With another conference season about coming to an end, I thought I’d write my first GradHacker post on writing the academic conference proposal. Presenting at conferences is a big part of graduate student professional development and has traditionally been a key place for professional networking, both formal and informal. Attending conferences is also great for getting a pulse of the larger discipline in which the conference is situated, and participation in academic conferences can be fruitful for providing direction, encouragement, and self-reflexivity about one’s own work.

To present at a conference, you generally have to submit a proposal. The conference proposal is a rather unique kind of writing, and it can be difficult for people who are new to it. As a genre, conference proposals vary widely from discipline to discipline, so this post is going to include some very general tips based on my experiences writing and reviewing conference proposals that I hope will be applicable in many situations of conference proposal writing. (Workshop proposals are whole ‘nother ball game so I won’t go into that here.)

Also, a caveat: individual conferences will often have specifications about proposal length, format, and content, so that should always be your first point of reference and should hold veto power over anything I say below.

Consider Your Audience

As you’re writing your proposal, it’s important to consider things like the disciplinary background of potential reviewers. The easiest way to do this is by taking note of the disciplinary positioning of the conference itself, and whether or not the conference focuses on a particular sub-field of a larger discipline. You might then, for example, speak to the core scholarship of that sub-field or discipline by responding to, extending upon, or drawing from that scholarship. Aside from this, show your expertise while remaining accessible to a general academic audience.

Relate Your Topic to Larger Disciplinary Concerns

In relation to the previous point, an important part of engaging the interest of your audience in this particular context is by situating your presentation within larger disciplinary conversations & concerns. You might do this by citing a key source or scholar, or situating your work in line of inquiry or major debate in your field of study. You might briefly explain how your presentation contributes to the larger discipline: Does it challenge, extend, or complicate existing work in your field? If possible, highlight the broader implications of your presentation.


“Since the heated debate between Flower & Hayes and Cooper & Holzman in the early 1980s, cognitive approaches to understanding composing processes such as thinking-aloud protocols (TAP), have largely fallen out of popularity in the field of Rhetoric & Composition. In this presentation, I argue that we revive the debate and re-examine methods like TAP in the context of new media and multimodal digital composing.

“While we often link multimodality to combinations of sound, image, and movement on computer screens (Lauer, 2009), scholars like Palmeri (2007) remind us that multimodal composing is not always digital; complex assemblies of different modes of communication happen in a range of sites. Furthermore, Kress (2003) argued that communicative modes are connected to their spatio-temporal relations. This panel explores multimodality from a range of methodological and theoretical perspectives, asking: What might we gain by extending insights and questions from multimodal theory into a range of composing practices?”

Another way to relate your presentation to larger disciplinary concerns is by asking compelling questions that might indicate a new way of thinking about a particular topic or subject area.


“This presentation will examine how Korean female entrepreneurs in the U.S. are portrayed in the media, centralizing on the following questions: What happens when Euro-American conceptions of modernity, progress, and success move across borders and return in hybrid forms? What do media depictions of Korean female small business owners tell us about how these women are perceived by different groups? Finally, how do cross-cultural interactions rhetorically reconfigure the way different peoples make meaning of the world?”

“How, if at all, does the formulation of arrangement change in the domain of new media? What kinds of factors do people take into consideration when composing such digital compositions as mixtapes? What is factored into the arrangement process? Methodologically speaking, what are the affordances of using a method such as TAP? What are other viable methods for doing research on digital composing?”

Engage the Conference Theme

In my experience, many academic conferences are planned around specific themes, which you will find in the call for proposals/papers. Half the time these themes are cheesy and not very interesting, but it’s important to write your proposal with the call in mind because reviewers are generally asked to consider how well the proposal engages the conference theme during rating. These themes are also oftentimes general enough so that you can fit almost any presentation topic into it with a little tweaking, so don’t be dismayed if it initially seems that your work doesn’t fit the theme.

Get to the Point

Clarity is hugely important in these types of documents because most reviewers won’t want to spend too much time figuring out the point of a poorly written proposal. It’s generally suggested that you make your point early on, especially if you’re writing a 1-2 paragraph abstract (though proposal lengths vary depending on the conference). Another writing strategy that can help with clarity: take the time to check and see that individual sentences flow into one another well. Make good use of transitions so that connections between ideas are clear-this can really help give your writing the clarity it needs for quick skimming. Also, brevity is key. Wordiness can be a signal for reviewers that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Proofread, Edit, Double-Check

This should probably go without saying, but just as a reminder: take the time to proofread your proposals. Some reviewers will be forgiving of typos and misspellings, but you never know if you’ll get that reviewer who is a stickler for grammar or who will find mechanical errors overly distracting.

Finally, if you’ve never presented at an academic conference before, (and I’m sure most of you have heard this before, but I’ll say it again) smaller regional conferences as well as graduate conferences are great places to acclimate to conference culture, as they are generally more friendly and welcoming toward newcomers. Otherwise, consider applying to one of your discipline(s)’ larger national conferences-my sense is that they tend to amp up your CV quite a bit more.

More information about writing Academic Conference Proposals here: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/752/01/

Photo by Flickr user peruisay // Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY

19 Responses to Writing the Academic Conference Proposal

    1. Great post, Jen! Maybe we can collaborate to create a “survival guide” for preparing for and attending field conferences? I know it’s something I’ve gotten better at doing as time has gone on…

    1. Bill H-D says:

      One other bit of advice from the point of view of a reviewer of conference proposals. What tends to set great proposals apart from otherwise good ones is that the great ones:

      Good: forecast your argument
      Great: explain your evidence and where it comes from

      You’d be surprises how rarely folks do that second thing. Depending on the venue and type of proposal, the evidence itself can vary quite a bit. But do talk about it.

      So rather than just saying “In this presentation, I will argue that…”

      Say “Based on my analysis of ten years of author correspondence as well as a reading of the preliminary manuscripts, I will argue that…”

      Your reviewers will thank you. ?

      -Bill H-D

    1. Useful idea, Julie! I can definitely remember a time when presenting at conferences was something I hated more than anything in the world.

    1. Cory Owen says:

      I think a “survival guide” to conferences would be incredibly helpful! I often go to conferences and see panicked eyes and frightened looks of newcomers who have trouble getting into the groove of things.

    1. Katrina says:

      When I was organising a conference, one of the main flaws we saw in abstracts was being too jargon-laden (actually, we don’t know about the “ground breaking” work of Smith [2002] and Brown [2006]; if it’s an interdisciplinary conference you have to explain why it’s relevant).
      From grad students we also got submissions that were very derivative, essentially paraphrasing recent books on the topic. Try to say something original in your proposal (this should be obvious, but it wasn’t til I organised a conference that I saw the spectrum of submissions that come in).

        • andrea.zellner says:

          Great post, Jen. And great points, too, Katrina. It amazes me how much of writing proposals are about attention to detail and knowing one’s audience. Someone else mentioned the “so what” factor: I know that my main objective is not to waste anyone’s time with my intended presentation/proposal and that idea has helped me be successful. Finally, I think having the input of my advisor has proven the really useful as well (although I was told to do fewer conferences this year. I guess there really is too much of a good thing!) ?

    1. Great post! I’ve always had luck with my conference proposals getting accepted (well, 9 out of 10 times at least), and I blame this trend on one thing: helpful professors. Whenever I have a conference proposal that I am unsure about, I ask a professor (usually my advisor) to read over it and see what they think. As a result, my conference proposals have always been clean, clear, and straight to the point.

      I have a pretty close relationship with my advisor, so this may not work for everyone, but I encourage grad students to seek out the thoughts of their advisors or other professors.

    1. Great points, Katrina, and great suggestion, Trent!

      I definitely agree that being aware of your audience and their disciplinary background(s)-at least generally-is really important for writing these things. And we can’t forget to emphasize the “so what?” factor!

    1. Maureen Terese says:

      Another thing I was confused about when I wrote my first conference proposal was how to go about writing a good bio for those who asked for one. What, after all, does a mere graduate student have to include in such a weighty thing as a bio? I’m still not sure I know how to do this-Would appreciate a follow-up post!

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