gh - puzzleLiz Homan is a doctoral candidate in the Joint Program in English and Education at The University of Michigan. Her research focuses on secondary teachers’ digital practices and social networks. You can find her on Twitter at @lizhoman or on her blog, Gone Digital.

In my field, it’s conference proposal season. Time to think about what conferences you would like to attend this year, what work you would like to discuss with others in your field, and which aspects of your various projects are ready and ripe for feedback. Time to practice writing about your work really concisely.

Conferences are a fun way to further your own knowledge of your field, to network with prominent individuals in your field, and to inspire your research. Other GradHackers have discussed how to network at conferences and have even provided tips on writing solid conference proposals. This post extends these by adding a few more tips, tricks, and anecdotes to the mix in a five-step process that has worked well for me, and that I hope will work well for you!

1. Pick a conference

Obviously, right? Many of us have our “big conference” – the one most people in the field attend, the one with a conference program that rivals the size of your Webster’s dictionary. These are wonderful to go to, but they can also be expensive to attend and a little bit nerve-wracking, especially if you’re as socially shy as I am. So don’t forget the small regional conferences, the state-based divisions of larger research groups, and even conferences going on at your university, often hosted by your fellow graduate students. These are great ways to meet local collaborators, who might even help you out with #2 on my list. Check out WikiCFP or CFPList, as well as postings in your discipline and field, and try mixing it up a bit!

2. Find some friends

Many conferences, at least in the humanities and social sciences, allow you to propose symposia or full panels instead of individual presentations. My colleagues and I have always had the most luck proposing panels of presentations with a few friends. This works best if you have friends from other universities whose work is similar to yours, because it brings in perspectives from multiple institutions. Not only does this approach help you network with your future colleagues, it makes the job easier for the conference review committee because they don’t need to go looking for similar presentations to form a cohesive panel.

3. Know the theme, but don’t rely on it

Think about it: how many times have you attended a conference and opened up the program to find the same words in the titles of half the sessions? Don’t get me wrong – themes are important. However, a wise professor (who has sat on many conference committees) once told me that an over-reliance on the conference theme might cause a proposal to get lost in the mix. So while it is certainly important to keep the conference theme in mind, it is not necessary to speak directly to it throughout the proposal (or in the title) – propose your own work, with a nod to the conference theme in a sentence or two. Your passion for what you are doing will shine through, making your proposal stand out against others that sound somewhat alike.

4. Either define or omit the lingo

As graduate students—and I know I’m guilty of this—we sometimes worry that we won’t sound like we know what we’re talking about unless we use field-specific vocabulary. This isn’t a problem when done in moderation, but because we have so little space in conference proposals, it can often lead to paragraphs that are packed with verbiage and literature review and are, as a result, vague, confusing, and cryptic. My go-to rule, handed down from a senior graduate student when I was in my first year, is simply this: if you don’t have the space to define the term, then don’t use it. This rule works. It gives you the space to use the terms that really matter to your argument and presentation and forces you to be more clear and direct in the rest of the proposal.

5. Explicitly state an audience takeaway

Conference organizers like to know that conference participants are going to get something out of attending each and every session on their program. Sometimes this is a tangible resource—access to a website or wiki you’ve developed or resources they can use in their classrooms, for example. Sometimes it’s more conceptual or inspirational—ideas for new methodological approaches or a deeper understanding of a theoretical construct. Whatever it is you’re providing for your audience, make sure this is clearly stated in the proposal, along with what you will argue and accomplish during your session. This approach shows that you’re not only thinking about the value of your own work, but also about how your work will contribute to the work of others in your field.

Conference proposals can sometimes prove difficult to write, because they require you to condense a complex, long-term project into a few hundred words while still being thorough. Doing some of the heavy lifting for the conference organizers by stating your purpose and argument in plain language, clearly describing takeaways, and forming your own panels makes this process a little more straightforward, and in my experience, enjoyable.

What have you learned about writing successful conference proposals? Add to my ideas in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Scott Maxwell and used under Creative Commons License.]


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