Symposium vs. conference, what’s the difference?

3 minute read

A symposium versus a conference. What’s the actual difference? And how does it affect organising or submitting to one?

A symposium (not to be confused with a Greek drinking party or the work of a rather famous philosopher) is the type of event that can cause consternation. Is it just another way of saying “conference”? Does writing an abstract for a symposium work the same way? What about organising a symposium, is it any different to organising a regular conference?

Symposia (“symposiums” is also an acceptable plural) and conferences are both formal gatherings of scholars and researchers where people present their work, hear others present, and discuss the latest developments within their field. But what makes a symposium different to a conference?

Well, that actually depends on your definition… Let’s jump into some definitions of a symposium and a conference.

The defining features of a symposium

A symposium generally has a much narrower focus than a research or academic conference. Often an event like this will cover just one topic, so symposia are often smaller and shorter than your average conference.

As sharing a name with a drinking party would suggest, a symposium is usually structured to spark more conversation than the typical conference. Often the papers presented at a symposium are discussed in a panel format, with the intention of eliciting recommendations from the audience or the other speakers on the issues at hand. (So the much-bemoaned sage on the stage isn’t usually a feature.)

Symposium presenters are often experts in their field. And sometimes symposia are used to fuel international and cross-disciplinary communication by bringing together scientists and practitioners to present and discuss their latest work and future plans.

Unlike at a traditional conference, symposium submissions are reviewed — and rejected or accepted — in a group. We’ll cover more on this later, as it makes a pretty big difference when you’re submitting to or organising a symposium.

The defining features of a conference

A conference (also known as a congress) is usually much broader in focus than a symposium. Conferences often cover multiple themes or topics within a field, and may bring together inter-disciplinary scholars and practitioners. Sometimes, because their subject is so broad, conferences have distinct tracks (like mini-conferences) contained within them. As a result, a conference would typically be much larger than a symposium. For example, some international conferences run for a week and have thousands of presenters.

The presenters at a conference range from students and early-career researchers through to invited speakers who are academic or industry celebrities.

The typical medium-to-large conference has a programme packed full of short presentations arranged within sessions. These are often arranged into parallel “streams” that have sessions which run simultaneously.  

Conferences also generally feature multiple session types. An increasing number of conferences are testing out new styles of presentation like breakout sessions, but the presentations at a conference typically take the form of oral or poster presentations, panels or workshops. Conferences usually also have a plenary session, like a keynote presentation, which all delegates are encouraged to attend.

Conference submissions usually undergo individual peer review and are accepted or rejected on their own merit.

The difference between a symposium and a conference

So a symposium is like a small, ultra-focused conference? Er, not always…

After 10 years of helping people run conferences, symposia and everything in between, we’ve found that none of these rules is immutable.

Like a lot of things, the definitions shift depending on your field. In some disciplines, there is a distinct difference between a symposium and a conference. In others, the two words are used interchangeably. Below is our attempt at charting the “typical” Ex Ordo conference. And guess what? There is no typical. We have outliers all the time.

Radar graph charting the difference between the various conferences and symposia on Ex Ordo

The not-so-typical “typical” Ex Ordo conference

A conference could mean something with thousands of delegates or with just a few. A symposium could be a one-off focused affair, or it could be the large annual event of a scholarly society. Sometimes conferences review submissions in groups. Sometimes symposia review them in isolation. Sometimes conferences contain symposia as part of their proceedings and treat them as just another session type.

Confused? I’m not surprised.

What matters is paying attention to how the event describes itself (the submission guidelines within the call for abstracts are usually a dead giveaway) and dealing with the added complications that arise if submissions will be reviewed as a group.

Submitting to a symposium? Here’s what you need to know

If your symposium follows the definition above, you’ll likely be submitting your research as a panel, rather than as an individual submission. These submissions will then be peer-reviewed together and accepted based on their collective merit.

Because this complicates the submission process somewhat, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with all the steps involved in submitting to a symposium before you begin. You’ll need to identify a common submission theme, invite your fellow presenters (who should be spread across institutions and have a good gender mix), appoint a discussant, and get all your work in order in good time. If you’ve never submitted in this way before, Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In has an excellent post about how to submit a symposium panel. Do read it.

And, as always, when you’re submitting to a research event, don’t forget to pay attention to the submission guidelines and deadlines. For example, if you’re submitting to a symposium that’s one part of a larger conference, different deadlines may apply to you.

Organising a symposium? Here’s what you need to know

Where symposia can get messy for organisers is managing abstracts. Once you tie the fate of a single submission to the fate of others (if one abstract in a group is rejected, the whole group gets rejected) things can get complicated fast.

If you’ll be using abstract management software to collect and review submissions for your event, do your homework before you buy. Think through how you’ll need to handle submissions from when you collect them to when you’re building your conference programme.

As with any software that’s designed to carry out complex tasks, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. When shopping for software, ask any potential suppliers how their software deals with linked submissions, and look for a supplier that’s open to helping you find the best solution for your event.

Closing thoughts

Much like arguments over grammar, you’ll find lots of people online insisting that “symposium means this” or “conference means that” simply because that’s what they’ve experienced in their field. But meanings can shift across disciplines and continents.

Peter Casserly

Peter’s been with Ex Ordo so long he’s worked in all four of our Galway offices. He likes us so much he even started a Dublin office for us. When he’s not explaining the ins-and-outs of conferences, he’s playing hurling for Castlegar Club where he’s most at home minding the house as Full Back.