A Doctoral Consortium format for times of COVID

by Luis P. Prieto, - 11 minutes read - 2328 words

Doctoral Consortia are events (often, at scientific conferences) where doctoral students present their dissertation ideas and get expert feedback on them. I have co-organized a few of these events during the first waves of the pandemic, which students seemed to find useful (the events, not the pandemic!). In this post, I describe the (online) event format that we followed, in case it helps future organizers of similar events. If you are a PhD student, I hope this post will also encourage you to attend one!

I still remember vividly my first Doctoral Consortium (DC). I was halfway through my PhD, in the “mid-point slump” in which you have some ideas and results already, but still no coherence of the thesis ideas and no journal papers published. I was supposed to be reaching the end of the dissertation, but for me there was no end in sight. I was a bit demoralized, to be honest. Then, at the DC, I got to meet big names in the field which I had been citing again and again, and other doctoral students in my research community (back then, computer-supported collaborative learning, or CSCL). Not sure what part of it worked on me, but it did: I exited the event with a new energy, eager to see the rest of the conference, and the rest of my PhD. Maybe it was because I then had some more people I could talk to in the crowded but solitary coffee breaks of the conference. Maybe because the mentors had made links between my work and that of others in the community, which I had not seen myself. Maybe just having such big names looking at my work and honestly considering it as worthy of discussion, and dedicating their (probably scarce) time to talk about it had this “magical”1 effect.

Doctoral consortia??

But let’s back up a step: what are doctoral consortia? (yes, the plural of consortium –from Latin– is consortia). The word literally means “partnership” or “association” and, more generally, “sharing the same fate”. n the context of research communities, a DC is a “formal, scheduled event at which doctoral students, whose work has advanced beyond detailed design, present their research for feedback from external scholars and peers who have reviewed advance reports on the work presented”1. If you have never heard about DCs (in some communities/conferences they also call them “workshop for early career researchers”, or something else), here is the quick summary:

  • What is it? as the definition above notes, it is a formal event for PhD students to present their dissertation ideas and progress. The main goal is to get feedback from more expert researchers. Sometimes, it also has a component of meeting up and group-building among doctoral students in that research community.

  • Where does it happen? Most often, DCs happen as part of scientific conferences (as a separate workshop or track). Yet, we can also find similar feedback-oriented sessions in summer/winter schools or other doctoral training events.

  • Should you go there? Yes.

  • Why go there? Many reasons. Mainly, better integration into your research community (which is a factor in persisting in your PhD2. You will get an idea of how other doctoral dissertations look like in your area (and that nobody’s dissertation is perfect – good to fight the ubiquitous impostor syndrome). You will meet peers and maybe make some friends/acquaintances (which is nice for the informal breaks when you are new to a conference). You also meet potential future employers (the experts who will give feedback, who often are in the lookout for talent to hire as postdocs later on).

  • When to go there? Sometime around the middle part of your doctoral studies. I wouldn’t go to a DC when you are in the finalization stage of the PhD, when all ideas are set and you are just focused on finishing. Also, going at the very beginning (when the dissertation idea is not so clear or your have no empirical data yet) might not be so beneficial, because the discussions quickly get rather vague and abstract.

Yet, sometimes an example is worth a thousand words. To see how these events look like and how they are announced, you could look at the DC at ICALT (which I co-organized, in the area of learning technologies), or the DC at CHI (in human-computer interaction).

If you are a doctoral supervisor/expert trying to organize a DC, you might also be curious exactly how to manage the event (especially, in an online format, given the still ongoing COVID pandemic). If you are a doctoral student, it might be helpful to have a more concrete example of what exactly happens there. That’s what the rest of the post will do.

An (online) Doctoral Consortium format

The online DC format we followed was shaped by one guiding principle: maximize feedback to the students, both in terms of breadth, depth and usefulness. The other main constraint we had was, of course, the pandemic: this had to be an online event with a global audience (which implied other restrictions like timezones feasible for participants, or the limited length of an online session that is engaging for the audience).

Hence, although DCs are normally whole-day events, in our case we ended up with three two-hour sessions, one for each of the major timezones where our audience was physically located (e.g., the Americas, Europe/Africa, East Asia/Australia). How did we organize the event?

Before the synchronous sessions

As it happens with many other types of events, the transition to an online format means that you need to prepare things in advance a bit more carefully. You cannot just “wing it”. Preparatory steps included:

  1. Getting the organizers together, deciding on the exact format of the event and brainstorming a considerable list of referees/experts (hopefully covering the breadth of the research community of the conference and expected submissions). Defining all the important dates (submission and review/feedback deadlines, date of the event, etc.), and the template/structure that the student submissions should take (normally, describing main aspects of the students’ dissertation as a whole and their current state, often using concepts similar to those in the CQOCE diagram – see this example from the ICALT conference). Also, defining additional submission requirements (e.g., an adjoining a letter of support by the students’ supervisor) and a rubric with criteria that the reviewers can use to assess the submissions and decide whether they should be accepted.
  2. Contact the experts and get their agreement to revise one/a few of the submissions, on the dates defined in the previous step.
  3. Announce the DC’s call for papers (often, along with the main conference, and with a separate section within the conference website). In the call for papers, state clearly the format and structure requirements (normally, these are relatively short papers, maybe 3-8 pages long, depending on the template). Use examples in the text of the call, to show what the different parts of this document structure mean (many doctoral students are not used to writing about the thesis as a whole!).
  4. Manage submissions and reviews, as you would in any conference (if possible, use the same system the main conference uses). For instance, we used the Easychair submission system (which has a free version, if you need basic functionalities). If you have that luxury, assign reviewers on the basis not only of the topic of the student paper, but also their rough timezone (the reason for this will become obvious later on). Emphasize to the reviewers that they should prime formative feedback (or feedforward that suggests paths for improvement) over just judging whether the paper should be accepted/rejected. This step would already give the first feedback items to students.
  5. During the submission process or, preferably, after acceptance, ask both reviewers and doctoral students where they will be physically located on the day of the event. Then, create tracks/groups of students (e.g., 3-6 students per group), and assign them to 2-hour synchronous sessions in a way that is feasible according to their timezones. Also, assign one expert from your roster to each doctoral student. This expert can be (but does not need to be) among the ones that provided reviews to the student in step #4 above. The main criteria for this assignment is whether the expert agrees to be available for the corresponding synchronous session (i.e., also consider their timezone!).
  6. Ask students to prepare a short presentation about their dissertation (about 10’ long, maybe restricting the number of slides and following the same structure as the paper submissions). To maximize the usefulness of the feedback, ask students to start reflecting (and include in their presentation) a few ideas about what challenges and open questions they are facing right now in their PhD. These ideas can be gathered in an online form (see this example form) and shared with the experts in advance of the session, so that they can also prepare to give more meaningful feedback.

The synchronous session

The main happening of the DC are the synchronous sessions (as many as tracks/groups of students you made during preparation). These are about 2-hours long (given that they are done online, I would advice against longer sessions, as Zoom fatigue3 is likely to kick in well before that). The sequence of the session is rather simple (see also these example supporting slides) :

  1. Short introduction to the session goals and structure by the DC organizers (5’).

  2. Public session (about one hour long). The audience of this part includes all the students in the track/group, the corresponding experts, and any additional students/experts from other groups that are able to attend. In this part of the event, students do the short presentations of their dissertations (not more than 10-15’ long) and get short, clarificatory oral feedback from the audience (about 5 minutes). One important difference between this session and any other conference session is that the audience is provided a simple but structured written feedback form (asking for a few strong points and potential improvements, see this example), and the organizers actively encourage the audience to write on that form during the presentations and oral feedback. This enables students to receive a wider breadth of feedback from both peers and experts (rather than just receiving the ideas from the 1-2 most chatty members of the audience that are able to speak in the 5 minutes allotted to feedback). And it keeps the audience engaged and doing something meaningful, rather than passively listening and waiting (or doing their emails).

  3. Private session (about 40’): This is a one-on-one session in which the student/presenter and one or more experts engage in private dialogue to find answers to the main open questions the student has, or to discuss ways to work around the student’s main challenges, as outlined in their presentations. In our DC, we used Zoom’s “breakout rooms” feature to enable these private discussions. The back-and-forth in this part of the DC allows for feedback depth and understanding (sometimes the student presentation is not clear, or further explanations are needed about experts’ remarks). The discussion should probably be guided by the items raised by student (to maximize feedback usefulness as well). Yet, experts could also add their own ideas about unnoticed challenges, or other general advice (e.g., what trouble may arise down the road, from the point of view of how this particular research community).

  4. Wrap-up (15’): Back together in the big group, the student presenters summarize the 1-2 main lessons or takeaway ideas for them from the session.

After the session

Once the synchronous session ends, the DC is not over. It is rather “the beginning of the rest of your PhD”:

  1. The organizers send all the written feedback from the audience (given in the feedback form during the public session, see #2 above) to each of the student presenters.
  2. If the experts are up for it, encourage doctoral students to follow up their discussions and feedback, both with members of the audience and with their allotted experts, by email or any other preferred means of communication (e.g., if they have additional questions or the discussions had to be cut short due to time restrictions).
  3. As doctoral students, do not just run away to the next paper or the next thing: make sure to dedicate a stretch of time specifically to go over all the pieces of feedback received and reflecting on whether they are relevant and how they could be integrated into the dissertation. Exercises like the CQOCE diagram or the map of the thesis can be very useful for this purpose, adding or modifying elements according to the most important and applicable pieces of feedback received during the DC. Discussing these insights (and consequences for the dissertation) with supervisors is also highly recommended.

Overall, this format proved to be quite flexible and effective, and relatively simple to implement. The main challenge is the finding of topic-relevant experts and the whole scheduling of sessions according to the timezones of a worldwide audience. If I had to change something, I would maybe add some more group-building activities, some more informal socialization events. But this is still a big unsolved issue in any online conference or event.

If you are organizing a DC, I hope this structure helps you create a great event. If you are a student, I hope this post convinced you to attend one.

In both cases, please let me know how that went, in the comments below, or in the blog’s contact form. I’m genuinely curious!

Header image by Mike Cohen

  1. Gable, G. G., Smyth, R., & Gable, A. (2016). The role of the doctoral consortium: An information systems signature pedagogy? Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 38(1), 33. ↩︎

  2. Castelló, M., Pardo, M., Sala-Bubaré, A., & Suñe-Soler, N. (2017). Why do students consider dropping out of doctoral degrees? Institutional and personal factors. Higher Education, 74(6), 1053–1068. ↩︎

  3. Bailenson, J. N. (2021). Nonverbal overload: A theoretical argument for the causes of Zoom fatigue. Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 2(1). ↩︎

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Luis P. Prieto

Luis P. is a Ramón y Cajal research fellow at the University of Valladolid (Spain), investigating learning technologies, especially learning analytics. He is also an avid learner about doctoral education and supervision, and he's the main author at the A Happy PhD blog.

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