Submitting Proposals to Academic Conferences

As a grad student, I discovered the wonders of the academic conference. There are few things more exciting than sitting in a room full of people discussing ideas. I loved to hear about new projects that people were working on and often found that the feedback given me was quite valuable. Conference presentations look good on your resume and c.v. and can enrich your grad student experience, even if you are not intending to pursue a PhD or a career in academia.

The deadline for the UTD Arts and Humanities Graduate Student Association RAW Conference on Research, Art, and Writing is rapidly approaching, so it seems like a good time to give an overview of submitting proposals to academic conferences. Grad conferences can be a great first conference experience as they give an opportunity to present to your peer community. I offered most of this advice during a short workshop at UTD on November 30, but am posting the notes for those who missed it. This is all based on my subjective experience in the humanities. Feedback and additional advice is welcome in the comments.

What is a CFP?

CFP stands for “Call for Proposals” or “Call for Participation.”

Where do you find CFPs?

Screenshot of UPenn CFP Archive

For Humanities fields, the University of Pennsylvania CFP archive is a great resource. It is frequently updated and has RSS feeds for all of the different categories. I find “Humanities Computing and the Internet,” “Twentieth Century and Beyond,” “Gender Studies and Sexuality,” and “Film and Television” to be helpful, though there is quite a bit of overlap between them. You might also follow the “Graduate Conferences” feed though you shouldn’t feel as though you have to limit yourself to graduate conferences. See below for a list of conferences that are friendly to graduate students.

Many major scholarly organizations hold annual or bi-annual conferences. Follow them on Twitter or Facebook and/or sign up for email announcements to be notified of their CFPs.

How to Read a CFP

There are a few important points to look for, some obvious, some less-so:

  • Conference Theme / Topic
    • Often organizers will list potential presentation topics. Usually this is not an exhaustive list. Look for language such as “not limited to” or “might include” to signal that the organizers are open to other topic ideas as well.
    • Even if you don’t see this language, if you have an idea that you feel would fit the conference theme, send in the proposal. Having helped organize more than one conference, I can assure that it is not possible to conceive of every applicable topic in advance. Send it anyway. The worst that can happen is they say “No thank you.”
  • Presentation Format
    • The most traditional type of presentation is a 15-20 minute paper. This equates to roughly 7 – 10 pages of writing. Usually these panels will include 3 – 4 presenters with 15-30 minutes for discussion time. Presenters often read their papers aloud, though variation from the routine is always welcome. Presenters may or may not have visual material to accompany their paper.
    • Other formats include
      • roundtable: generally more presenters, with shorter presentations and more time for discussion.
      • poster session: presenters prepare a poster or brief electronic presentation. All presenters are simultaneously available for presentation & discussion with an audience who circulates in the room. These tend to be much less structured and much more interactive than other formats in which the audience is separated from the presenters. Some of the best feedback comes from the more intimate, discussion-based format of a poster-style session.
      • lightning or short presentations: these vary in length, but are generally around the five minute mark. They can be as short as two minutes! The emphasis is on presenting a seed for discussion or feedback rather than a fully-formed argument or product.
        • A subset of the lightning or short presentation is the pecha kucha, 20×20, or Ignite presentation. These are structured by preparing a slide show with strict parameters: one line of text or image per slide, a fixed number of slides (20 for pecha kucha and 20×20; 15 for Ignite), the slides auto-advance at fixed intervals, resulting in a fixed time frame. These are more difficult to prepare than one might think and are best when the presenter has a really good handle on the material or can even present from memory. The formal constraints are actually quite productive and this type of presentation is really fun to prepare. Just allow yourself plenty of time and don’t assume that short is equivalent to easy.
      • THATCamp Unconferences: Though THATCamp events may be themed to certain topics or to attract participants from certain types of institutions, these are generally unstructured in the sense that most of the agenda is set while at the conference, by the attendees. Sessions are discussion oriented with different attendees volunteering to lead discussion. Generally the main conference days are preceded by one or more days of “bootcamp” presentations in which attendees introduce one another to new tools and skills. THATCamp events are open to attendance by academics, students, educators of all levels, staff members, etc.
  • Submission Requirements
    Discussion during an academic conference.

    R&M2 071 by Flickr User “What is In Us”

    • Obviously the due date is critical. Early submissions are often appreciated by conference organizers. Late submissions, however…it can’t hurt to send them, but be prepared that they may not be welcomed.
      • If the conference uses an online submission form, be aware that the site may be very busy as the deadline nears. Allow time for technical difficulties.
    • Paper or Proposal? Most Humanities calls ask for abstracts rather than fully-written papers. Pay attention to word count.
      • A word of caution: Once you get the conference bug, it can be very tempting to apply for lots of them, with papers you’ve not yet written. Try to narrow your focus to conferences that will help you get your graduate work done. Look for ones that are related to your capstone or dissertation topic, or on topics for which you’ve written seminar papers. Take it from me, I once did six conferences in one year as a grad student. They can be a marvelous distraction from the work at hand.
    • Or Panel?
      • Some conferences invite presenters to submit proposals for fully formed panels. If you have peers or colleagues who are working in the same area, consider putting together a panel proposal. You already know that your topics will complement one another and this could save conference organizers some time. Plus, what could be better than presenting with people whom you already know and respect? If no specific panel guidelines are given, you are probably safe formatting your panel proposal with a panel title, brief overview of the panel, and individual paper abstracts in accordance with the paper submission requirements.
    • Some organizers may request a brief bio or c.v.
  • Opportunities for travel bursaries, paper awards, or mentoring programs. Some conferences offer one or all of these. If you don’t see them listed in the CFP, it is worth checking the conference website just to be sure they don’t offer these programs.
    • Note that applying for awards often requires that you submit your completed paper well in advance of the conference. Plan accordingly.
  • Acceptance dates, processes, etc.
    • Many calls will outline a timeline that tells you when you can expect to hear back from the organizers. If you get a few weeks beyond a promised response date, it is acceptable to contact the organizers.
    • Some conferences, like MLA, have sessions in which panel organizers send out calls to solicit participation in their individual panel. The organizers then have to send their proposed panel, which may or may not be accepted by the conference organizers.

How to Write a Proposal

This is going to vary depending on submission requirements, etc. I’ve attached a packet with some sample proposals provided by myself and my colleague David Parry. The common qualities you can pull from this wide variety of proposals are a few sentences on the background/importance/relevance of the topic with the remainder of the abstract devoted to what questions the presentation will attempt to address. If you have your paper already written, by all means include your main thesis or argument. However, if you are submitting an abstract on a paper you’ve not yet written (more a proposal than an abstract, really), then it should suffice to include the major questions that you will address.

I generally include a working bibliography with my proposal in order to give the organizers a sense of the theoretical context in which my presentation will be grounded. I also tend to send along my c.v., even if a c.v. or bio was not requested.

Look at the attached Sample Conference Proposals as successful examples, but also read this advice over at!

Conferences that are Friendly to Grad Students

Based on my own experiences:

I asked my Twitter feed for their favorite grad-friendly conferences, and Bethany Nowviskie responded with:

“Any THATCamp. DH conf (bursaries, student paper awards, mentoring program & mixer), SDH-SEMI (nurturing, good feedback).”

Please feel free to share your favorite grad-friendly conferences in the comments!