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I would really like to begin submitting for conferences, but I know nothing about the conference-paper submission processes or criteria or etiquette or basically anything. I have past completed research I could discuss/submit, and I have ongoing directions of research with no results quite yet (what I have is evidence of a gap in our field, and an argument for the importance of filling this gap). Is it appropriate to present such things at conferences? The one I'll begin with is a subnational conference. 

I will be a second-year grad student this year, and have minimal publications, but extensive public speaking experience.

Doing some reading up online but wondering if anyone has pointers, resources, Websites, or experiences regarding not just this specific question, but about conference 101 type stuff - including SAMPLES of good PROPOSALS :) Thanks

Edited by jujubea

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Alright, so let's start here: as a beginning student, I would recommend only submitting abstracts on work that is in advanced stages, so you know that you have results and the abstract is much easier to write. At later career stages you may choose to submit abstracts about less mature work, but that requires having a good sense of a timeline for completion that would allow you to have something substantial enough by the conference time, as well as the ability to be creative with the abstract writing. I've done this in the past as a way to get work done ("let's see if it gets in, if so we'll have X months to get something going!"), and that has good sides (real deadlines mean real work gets done) and bad sides (last minute work under pressure, with the real possibility of inconclusive results). I would not recommend this for young students, it can easily backfire. 

Step 2: do you know where you are submitting and more generally what the prominent conferences in your (sub)field are? If so, I would suggest going to past years' websites. In my field conferences almost always link to abstracts from the conference program, so looking through some of those will give you a very good sense of what successful abstracts in your field look like. It will also show you that there is a great range and a place for personal style. 

Step 3: write. In early stages (and actually later too), it's good to get a lot of feedback on your abstract. Start with at least a couple of weeks to spare for the conference deadline you've selected, and make sure you get your advisor's feedback and go through at least one iteration with them, likely more. Here is a structure that I usually follow (for linguistics abstracts, which are data-based, so your mileage may vary): (a) summary: I will argue XYZ based on evidence ABC; this is important because [blah]; (b) brief background: the previous literature says [blah]. These are the things you should know about how that conclusion was reached. I will argue [not-blah]; or: that leaves open question Q; or: I will extend [blah] to [blahdiblah]. etc. Here is (briefly) what we know about Q/[blahdiblah], etc. (c) new data: describe experiment, or consultant work, corpus work, etc. at top, briefly say what I will show, then show evidence, walking the reader through why each new datapoint supports my conclusion, then repeat a version of "this shows [blah]" (this time probably a more detailed version of [blah]). (d) discussion: the new data should be interpreted [this way], showing [this thing] and arguing for [this theory]. (e) implications: this is why you should care about what I just said. (f) references. (I almost always have (a version of) these actual headings in my abstract, to help guide the reader along, and to give it explicit structure.)

Step 4: rinse, repeat. Some of this is up to luck. A lot depends on which reviewers you get, and how selective the conference is. You'll also learn from comments you'll get on other abstracts later on. If you have the chance, try to get experience reviewing abstracts, maybe through a class exercise or professionalization workshop. You learn a lot by doing this.

Here are things that I especially value as a reviewer:  (a) be explicit: I appreciate authors who tell me up front exactly what they will argue, and what their assumptions are. I don't appreciate having to guess what theory someone is adopting or that they conclude XYZ because of ABC implicit assumptions.  (b) be concise: don't tell me too many details and caveats that I don't need to know right now. You've been thinking about this forever now and have gone over all kinds of unlikely what-ifs. I don't need to know all that. In fact, I don't need the abstract to take me through your personal discovery process. I want to know the bottom line and what evidence you have for it. If the best piece of evidence for your conclusion is A, say that first, even if you discovered the far less convincing B before. Maybe B doesn't need to be in there at all.  (c) give me enough information, and the best information, for your case. Don't leave out details I need to know to evaluate your claims, or hide them. Don't give me lame arguments when you have good ones. Don't promise things you can't deliver. If there is an important caveat that you do need to discuss, do so, but think about where it goes; you don't need to concede ground before you've even made your case. You are allowed to make the best case for X, then conclude with a brief "a remaining issue is Y". No work is perfect, so honesty is appreciated.  (d) give credit where it's due: cite others who deserve to get cited. Situate your work in the context of what others have done. You don't work in a vacuum and you don't want to be, either. You want to engage in a conversation with others.  (e) for the love of god, format the thing in a reader-friendly way. I don't like tiny fonts, and I can see when you play with the margins. Leave some white space, so it doesn't look like a big block of text. (Obviously this is all my personal preference, so make of it what you will. I know that not everyone is going to agree with all of this.)

My field's society has this advice page, with some abstracts and comments on why they work. I don't know if the format is at all similar to conferences in your field (it's actually pretty different from most other conferences in mine!), but it may nonetheless be useful: http://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/model-abstracts. You may find similar resources for your field, as well. 

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fuzzy's advice is excellent and I think most of it is general to most fields! Especially Steps 1 and 2. The main field-dependent thing in fuzzy's advice seems to be that in my field, major conferences have very short abstracts compared to other fields. We only write a single paragraph and although the submission software limit is 2250 characters, strong abstracts probably only use 1250-1500 characters. So, find out the norms in your field and don't assume that if the limit is X that you must use up all of X.

The other advice I would add is to remember that there are three potential audiences for your abstract.

1. The first audience is the reviewers who will decide whether or not to accept your abstract (and in some fields, decide between acceptance as an oral presentation vs. poster presentation). For some conferences, the scientific organizing committee will put out specific instructions in what they are looking for in conference talks. Be sure to follow them. If a scientific organizing committee (or equivalent) is listed, you can guess that some of these people will be the abstract reviewers. Tailor your writing to your audience.

2. The second audience is the conference attendees. Depending on the meeting, attendees may have to choose between talks happening in parallel sessions. Often, I pick which talks to go to while reviewing the abstracts on a plane, in my hotel room the night before the meeting, or during a meal or coffee break. Generally, it's a time where I'm easily distracted, in a noisy environment, tired and preoccupied. Keep this reader in mind too.

3. The last audience is readers who may read the archived abstract online. Not all conferences have this. But for the ones that archive your abstract forever, be careful what you write. If the work is less mature, don't provide too many details lest someone uses the abstract to scoop you. At the same time, think about how this abstract will look a year or two from now. Will it be painfully evident that you promised things that you never followed through on? For this audience, the goal is to either remind people of your presentation (if they saw it and now are using your abstract to refresh their memory) and/or to let people know what types of questions and topics you're thinking about (if they didn't see your talk but found this abstract when looking you up).

It's hard to balance all three and sometimes it's more important to favour the first audience over the rest. For small meetings in my field, there are no parallel sessions, so I don't really read abstracts before each talk since I'll be attending them all. So, the only point of an abstract is to get yourself a talk and you can write directly to the reviewer audience. Also, sometimes conferences will allow you to submit a longer, more detailed proceedings paper (usually 1-2 pages in my field instead of 1 paragraph) for online publishing.

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@TakeruK Those differences between fields are always so interesting to me. In mine, abstracts range from 500 words to 3 pages, with the most common requirement being 2 pages, 11/12pt font, 1inch margins. Most large conferences and many workshops and smaller conferences have proceedings, with a common length of 12-14 pages per paper. Journal papers are more like 25-40 pages, again with lots of variance. 

Of course, if your abstract is one paragraph, you would not have all those headings that I propose above. For a 2-pager, I find it quite helpful to have the extra structure. As a reviewer, I find it some much easier to get through an abstract that's well-structured compared to a 2-page block of text. 

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Thanks guys super helpful info. Especially the previous abstracts from the same conference... didn't even think of it so I'll be hunting those down.

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So crazy how different our fields are.

This is also a fairly lower level conference it turns out.

300-word abstract... no sections.... just prose (ha). The guidelines are quite fluid and the topic I proposed is going over well among peers and other panel reviewers. We'll see what my panel says. 

How soon after the submission of the abstract (or how soon before the conference) is one usually notified of acceptance? 

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I bet you this varies a lot too. In my field this will usually be stated on the conference website. For most conferences it'll be a month to a month and a half from the submission deadline but it could take longer. If you can't find the answers online, email the organizers and ask. 

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In my field, you find out about your abstract status approximately....

3-4 months in advance for international conferences

2-3 months in advance for national conferences

1-2 months in advance for regional conference

Basically, the more people and the further they have to travel, the earlier you'll find out. It also depends on whether it's a regular meeting (e.g. an annual meeting for your society) or if it's a special one-time thing. For the former, many people will attend no matter what so there is sometimes less notice. For the latter, many people may choose whether or not to attend based on whether or not their abstract is accepted for an oral presentation. Also, for students and postdocs, the big and faraway meetings are expensive and require us to apply to other travel funding sources and sometimes you need to show that you are giving a presentation in order to qualify for the funds.

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This is excellent advice and I find the differences in fields very interesting. Last year, I submitted a paper for a conference where I did exploratory research to show whether a topic was worth pursuing further. The paper went over very well, but I wonder if part of the reason I was comfortable doing this is because my actual presentation was a salon session (more seminar than lecture). The head of that session sent out a request for presenters on a listserv I'm a member of and I am passionate about the topic, so I didn't see the problem with doing something new.

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