Thursday, February 12, 2015

How do you become a conference chair?

I've served as program chair and general chair for a number of conferences, but the conditions under which I got asked to serve in these roles were generally a mystery to me. Now that I've served on the steering committee for several conferences, I've seen how the sausage is made and what factors contribute to an individual being asked to be the PC or general chair.

If you're a junior faculty member or a relatively new industry researcher, you might be wondering how you get yourself in the right position to be tapped for these roles. A few words of advice that might be helpful.

Should you chair a conference?

Being a program or general chair requires a tremendous amount of time and energy. You should only accept such a job if you can really do a good job of it. In the past I have declined invitations for events that I didn't feel that I could really devote the appropriate amount of energy to. It was easy to turn down by saying "I don't feel that I have the cycles to do an incredible job". Doing a poor job of chairing will potentially tarnish your reputation and make it difficult for you to get such gigs in the future.

In general I would recommend that you only chair well-known and high-profile conferences and workshops. Way too many people seem to think that the way to make their mark on the research world is by starting up a new conference or workshop in some area, and finding some sucker to serve as the chair. As a result we have a proliferation of third-tier workshops on various topics which don't generally attract good paper submissions, good PC members, or good attendees. These are usually a waste of time.

Of course as a junior faculty member you don't get asked to chair, say, SOSP in your first or second year on the job. You have to start somewhere. Chairing a few smaller or lower-quality events is fine and gives you experience, but be extremely judicious in selecting which venues to chair. I made the mistake once or twice of agreeing to chair for a brand-new workshop which did not clearly have the buy-in from the rest of the community that it needed to exist. As a result I had a hard time getting good people to agree to be on the PC, and the submissions we got were pretty crappy. I should have said no to this (although serving as chair sounded like a great thing for my career at the time).

Is being general chair worth it?

For junior faculty, generally not. The program chai is the job you want. The general chair's job is to do all of the scut work of organizing the conference -- finding the hotel, dealing with finances, deciding on the banquet menu, begging companies for money. This work really sucks and delivers little intellectual satisfaction (unless you really like negotiating hotel contracts). The only reason to do this job is if the venue is really well known and you will have a chance to be fairly high profile in terms of structuring the whole event and making your mark on it. I usually think it's better for senior, more well-established people to be general chairs since they don't need to do it for career-advancement reasons.

I agreed to be general chair for HotMobile last year. I knew this wouldn't advance my career in any meaningful way, certainly not at Google. I did it because I like HotMobile a lot and wanted to help the community. As a junior faculty member devoting this much time to something like this would have been a mistake.

How do you get tapped?

Most conferences have a steering committee that makes the decision about who will be the program and general chair for the following year's conference. Sometimes the steering committee has standing members and sometimes it rotates (and sometimes a combination of the two).

Getting chosen for a chairship comes down to a bunch of factors.

Overall visibility: You need to be known in the community. This means showing up for the conferences, getting to know people, serving on program committees, and generally being there. If you don't ever come to a conference the chances you'll be asked to serve as its chair are vanishingly low. Note that publishing papers in these conferences is helpful but not strictly a requirement (I don't publish much anymore and keep getting asked to do things...) Being seen is more important than being published in this regard.

Being responsible: Generally you establish your reputation as a community member by serving on program committees and doing other volunteer activities like running poster/demo sessions and the like. If you serve in these roles, it's important to be incredibly responsible: Don't miss paper review deadlines, keep people in the loop, deliver on what you promised. I've known faculty who are perennially tardy with paper reviews, don't show up in person to the PC meeting, and so forth. These people are less likely to be asked to be a chair.

Career stage: Many conferences confer chairships on up-and-coming faculty who are at a certain stage in their career (e.g., about to come up to tenure) who are less likely to say no (and also more likely to do an excellent job).

Knowing the right people: This is part of overall visibility, but if you don't have any kind of personal relationship with the folks who will eventually be making these decisions, it's less likely they'll think of you when the time comes. Going to conferences, going out for dinner and drinks after the conference, and generally being chummy with other senior folks in the field is pretty important. I know plenty of people who do second-rate research but are seen as members of the inner cabal mainly because they always show up to the conference and are up for getting beers. (Indeed this may well explain most of my own career path!)


  1. Hi Matt,

    While I generally agree with the points you make in your post, I disagree with your comment that starting new workshops is "generally a waste of time".

    I've personally been in on the ground floor of two workshops: USENIX Free and Open Communications on the Internet (FOCI) and HotSDN (now a conference attached to the Open Network Summit). In both cases, I started them because SIGCOMM has a "call for workshops" that actively encourages the establishment of communities around areas that may emerge and deserve some additional focus (at least for some period of time). I personally conceived of FOCI as a SIGCOMM workshop submission, but it found its home at USENIX Security, where it has been attached for many years and now has a healthy sub-culture of people who care about topics related to censorship.

    Both are extremely healthy workshops (one now a conference).

    If you check out our past PC chairs for these conferences, the chairs we have are hardly what you'd call "suckers"---to the contrary, they are people who are well senior to me and luminaries in the field. That said, occasionally junior folks chair these workshops as well, and those roles can be great for visibility.

    I think that the key to starting a *good* workshop is to identify an area where there is a community of interest forming around a topic area that is not yet mature enough to necessarily have the mindshare of the (often overly conservative) broader research community. The passionate minds who care about those sub-areas will flock to suck a conference.

    That said, there are plenty of bad workshops. That's why, as the current workshop chair at SIGCOMM '15, I actively solicited workshops on topics that *I* thought were important (e.g., ethics), rather than being forced to choose only from things that fell into our laps.

    In short, I would not disparage chairing workshops quite so much. Demonstrating leadership at a timely and well-positioned workshop can be a great career booster. Starting a good workshop that lives on and fills an underserved intellectual niche is also a great way to have impact. And ultimately, both can be a stepping stone for charing the "top tier" conferences that you mention, which may be out of reach for many of your readers, at least for the early-career years.


    1. Nick, that's awesome. I would argue that is the exception rather than the rule.