tend to be the largest events. They can number anywhere between fifty attendees to thousands of attendees, and the largest may host even more visitors that that. You'll come across both national and international conferences – national conferences are typically attended primarily by people living within the country which is hosting the event, while international conferences can attract visitors from all over the world.

Conferences tend to be the most prestigious forms of events as well, so they are the place where you most want the opportunity to present your work as a talk or as a poster. Speaking of which, conferences will usually involve a number of talks by prominent speakers in addition to poster sessions where researchers present their ideas and data in a visual format. When you attend a poster session, you can walk around and look at each of the different posters and stop to chat or to ask questions of the presenter as well. Presenters will stand next to their poster and will often have a short 5-10 minute explanation of the poster which they will give to anyone who asks.

If the conference is a large one, you will find concurrent events. This means that there might be two, four, or even more talks happening at the same time in different locations. You need to be organised to find out when and where the talks you want to see are being held, and you should make good use of your conference timetable which will hold all of this information.

SEMINARS

Seminars tend to be held within one institution or university. Often a seminar will be a small group of people – say, between five and ten attendees – who come together to focus on a particular issue. Often seminars will be less formally structured than conferences, so one person might give a presentation but it will probably be brief. There is more of a focus on discussion at these events, so do feel free to chime in with your thoughts on the topic at hand.

Another difference is that while conferences usually last for between a few days and a week, seminars will be much shorter. They may be for an hour or two in the afternoon rather than lasting all day. Some departments will organise regular seminars, so for example you might meet on the first Monday of every month.

Seminars are a great place to test out some new ideas or theories that you've been thinking about but aren't 100% confident with yet. If you're working on a concept or an idea for an experiment but you want to hear some feedback on it before you develop it further, offer to present it at a seminar. This kind of small group is perfect for getting honest feedback and you might even get some suggestions for improvements to your ideas.

WORKSHOPS

A third type of event you'll find at universities is a workshop. This type of event is usually one or two days which are dedicated to discussing a specific topic. Although these events are held as part of a department, you will often find outside visitors who attend them too. The atmosphere is somewhere between a seminar and a conference, meaning it is less structured than a conference but more formal than a seminar.

Workshops are also sometimes more diverse in terms of attendees than other events. You'll find people from different departments and fields attending workshops together, and you may find non-academics such as journalists or people in business will attend too. The best workshops have a specific, action-oriented purpose, and aim to generate some concrete answers to current problems in the field.

Workshops are a good opportunity to learn new skills and to familiarise yourself with a topic you don't know well.



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