The Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science (SIPS) is a very new professional organization, having first met in 2016 at the Center for Open Science in Charlottesville, VA. I attended the 2019 meeting (the fourth annual) this past June in Rotterdam, Netherlands (along with over 450 other people, which represents a huge increase in participation in just three years).
Aside from representing Psi Chi, what I hoped to achieve at this conference was to develop new partnerships, procedures, and materials for the Collaborative Replications and Education Project. What I happily found was that teaching and training were central to the conference, something that should not have surprised me so much: the first bullet-pointed objective in SIPS’ mission statement, after all, is “Improving the training and research practices of psychological scientists.” They aren’t just talking about training opportunities for established researchers. They’re also talking about students—undergraduate, graduate, community college, prestigious college… students going on to PhD or not, research assistants, students in research methods and statistics, students in Intro Psych, first-generation students, students who work full-time, and the entire gamut of the other things that define the modern student across continents.
For some context, one of the first things you should know about SIPS is that it’s not a normal conference (although I now believe that this is how conferences should be run). There are three types of sessions—unconferences, hackathons, and workshops—which represent the evolution of project planning stages. The purpose of unconferences is to get a group of people together to identify problems and brainstorm solutions, while hackathons get groups of people together in a room to actually start working on and implementing solutions. Workshops represent more of a final stage in a project and are meant to disseminate information that could be helpful to researchers interested in that topic. I’ve linked some examples here for further exploration, but these are not comprehensive. I recommend looking at the full 2019 schedule not only to get a feel for the conference themes but also to be directed to resources that you’re likely to have an interest in if you’ve read this far.
The second thing you should know is that programming can be proposed and scheduled “on the fly,” which means that you can get to the conference, get ideas, and start working on them immediately. I’m someone who gets really excited about things I’ve heard in conference sessions and loses that momentum pretty much immediately after getting home, but SIPS has taken steps to actively work against this momentum loss by capturing the energy of scholars while they are present and inspired. A big plus here is that all people who are present can participate; instead of ideas getting floated in “social hours” and back-channel meetings that you have to be in-the-know to attend, they are out there on the schedule for all to see and attend. Instead of ideas leaving the conference and being followed up on by a handful of established researchers who know each other, early-career folks and students get to be “in the room where it happens.” This doesn’t mean back-channel meetings don’t happen, but SIPS is purposeful about bringing everyone along for the ride whenever possible.
Some extraordinary things have come from SIPS conferences, such as StudySwap, PsyArxiv, and The Psychological Science Accelerator. These are important innovations in the improving-psych community, but I had been more familiar with some of the teaching resources, such as the modular course materials for research methods courses that were created during a 2017 hackathon (and that I’ve been using since several weeks after the 2017 conference). I’m not sure if the hackathon responsible for these materials was on the original 2017 schedule or created on-the-fly, but either way, I don’t think anything like this has come from any conference I have ever attended. It’s central to the SIPS conference that there are takeaways from all three types of sessions that are curated on an OSF page unique to that session, which means workshop attendees get materials, hackathon attendees get to help create materials, and unconference attendees get a place to curate materials. It’s not just attendees, either—I was not at the 2017 session linked above, but I still get to benefit from their work… which means my students also benefit.
The student experience itself was centered in many ways at SIPS. I personally attended several sessions on research methods, statistics, and open science training, and was also able to create a session on-the-fly to help get feedback on my own project. Leaders and participants from hackathons cross-participated and found obvious ways to collaborate. The entire spirit of the conference was one of forward-thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving, and I can’t think of anything more helpful to someone planning their courses.
If you are reading this as a student, you may be thinking “great, but what do students get directly?” and my answer is this: Come to SIPS to be treated like a colleague. What I experienced was that students who attended were addressed as equals and active participants in improving the science, which is what I suppose makes this group special. If we’re talking about improving the science, after all, then we are talking about future researchers… and if the people you want to support aren’t at the table—not the kiddie table, but the real table—you won’t achieve that. One of my core beliefs about teaching is that students are active scholars who can contribute meaningfully to their field, and I have found this mirrored in SIPS.