Almost every PhD student and ECR will attend a conference at some point in their research career, not just as a participant but to present papers as well. In fact, speaking at conferences is an excellent way of sharpening your working ideas and getting feedback on your research.
You will often hear about the opportunity to present at conferences through what are commonly known as a Call for Papers. However, before you even get to the stage of writing and presenting a paper, most conferences will request that you submit an application, either for presenting a paper or for a poster exhibition.
What you are required to submit within your application can vary but almost all calls for papers will ask for an abstract – this is a summary of what your paper (or poster) will be about. Each conference will set their own word limit for the submitted abstract, and can be anything from 200 to 500 words.
A clearly written, engaging abstract will raise your chances of being accepted to present at the conference, so it is worth investing the time to prepare this part of your submission well. Here are our tips on how to write an effective abstract:
What are the key elements to remember when writing an abstract?
Conference organisers are not likely to know anything about you or your research. They will only have your abstract to decide whether or not to accept your paper. A good abstract should therefore fulfil three key criteria:
- Outlining exactly what your paper is about and what it contributes to the conference;
- Conveying why your paper will be valuable and interesting to other researchers;
- Indicating how it will address the conference themes and objectives.
Stay focused: Conference papers are only about 15-20 minutes and you will only have time to present one or two key elements or arguments from your research. It follows that the abstract should offer a summary of the paper that you intend to give at the conference, and not a summary of your entire research project. This may mean a lot of the detail that you would usually include in discussions about your research will be omitted – that’s okay. You only need to communicate what is necessary for the purposes of this paper.
Adhere to the conference theme: It is useful to read over the call for papers or information about the conference carefully while you write your abstract. Identify the specific themes, perspectives and approaches that will be covered in this conference, and tailor your abstract to address those themes. You stand a much better chance of being accepted to speak if your abstract fits the conference theme and/or addresses the issues that the conference sets out to explore.
Give them what they want: Prepare exactly what the application asks for. This includes respecting word limits and submitting additional material as required (for example, some conferences may also ask for a short CV and/or a brief biography). Be clear and accurate in all the material you prepare and submit. Review your abstract and application a few times to ensure there are no errors and label files/attachments clearly. (If you need help, Charlesworth Author Services offers a range of extensive editing services)
How to structure and write a good abstract
A good abstract should include all the following key components:
A clear title: This will also be the title of the paper itself, and is likely to be used in promotional materials and the conference programme if your paper is accepted, so make sure it clearly communicates the gist and aim of your presentation. Unless the conference is on a highly specialised and niche topic, it is best to avoid using jargon, acronyms or highly technical language in the title.
Brief background: Generally, good abstracts begin with a brief overview of the background and/or context of the paper. This could comprise, for example, a few lines about the prominent arguments or findings in this field, recent developments around this topic, or the main problem that you are setting out to address. Setting this context is important for establishing why your topic is important and why this paper will be a significant contribution; to the conference, your discipline and potentially society at large.
Your main argument: The bulk of the abstract will present your main argument or ideas. Remember that the abstract is a summary of what this conference paper will be about, so do not spend too many words discussing the background or broader research conducted by yourself or others. It is very helpful at this point to refer back to the call for papers and conference details. Look for any specific questions or issues they hope to address in this conference; your abstract should indicate how this paper will answer these questions or broaden discussion around these issues.
As you construct this main part of the abstract, use these following questions and pointers as a guide:
- Exactly what are you trying to say or argue in this paper? Keep it simple and clear; remember, you should have no more than one or two main ideas.
- What questions or challenges to the field are you trying to raise with this paper?
- If you are far enough in your research, what analysis, findings and conclusions are you able to share? If you are at the early stages of your research, discuss instead your working hypothesis and research questions, or what potential findings you hope to obtain.
- What are the implications, significance and impact of these findings?
Methods: Where relevant, you might briefly reference your methods/methodological approaches, just to contextualise your research and illustrate exactly what you are doing and how. However, you should not need to go into extensive detail unless the principal focus of your paper and/or the conference is on methodology.
Conclusion: Conclude your abstract by summing up your paper in a few lines. You might reiterate what this paper or argument adds to the field, and why this contribution is important or interesting. If you do not yet have clear results or conclusions, you could end by raising the questions or considerations that still need to be considered as you, or others in your field, move forward with this research. Think of this as piquing interest in further study, thereby emphasising the importance and relevance of your research.