I’ve been a little delayed in blogging this month, but for a very good reason – I’ve just experienced one of the best workshops of my career. I’d like to share a little of that perfect science recipe with you now.
I’ve said it before, but it can stand being repeated: done right, workshops can be some of the most efficient structures for doing big science.
First, let me define ‘workshop’ for those of you who might have only a vague notion of what it entails. To me, a workshop is a small group of like-minded scientists – all of whom possess different skills and specialities – who are brought together to achieve one goal. That goal is writing the superlative manuscript for publication.
So I don’t mean just a bog-standard chin-wag infected with motherhoods and diatribes. Workshops are not mini-conferences; neither are they soap boxes. It is my personal view that nothing can waste a scientist’s precious time more than an ill-planned and aimless workshop.
But with a little planning and some key ingredients that I’ll list shortly, you can turn a moderately good idea into something that can potentially shake the foundations of an entire discipline. So what are these secret ingredients?
- Think of at least one big hypothesis that you believe you can test with real data, even if the data appear difficult to obtain. I think most scientists can think of at least a few burning hypotheses that they’d love to test if the data were kicking about.
- Find the data. Hire someone, or get a student to spend some time (sometimes it takes months) to put together the database (whether they be collected and collated from existing databases or individual papers). Getting the bulk of the necessary data collected well before the actually workshop is essential. You don’t want to waste your time finding data during the workshop itself.
- Invite no more than 10-15 people that can specialise in at least one component of the hypothesis. This can be people intimately familiar with the data type, maths geeks who’ve got the latest methods at their fingertips, taxonomic specialists, etc. If you can see several dimensions to the big question, get the specialists of each involved.
- Don’t just choose the biggest names in the field. A room full of crusty old professors will get about as much done as a room full of neophyte PhD students (i.e., not much). You need a broad cross-section of experience and free time.
- Go to a galaxy far, far away. If you have your workshop next to your office, you won’t be nearly as productive. Ideally, you should all go to a neutral place far away from work, family and other day-to-day responsibilities. Field stations, wineries and other beautiful places are highly recommended.
- Go away for at least three days. Five days is an ideal length.
- Keep your attendees comfortable. If they don’t have to think about food, drink or a place to sleep, they will focus on the science at hand. Organise catering.
- Good coffee.
- Keep your group well hydrated. Generally I’d recommend leaving the wine and beer until after beer o’clock, but make sure you’ve got enough tasty tipples in the evenings to relax the body and mind.
- Internet. I know this can be a HUGE distraction. In an ideal world, you’d ban anyone in the group from accessing e-mails, but this is practically impossible. Internet is absolutely essential though for finding those missing papers, augmenting datasets and rapidly sharing files.
- Appoint a leader. Generally this is the workshop organiser, but it can be anyone in the group with the leadership skills and a vision.
- Plan your output. Often workshops end up growing into multi-tentacled beasts if people aren’t kept to task. One great output is better than five mediocre ones.
- Make sure everyone has a job to do. There’s no better way to waste someone’s time if they feel like a fifth wheel.
- Break-out groups: specific tasks require specific experts working in groups of 3-5.
- Projectors and whiteboards (obvious).
- Post-workshop deadlines: few things are more disappointing than gaining some good momentum during the workshop, then letting it languish in the months and years that follow. Assign specific post-workshop tasks and leaders and give deadlines. Be brutishly hard-core about ensuring these are met.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not always followed my own advice, and when I haven’t, workshops have been less than perfect. However, if you can get most of these aspects into your workshop design, then I can almost guarantee you’ll end up producing some brilliant work.
Of course, the perfect workshop takes time and money, so be strategic in how you invest your grant money. It might seem expensive at the beginning (especially when you add up the travel, accommodation, booze and catering), but it can be the most cost-effective way to achieve that published output required to acquit the grant.
In my next post, I’ll actually tell you the content of our latest workshop.