How to write a conference abstract

This year, I am the Graduate Placement Officer (GPO) representative for our graduate student committee, which generally means that I work with our GPO to organize and host professionalization workshops for graduate students.

As part of this role, last semester I organized and led a workshop on how to write a conference abstract. Here are some of my tips.

Why attend a conference?

Conferences can be great opportunities for graduate students to network and meet other scholars in their field or in related fields. They can provide important professionalization and presentation experience, either from presenting yourself or watching others present and are a great place to workshop or get feedback on a paper or research project. Conferences also look good on a CV or funding application, and (in non-pandemic times) can provide opportunities for travel, depending on where the conference is hosted.

What is a conference abstract?

An abstract is a brief summary (or proposal) of what you’d like to present at a conference. 

An abstract:

  • Describes the topic of your proposed presentation
  • Highlights your key arguments, the problem you will address, your methodology (if applicable), and key resources from which your research builds
  • Tells the conference committee what your presentation will focus on, and how your presentation fits with the conference theme

The abstract is reviewed by the conference committee or conference chair for selection purposes and is included in the conference program.

Tips for writing a conference abstract

Now that you know what an abstract is, it’s time to write one! Here are some tips to consider when writing a conference abstract:

  • Review the CFP in detail and identify how your proposal fits with the aims or themes of the conference.
  • Make sure to follow the CFP guidelines carefully. Don’t go over the maximum word count and be sure to include a title. Include additional items like key words, a short bio, affiliation, etc., if requested.
  • Clearly outline your argument. You don’t need to have everything figured out right now, but you need to establish an original argument that you plan to examine.
  • Include references and briefly outline your theoretical approach. This can help situate your proposal within the field.
  • Make it interesting. Your proposal should be engaging, concise, and specific.
  • Avoid jargon and be sure to write out any abbreviations.
  • Ask a friend or peer to review your abstract before submitting it. Pay attention to spelling and grammar.
  • When possible, use material you’re already working on, e.g., a paper from a course, something you’re researching for your dissertation or MRP, etc.
  • FILE NAMING TIP: To help the conference committee quickly identify and file your submission, name your document something like FirstName_LastName_ConferenceTitle_Abstract.

General tips for conferences and conference abstracts

  • Find and sign up for listservs in your field of interest, or find and follow scholars in your field, journals, and organizations on Twitter. Most CFPs are distributed this way.
  • Don’t be afraid to present work-in-progress research. Conferences are intended as a place to get feedback from others in your field and further develop your research.
  • Once accepted to present at a conference, practice, practice, practice! Although you can read from a paper, try to make it engaging for your audience.
  • Time your presentation and make sure you are within the given time limits.
  • Conferences are a great way to network and get some professionalization experience, but don’t let conferences distract you from getting through the program.

If you’re still unsure where to start, my final tip is to simply look at examples. Ask a friend or faculty member if they have a conference abstract they’d be willing to share. If you’re applying to a specific conference, you can also look at programs from previous years to see what abstracts were accepted previously and how they were structured.

Good luck!

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