How to Write Conference Abstracts

How to write abstracts without losing friends or alienating people…

We strongly recommend these tips from ISA on writing, but we’ve also written our own advice below, which should help with getting accepted to your dream conference.

Given the time and money it can cost to attend a conference, most PhDs, especially in later years, only attend conferences or workshops at which they are speaking/presenting a paper, so a lot can ride on your abstract.

Why attend a conference? Well generally it can be for networking and to hear about relevant research and literature of interest to your own work. However the key benefit of presenting a paper is the feedback you receive both in the room from the Q&A but also from the discussant. The discussant is a panel member, not presenting, but who has read all the papers and gets a chance to weigh (constructively) on what they’ve read.

  • Is it original?
  • Is it well argued?
  • Are there any flaws?
  • What is missing?
  • What would they like to have seen more of?
  • How could it be taken forward or strengthened?

These are all exactly what you want to hear about if you are presenting a chapter of your thesis or a draft article you plan to submit to journals for publication. So between this and the opportunity to update your academic CV to include a conference paper let alone journal article, presenting a paper before your peers is a crucial part of the PhD process.

In order to get a paper accepted for a conference you will have to respond to the call for papers with an abstract. If your School/Department aren’t emailing these out then keep an eye on the BISA website, facebook and twitter feeds.

These will be announced months in advance. E.g. the BISA PGN Conference is June 17th 2014. The Call for papers opened in November and closes March 10th

Once the call has closed, all submitted abstracts are then collated and put before the conference/relevant panel organiser and they pick the best ones for invitation to speak. So how do you make sure you make the cut?

Follow the word limit!

If it says no more than 200 words, then write no more than 200 words and don’t be shy to submit only 150-180. Always bear in mind that the organisers will have plenty to read and as a rule do not look kindly upon people who exceed the limit. Equally, if you can’t explain your paper in 200 words or so, then it will probably be judged as lacking in focus.

Avoid Jargon!

Yes every field has terminology, and yes it can be just a bit impressive and feel nice to show off your expertise. But bear in mind that it has to be understood and the conference organisers are looking for people who can communicate effectively. If they don’t understand your abstract, they have concerns about the paper and whether the audience will enjoy it.

Talk to your supervisors!

Run your draft by them. They have experience of submitting abstracts (and probably being rejected) so they can explain the process, correct any errors and offer a second pair of eyes as a critical friend. Again, if it is unclear to them what you are saying, (and they know the field) then how will it be received by other academics?

Just the gist!

The abstract shouldn’t dwell on description, context or the existing literature. Consider in no particular order;

  1. The research problem
  2. The questions you are asking / attempting to answer
  3. The significance of the topic
  4. Your choice of theory and method
  5. Your rough argument / hypothesis
  6. The case studies or data you are using

Finally, once you have an abstract down, submit in time for the deadline by email or through the conference website. Make sure you receive an acknowledgment/receipt, and if not then chase it up. Then all you have to do is sit back, wait…and do the research.

What Next?

If successful, you will be notified in advance of the conference. At this point check and confirm any submission guidance such as style or word count, and be sure to provide the draft of your paper in good time for the discussant and possible uploading to the conference website.

When the time comes, you will be called to speak for 15-20 minutes as part of the panel presenting your paper. It is advised not to attempt to read verbatim from your paper but rather deliver a detailed overview of your argument and the findings to back it up.

Good luck!

[Written by Benedict Docherty, BISA PGN Committee 2013-2015 and University of Leeds PhD Student]