Applying to Conferences – 5 Things I Wish I’d Known

Sarafina Pagnotta

Applying to and speaking at conferences is an exciting, though perhaps daunting, part of any graduate program. The opportunity to present the research you’ve been working on to someone other than a stuffed animal, your pet, or yourself in the mirror, is exhilarating (and seriously, much needed). It is a chance to be in a room full of scholars in your field, or in complementary fields, who are happy to discuss new research and offer helpful constructive criticism. It is also a fantastic networking opportunity and you almost always learn something new.

Now finishing up my MA in Art History, with three conferences under my belt, and one ahead of me in New Zealand in November, here are a few things I wish I had known when I first started out.

How do I find conferences to apply for?

This was something that I struggled with at first. I could not figure out how my colleagues kept finding conferences to apply for, and I knew that I had to find out. I attended a graduate student-run workshop designed to answer this question, and it was so helpful!

Keep an eye out for graduate student-run conferences at Carleton (and other universities). Departments usually send out a call for papers (hereafter CFP) in the fall for spring conferences. Keep an eye on your school email account, these usually end up in your inbox with no need to go searching.

Some academic journals put a call for papers in their most recent publication. These are the journals that are often the result of the previous years’ conference. It is an opportunity to speak at a conference and then subsequently become published. Two birds, one stone.

Become a member of a society or group of scholars. I found out about the conference I’m speaking at in November through the International Society for First World War Studies. I’ve been a member since 2016. I receive a monthly newsletter with information about the state of the field, and am part of an email list with scholars worldwide who often engage with one another for help with research questions and job hunting.

If all else fails, Google it! More often than not, if you search for a call for papers/speakers in your discipline, several results will appear. You can also set up a Google Alert to send you an email if a new conference appears in your field.

There are several online hubs for conferences in any discipline. A few that I use are:

Finally, ask your professors! They are your direct access to scholars in the field, and they are definitely knowledgeable about where to look.

What is the difference between a grad conference and an academic/professional conference?

The difference between these conferences is the former are organized by graduate students (like you!) and can sometimes be a more forgiving audience than an academic or professional conference. Grad conferences are a chance to test drive research and methodology you’ll use later in your career and are full of useful feedback and learning opportunities. Academic and professional conferences on the other hand, usually have well-seasoned speakers who are presenting the latest iteration of the research they’ve been honing for years. These conferences are intimidating, however, unparalleled in the learning and networking opportunities they present. These conferences are usually those who publish a selection of the papers afterward, so they are always worth applying to.

My research does not necessarily fit into the theme of the conference. Should I apply anyway?

The short answer to this question is YES! But, make sure that you can find an angle, or an aspect of your research that is similar enough to the theme in the CFP. This could be as simple as the theory and methodology, or the subject matter of your research. Tailoring your abstract to fit the theme(s) of the conference is an opportunity for you to think of your research from another perspective, but it will have a greater chance of being accepted. This is not to say, however, that you need to change your entire idea, nor should you. If your research does not mesh with the theme of that conference, there will always be another one.

What if I’m not entirely comfortable public speaking?

Apply anyway! Speaking at a grad student conference (especially on your own turf) is a great way to practice and develop academic public speaking skills. If your department has a graduate student conference, submit a proposal! Your colleagues in the program will be there to cheer you on, and you’ll likely already know the professors who will be there. It is a great and supportive environment to work out the kinks in your argument and showcase the work you’ve been doing.

Once I’ve found a conference to apply for, how to I write a successful proposal/abstract?

These are the most difficult 250-300 words that you’ll write. It is an exercise in being concise. The best advice I’ve received when writing an abstract is to follow the instructions on the CFP exactly. If they use key words in their call, you should find a way to use them in your abstract. Make sure the opening sentence is captivating and grips the reader’s attention. And perhaps most importantly, be clear. Make sure the reader knows through those few sentences the gist of what your paper is about and how you intend to present that information. Do not use technical language that isn’t easily understood outside of your field. If you must use technical vocabulary, provide a short definition. Provide a short list of key terms to accompany your abstract (if asked for it) and make sure they contribute to your point and match the theme of the conference.

The Art History Graduate Students Society (AHGSS) and the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture (ICSLAC) are holding a graduate student conference on March 23-24, 2018 in Dunton Tower rm. 2017. Make sure to come out to hear the fascinating research our students (and students worldwide) are doing.

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