Guide to writing a conference proposal

graduate student

Presenting at professional or academic conferences is a must for graduate students in most disciplines. Regardless of what career you are aiming for after graduation, the skills and experience you can acquire and practice by presenting at conferences will certainly be valuable to you. For more about why you should present at conferences, see my blog on that topic here. And for tips on actually delivering a conference presentation, see my post about that here. But before you get to that stage, you will have to select a conference and submit a proposal or abstract to the conference committee with the hope of being selected as a presenter. This post offers you advice and guidance based on my own experience about the process of writing and submitting a strong abstract or proposal for a conference session.

Tips for conference proposals

I’m going to assume that you already have a paper, a piece of research, or a study either complete or at some stage along the way. It’s actually pretty common to submit a conference proposal for a paper that you haven’t written yet, so don’t worry if that’s the case for you. As long as you plan to have it written or the research complete by the time you will be presenting, then you’re good to go. In fact, you don’t even have to have a research study totally wrapped up in order to present it, since it can be very appropriate to present research in progress, which could be a research proposal, a methodology, or perhaps your preliminary findings. Regardless of where you are in the research process, you will need to submit a convincing conference session proposal in order to get accepted as a conference presenter. Here are some things to keep in mind…

Word count

The submission guidelines should specify the word limit (or sometimes the character limit) of the proposal. Obviously you need to be sure not to go over this limit, but you should also make sure you do not end up too far below the limit either. For example, if you are allotted 500 words, then you should not submit a 100-word proposal; rather, aim to use between 400 and 500 words. This will help ensure that you include the desired amount of detail that the conference committee is looking for.

Why is your contribution important?

You need to be sure that your proposal or abstract conveys to the readers why your paper/research is important. What scholarly or practical contribution does it make to the discipline or profession? No matter what word limit you are working with, you need to include an explanation of the significant contribution your paper is making. If you can’t put your finger on the specific contribution, then you should revisit your entire paper and skip the conference presentation this time around.

Why is it a good fit for this conference?

Be sure you are well aware of the conference’s scope and theme before you decide to submit a session proposal. You should try to connect your session proposal to the stated theme of the conference.

Know your audience

It is important to consider your audience carefully in order to determine how much background information you need to provide in your proposal. If your proposal is for a large national conference with a broad scope it is likely your future audience does not necessarily conduct research in your specific field. So, depending on how specific your topic is, you may need to provide some general background information. However, if you are aiming to present your paper at a smaller conference with a specific focus that closely aligns with your topic, you may be able to skip much of the background information and get right to the details of your study or paper.

Regardless of the conference type and audience though, you should always strive to phrase your proposal clearly and specifically and avoid complicated phrasing and jargon.

Conference session types

Conference sessions can take a variety of forms, and your presentation is going to be quite different depending on what format you will be participating in. Your proposal should be appropriate for the given session format.

Panel presentations

On panel presentations you will be one of three to four participants in a panel or session and be given perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes to present your paper. This is often followed by a ten-minute question-and-answer session either immediately after your presentation or after all of the speakers are finished. In the course of the question-and-answer session, you may also address and query the other panelists if you have questions yourself.


Roundtables feature an average of five to six speakers, each of whom gets the floor for approximately five to ten minutes to speak on their respective topics and/or subtopics. At times, papers from the speakers might be circulated in advance among the roundtable members or even prospective attendees.

Paper presentations

Papers with respondents are structured around a speaker (that’s you!) who gives an approximately thirty-minute presentation and a respondent who contributes his own thoughts, objections, and further questions in the following fifteen minutes. Finally, the speaker gets that same amount of time to formulate his/her reply to the respondent.

Poster presentations

Presenters visually display their ideas as either an outline of findings, charts, graphs, artwork, or photographic images.

Descriptive title

No matter how stellar your paper or poster is, for example, you will not draw a large audience (which you want to have) if your session’s title is stale and boring. Be provocative, use buzzwords, do whatever you can to make your presentation’s title seem as interesting as possible (even more interesting than it really is). Be sure that your title accurately reflects the topic of your presentation, but do so while jazzing it up a little, if you can. Also, if the conference you are submitting to has quite a specific theme defined, then be sure your title makes it clear that your presentation belongs at that conference by connecting it to the theme.


It doesn’t matter how great of a writer or proofreader you are, you still need SOMEONE ELSE to proofread your work. Conference proposals are no exception. Have at least two people review your proposal. I would recommend at least one person from within your field of study and one person outside of your specific field. In this way you can get feedback from different perspectives, and ensure your proposal makes sense to the spectrum of people likely to be at the conference.

[Photo by Flickr user Queen’s University, used under CC licensing]

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Kyle Massey

Kyle is a current PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin in the College of Education.

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