Conferences are a big part of the graduate student experience. Attending is an important opportunity to network and learn more about what's happening in your field, and presenting gives many students their first opportunity to put their work out there and to express themselves as real academics. But, in order to have the chance to take advantage of these professional opportunities, you have to convince somebody that you have something worthwhile to say.
What is a Conference Proposal?
All academic disciplines have conferences-conventions where professionals in the field get together to share information. The main way researchers spread the word about what they're working on is in presentations, which are short (usually 15 - 20 minutes) talks in which the presenter gives a brief outline of his or her research. These presentations are a great way for graduate students to gain experience and get exposure.
In order to be selected to give a presentation, first you have to submit a conference proposal. Basically a conference proposal is a short summary of the talk you would give at the conference. It highlights your research questions and results and also provides a brief explanation as to why your research is important. A good conference proposal will help you get your foot in the academic door, while a bad one will leave you out in the cold.
What Goes in a Conference Proposal?
There are as many types of conference proposals as there are conferences. Every conference will have its own guidelines for submissions, and the number one rule of writing proposals is to follow the submission guidelines for the particular conference you're applying too. Some will ask only for a short abstract (which, if accepted, is often printed word-for-word in the program), while others allow for longer submissions that are read only by those who are selecting papers.
Most conference proposals will be only a few hundred words long, which means you need to fit a lot of information into a pretty short amount of space. Remember, a conference proposal is meant to sell your paper to the people who are in charge of selecting presenters, so don't waste time with information that isn't vital to that task.
There are lots of ways you can structure a conference proposal, but the most straightforward is to simply mimic the organization of a long research paper. Start with a sentence or two of introduction that establishes your topic, then explicitly state what gap in the research landscape your work fills. Remember, you want to convince the reader that your work is important, so this first step is an absolute must. Next, briefly discuss your methodology, then move into your results and conclusions.
Dos and Don'ts of Conference Proposals
Do follow the rules
This was said earlier but it bears repeating: every conference has its own guidelines, and you need to follow those guidelines to the letter if you have any hope of being accepted as a presenter. The people reading applications will probably see hundreds or even thousands of similar proposals; if yours is the one that goes over the word limit or has incorrectly done citations, it'll be the first paper to go on the reject pile.
Papers with spelling and grammar mistakes will end up in the same place as those that don't follow conference proposal guidelines. Remember, there are hundreds of other people who have also submitted proposals, and if you look like you don't care enough to proofread your work, those other people are (rightfully) going to get picked ahead of you.
Don't bite off more than you can chew
When working on your proposal, keep in mind how much time you'll have to do your presentation. Most conferences will give you to 15 - 20 minutes, but you might have even less. If in your proposal you outline a talk that would take you significantly more time, it's likely to be rejected. The conference organizers don't want somebody up there who's obviously going to run out of time or give a rushed presentation; they want somebody who can use those 15 minutes wisely to give a structured, nuanced talk.
Do find the balance between ego and fear
As with all academic writing, conference proposals require you to strike a balance between tooting your own horn and noting the work of others. So, don't claim to be blowing up a long-held theory in your field but also don't just reiterate the work of others. If you're going to give a presentation, you should have an original idea, no matter how small, to talk about.
Don't quote too much
Conference proposals are short, and if you spend too much time rehashing the work of others there won't be time to get to your own ideas. The people reading applications don't want to waste their valuable time reading stuff they've seen before in books or other papers. This is your time to express your ideas, so don't write a proposal that looks like nothing more than a literature review.
Don't use jargon
On the other hand, it's sometime important to explain concepts in your proposal. Particularly if you're attending a cross-disciplinary conference or you're presenting to a general audience, you may need to explain theories and terms. Just like the reader will get tired of reading stuff they already know, they'll also get annoyed if they're reading stuff they don't understand. It's a difficult balance to strike, and it will be different for every conference.
Do specialize your paper for the conference
Many conferences have a theme, and even if your work doesn't fit that theme very well, it's in your best interest to make an effort to try. Also make sure to focus your paper if you're applying to conferences that cover a narrow sub-topic or area of your field. Just sending out the same proposal to a dozen conferences is probably going to get you rejected by every single one.
Do plan your talk
It's not necessary to write out your entire talk before you do your proposal, but you need to have a solid outline of what you plan to discuss before you apply to present. The conference organizers are going to expect you to actually discuss what's in your proposal, and if you discover that your proposal isn't going to work after it's already been accepted, you'll be in real trouble.
Do stick with one main idea
The best presentations provide a meaningful, in-depth look at a narrow topic, while less successful talks will just skim the surface of larger topics. When you're planning your talk, pick just one idea from your research to focus on. It will ensure that your talk isn't rushed, and your proposal will reflect that attention to detail.
Do start strong
Often in conference proposals it can be a good idea to state your main results clearly in the very first sentence. If you save them to the end the reader will likely have to go back and reread your work, and with hundreds of papers to read, they'll probably just toss it in the "no" pile. But, if you tell the reader what to expect from the beginning, they're more likely to be impressed.
Do get a second opinion
Nobody's perfect, and your first attempts at a conference proposal won't be either. So, before you start sending your proposal out into the world, have an advisor or fellow student look them over. They'll be able to point out weaknesses you might not see and can help you avoid simple spelling and grammar mistakes as well.
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