Participating in a Scholarly Conference
Graduate students, particularly PhD students, are encouraged to give papers at scholarly conferences in order to gain feedback on their research, network with other scholars, and build their CVs. Your teachers will often tell you if they think a paper you wrote for their class (particularly the Proseminar/Seminar sequence) has the potential to be developed into a conference paper, or you can seek out their opinion. It is not wise, however, to apply for a conference without consulting your mentor (or the faculty member for whom you did the paper) and asking him/her to vet your conference abstract.
Conference Rules: Everything You Need to Know about Presenting a Scholarly Paper (AHA Perspectives, 2008)
Conference Rules 2. Introducing Speakers and Running a Panel Discsussion (AHA Perspectives, 2008)
Conference Rules 3. Your Role as a Commentator or Member of the Audience (AHA Perspectives, 2008)
Writing a Conference Abstract
The following points should be kept in mind when writing an abstract of a paper for a scholarly conference.
1. Find out as much as possible about the conference. What is the conference theme? Will papers not directly relevant to the conference theme be accepted? Are longer papers favored over shorter ones? Will comments be offered at the sessions? Are papers by graduate students welcomed? How many papers will be accepted and what has been the proposal/acceptance rate of this conference in the past? If possible, talk to someone who has previously attended or given a paper at this conference.
2. If the conference has a stated theme, make sure your topic really relates to this theme. If you are aiming to participate in a specific session, make sure that your paper fits into the session. Avoid looking like you are forcing your paper topic into a particular mold just to fit the desired theme: such attempts appear artificial and are usually obvious to the conference organizers. But it does not hurt to stress in the abstract how your paper will address a particular theme if the relationship is not immediately obvious.
3. Keep your abstract to the length specified in the call for papers. Most conferences ask for a one-page abstract. In some instances, it is acceptable to exceed slightly the specified length, but remember that conference organizers often read so many abstracts that they become impatient with those that ramble on. Abstracts can be double- or single-spaced but few abstracts can sum up adequately a paper topic in one double-spaced page. Single- or one and a half-spacing allow you to develop your ideas and present your topic in a persuasive manner.
4. Most abstracts should be divided into one to four paragraphs. The first paragraph should pinpoint the issue with which the paper deals and note the contribution you are going to make to this debate. Do not launch immediately into a description of sources or a series of anecdotes. Avoid long rambling sentences: remember that you need to hook an often bored and burned-out reader as soon as possible. More often than not the content of the first paragraph convinces the reader of the worthiness or relevance of your proposal. Keep the following questions in mind: why is it important to explore this topic? How will your paper add to the historiography of this issue? Will you offer a new viewpoint? Reveal new evidence? A new interpretation? Or will you add evidence to an on-going debate? Not all these questions need to be answered in the first paragraph but they should be kept in mind when writing the proposal.
5. The remaining paragraphs should expand on your theme. Somewhere in the abstract you should note the primary sources you are going to use. On occasion it is appropriate to expound on the sources if they are particularly important (e.g. because you employ a new source or an old one in a new way). It is also sometimes useful to indicate the rough organization of the paper as a guide to the areas you will cover. Don't waste valuable space with platitudes or repetitions. Try not to be too vague. Discuss the findings of your research and make clear the ramifications and consequences of the results of your research. At times it will also be relevant to describe your methodology, especially if you used quantitative methods. Above all the abstract should reflect a well-organized and well-thought out proposal.
6. The ending or final paragraph should conclude with some thoughts on the ultimate historical contribution of your paper. If possible, set your topic in a wider context. The contents of your paper may well point the way to a new solution or even a new question. In a short paper (and as a graduate student) you can't possibly treat more than one small point--but your small point could well be part of a much larger debate. Make sure you look like you know what the wider debate is. And remember that conference organizers look for papers which do have a strong point to make. If they have to look too hard for the aim of your paper or if the aim seems trivial, then they will not be impressed.
7. Writing style and presentation are extremely important in paper abstracts, particularly in those offered by unknown graduate students. Conference organizers are less than impressed by even one misspelling or grammatical error. Clear, concise prose is most desirable. Speak authoritatively: use active verbs and avoid conditional or future tenses. Act as if the research has been completed; do not hedge but speak positively. Have someone else read over your proposal and ask them to go out of their way to criticize it. Rewrite the proposal several times. Never write one version and mail it in without showing it to someone.
8. Type the abstract neatly. Put the paper title at the top of the paper. Your name may go at the bottom of the abstract or at the top by the paper title. Some people also include the conference title and date on the abstract. Do not send a badly-formatted abstract or one loaded with typos or misspelling or bad grammar. Appearance is important because it is a reflection of your organization and seriousness.
9. Abstracts should be accompanied by a neatly-typed cover letter written business style with your address, date, and the address of the conference organizers. Use a University address if possible. The cover letter should be short. There is no need to say you are a graduate student; indeed, try to avoid mentioning it unless the call for papers asks for someindication of status. Merely say that you are interested in participating in the conference and that you enclose an abstract for their consideration. In some instances, it is acceptable to add one or two sentences about your paper. Do consult the call for papers, however; sometimes they ask for additional information (such as a CV or your AV needs). Be sure to mail the abstract with time to spare. Some organizers are particularly strict about the deadline while others are willing to extend the deadline by up to a week.