How to choose a conference then write an abstract that gets you noticed

A number of recent conversations with early career researchers and students have all focused on one question. Should I present my research at a conference?

To which my answer is an enthusiastic yes!

Here’s why conferences can help your work. For those who are lone workers, who are not supported within their institution, who are struggling with the loneliness and insecurities that can come with post/graduate study, or who are early career researchers, conferences can be a really good place to get informal teaching not being provided elsewhere. Alongside sharing and developing your ideas. Plus the chance to forge friendships and research partnerships.

How do I decide which conference to present at?
Perhaps you’ve already heard about an event you want to go to. Or maybe you have research findings you’re keen to share with others. Or possibly you’ve been encouraged by your boss/funders/supervisor/colleagues to find a conference to present at. You can find conferences:
– Shared on social media
– Advertised by professional organisations/institutions
– Detailed on listserves (such as NACADA, H-net, CataList, JISCMAIL, UCSD Grad Student’s resources)
– Via calls for papers sent out via journals, research groups etc

Or you could go searching for possible events that suit your skills/needs at:
Conference Alerts
All Conferences
PLOS Conference Announcements

How do I know what conference is right for me?
While the focus on conferences tends to be based on ‘giving a paper’ or otherwise seeming visible, there are many other issues to consider while deciding if a conference is suited to your needs.

As you are searching for conferences to present at, ask yourself the following questions:
– Why do I want to present at this event? What am I hoping to get from it and how will it benefit me?
– Who is the event aimed at? Is what I have to share going to be useful/meaningful to delegates? What are their specific needs/backgrounds and how will this impact on what I plan to talk about/share?
– Is it the event pitched at my level (as in I have work of a high-enough standard to share)?
– Is it within my subject area?
– Am I able to travel to the conference and have I checked it doesn’t clash with other planned activities?
– Can I afford to go, and if not, am I eligible for any bursaries? What’s my backup plan if funding falls through?

Alongside these questions, consider what you’re expecting to get back from giving a conference presentation. In my experience conference presentations nearly always lead on to…..more conference presentations! But if you want your presentation to lead to something then be clear in your own mind what that is and whether the event you’re aiming for will deliver this. Some reasons for going to conferences include starting or finishing off a paper; getting feedback on your research ideas (at all stages of the research process); increasing your contacts; recruiting participants; reflecting on your findings; assistance with data analysis; improving your chances of getting research funded; job hunting or other career advice/progression; or meeting key people in your field.

How to write a conference abstract
Having noted all of the above, check the aims and scope of the conference. These are usually listed on the conference webpage or in the call for papers (or both). Note who is the target audience, what are they wanting/expecting, and how does this tally with what you have to offer?

You may consider these approaches to sharing your work
A paper – aka a short talk of 10-20 minutes based on your research/reflections.
A poster – where you detail main outcomes of a study, tool, project or programme of work.
A workshop – where you bring people together to hear about your work, develop ideas/activism/approaches together, or to reflect on a specific issue/method etc.
A symposium – where two or more presenters give short talks on a themed topic, usually followed by audience discussion.
A PechaKucha – rapid sharing of slides/ideas in a short timeframe.
A performance – showcasing study findings, ideas or experiences via photography, poetry, dance, film, drama or other creative approach.
A panel discussion – where a number of people with expertise/experience in a particular area answer audience questions/reflect on issues.

It’s standard for conference calls to identify the particular questions/topics they’d like to see addressed and in what format. If you aren’t sure if your work (or the way you’d like to present it) fits their requirements, email the conference organisers and check before you get down to writing your abstract.

Remember different presentation formats suit different topics, events, and presenter styles so you’ll need to ensure the way you’re presenting both matches your skills/abilities alongside fitting the goals of the event and will engage your prospective audience.

Most often you’ll be attending an event in person, but increasingly people are joining in events remotely. Some activities are happening entirely online in shared discussions or social media chats. So again, matching your presentation to those kinds of formats is important (e.g. a long speech is not going to work in a Tweetup).

Having established what the conference guidelines for presenters are, send the organisers exactly what they’re asking for, in the format they’ve asked for it, by their specified deadline. That includes checking if they want a structured abstract or not, adhering to word length and formatting of the required abstract, plus requested details about you and any co-presenters (including affiliations, qualifications etc).

What you send them will form the basis of whether they pick your submission for inclusion in the conference, and also what will appear in the conference programme or proceedings. Therefore ensure your title is self-explanatory, catchy and engaging. While your abstract should be interesting and informative, jargon free and accurate. Remember people will be picking through abstracts deciding what talks/events to go to, so use your abstract to draw them in, and latterly your presentation/workshop etc to showcase your ideas further. Unless specifically requested you don’t need to include references to other people’s work in an abstract for a conference presentation.

I don’t know what to put in my conference abstract!

With all the excitement of finding an event you’d like to go to you may then struggle to know what to actually write in your abstract. Alternatively you might find it difficult to compose something if you’re feeling pressured to present but with no clear focus or idea of what you want to say. If that’s the case for you, it’s a good idea start writing something. You may want to use a structured abstract (e.g. background, method, findings etc) to describe what you’ll be talking about even if you later remove these subheadings or change the text around. If it continues to be difficult and if your heart isn’t in it then return to the questions at the start of this post and work out if this event is really the right one for you at this point in your research career.

Also revisiting the issues outlined above – who’ll be at the event, their needs/expectations and your motivations, plus the submission requirements set out by conference organisers – may give you a clearer idea of what you can discuss. Or help you translate the enthusiasm you hold for your work into a written format. Noting these down on post-its, as notes, or drawn out as a storyboard can help get you started.

Some conferences post past events on their websites, so you could get ideas from them about what a conference abstract might look like. In fact this can be a handy learning activity – reflecting on what abstracts and titles draw you in. Alternatively, think back to other events you might have been to – what talks attracted your attention, and why?

The following resources may also help you work out how to write your abstract while also planning for what your talk/workshop etc is going to cover. It’s a good idea to plan these things concurrently, to avoid the situation where you put in for a conference, your work’s accepted, but you end up scrambling a presentation together just before an event.

Helen Kara’s guide on how to write a killer conference abstract is essential reading.
This guide by Philip Koopman found by Nkeonye Judith Izuka (who was the person who first raised this particular question about conferences) helps with a more structured overview of what you could include.
Academic Conferences have tips for writing abstracts that includes a handy 12 point checklist of what organisers will be looking for when selecting submissions.
Meanwhile this blog post breaks down all the sections of an abstract so it tells a story and sells your ideas. As does this from The Professor Is In.
This blog from McGill University provides a realistic overview of what the abstract writing experience really feels like. Alongside these expert pointers gathered by the International Studies Association.
Finally, these suggestions from Raul Pacheco-Vega on kick starting your academic writing could get you past any creative blocks.

If you’re not sure about anything related to the conference – whether that’s about the event itself, how to register, or what to cover in your abstract (or latterly, your presentation) ask before you submit rather than hoping or expecting things can be changed later. For example if you’re planning on doing a workshop but submit as if you’re offering a paper the organisers will assume that’s what you want to do and may not be able to make allowances for you later. Or if you can only attend with a bursary but they don’t offer them it’s unlikely anything will change just because they’ve accepted your presentation.

How will I know they’ve accepted my presentation?

Some events send you an acknowledgement your abstract’s been received, others don’t respond until they’re telling you your presentation’s been accepted or not. Usually conference organisers list a deadline by which successful applicants will have been notified their presentation has been accepted. If this has passed and you’ve heard nothing you should email them.

If your idea is rejected
– don’t despair. It happens. There will be many other events you can go to in the future. And if this conference appealed to you then you may still want to go and listen, learn and network.

Your idea is accepted but they want you to change it
– for example they liked your idea of a symposium but only have space for a short talk, or they would prefer you to present your poster as a workshop. If this suits your work/time/resources then you may want to accept their suggestions, but you don’t have to if you were set on presenting your work in a specific way they can’t accommodate. Instead thank them for their suggestion but withdraw your paper (you’ll need to do this otherwise they’ll assume you’re attending), then find a conference with a better fit for your proposed presentation.

Your idea is accepted
– great! You now need to fine-tune your poster, talk, workshop etc.

If you plan on using the conference to write up a subsequent paper based on the feedback you get from delegates here’s a tip from an old boss of mine. Draft your paper before you go. Then use your own observations plus other people’s reflections during and after the event to help shape your final draft – and encourage you to get it submitted. Alternatively this process may mean you realise your paper would be better presented as a video, blog post, book or cartoon.

Future blog posts will focus on presentation skills and formats for conferences, while the next one will look at the practicalities of attending a conference and how to enjoy the experience.

If you’ve got any questions, observations or tips about finding and submitting work for conferences, please post a comment below.

One response to How to choose a conference then write an abstract that gets you noticed

  1. Bonita Squires

    Don’t forget to mention that if you present you usually still need to pay registration! Find out if you’re covered!

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