Calling All Presenters – The Conference Proposal

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Over the past year, I have had multiple conversations with my daughter, a PhD student in the Neuroscience Department at Queen’s. Each conversation seemed to be on the tail end of a conference presentation (and she’s done many!). She would begin with, “I’m tired. I’m jetlagged. I’m not getting any research done. I’m never going to finish. There is another proposal due next week. Wait, let me get a glass of red wine.”

Re-energized, she would recount her conference experiences. She would tell me about prominent researchers in her field who had attended her presentation, the same ones who have now invited her as collaborator at their host institutions, the great questions asked, and the insights gained.

Our conversation inevitably turned to the need for us, as researchers (emergent and established), to understand that conference participation is a critical component of the research process. Presenting reduces the isolation that we often feel as researchers and offers opportunities to defend our research and build our research identities. Even more importantly, discussion and questions (formal and informal) force us to widen our lenses as we consider perspectives beyond our own.

Getting there, and being comfortable presenting takes time; importantly, it requires that we have fully considered our options, understand the proposal components, and the dos and don’ts of writing a great proposal.


Have I fully considered my options? 

Typical conferences offer you multiple ways of presenting your research; you can choose what fits your style based on both your comfort level and the topic you are presenting.

Multiple single-paper sessions are often grouped together by conference organizers. Three to five papers on similar themes/topics are presented followed by audience participation or a question and answer session. A moderator is often assigned for timing purposes and to facilitate. A powerpoint or keynote often serves as cue cards for the presenters. You’ll often be asked to bring your presentation on a USB key.

Symposium or panel sessions allow of in-depth examination of a topic or theme. These are often organized by multiple presenters and suggest their own moderator who will facilitate audience participation. For example, as graduate students you could each bring together your views on isolation as graduate students – some onsite, some online, some in Canada, some overseas. Although you are bound by your graduate student experience, each of you has a different piece of the puzzle.

Workshop sessions often engage the audience in a hands-on experience to deepen their understanding of a particular topic or approach.

Small round table sessions allow presenters to informally discuss their papers with a small group of audience participants interested in that particular topic.  There are often multiple tables set up in an area with a timed rotation allowing participants to move from one to the next, allowing presenters to discuss their papers on multiple occasions.

Poster sessions allow informal discussion featuring the use of a poster or multimedia materials. Participants wander through the poster hall, stop at posters that interest them, and ask questions individually. If you are interested in this type of session, check out the YouTube how-tos. Also, know that you can have your poster printed out (facilitated by Powerpoint or Keynote) at the print centre here the university.


Do I understand the proposal components?

What we need to know about the proposal often lies in the call for proposals. Print it out, highlight it, look at the mandatory components, and adhere to them. Proposals that don’t meet the minimum requirements (or those that exceed the word limit) are often those that are rejected right off the bat. If you are unsure of how to construct a proposal or what it looks like in its final form, ask a faculty member to share a successful proposal or two.

The Title. Make sure that your title fits the word limit and summarizes effectively what you intend to present. Although we like catchy, gimmicky titles, they often detract from the content of the proposal. Find a healthy balance and try to write a title that hooks the audience’s attention.

The Abstract. A formulaic approach does not work well for most of us – it’s hard to fit the square peg of our research into the round hole of a template. Pay attention to the word limits – they can be as few as 75 and yet at other times, they are the crux of the proposal. Essentially, your abstract is a summary of your presentation. Begin with a description of your problem/issue/question and why it is important. Introduce the context of your study including participants. Briefly describe your project including methods, strategies, and techniques used.  Provide an overview of your results and lessons learned. Conclude with a statement of significance or implications for your research. Remember: Ultimately, it is your abstract that will attract your audience.

abstract madlibs

The Body of the Proposal. The proposal will typically include headings such as:

  • Objectives/Outcomes – What will the audience know by the end of the session? What are your goals for the session?
  • Purpose/Research Questions – What were the purposes of, or research questions, that drove the research? Setting this out at the beginning of the proposal allows the reader to gain an understanding of what you hope to do.
  • Perspectives/Theoretical Framework/Brief Literature Review – What peer-reviewed research have your reviewed that is informing your presentation and ultimately your project? Make sure to cite salient references in your field, and lead you reader to a gap that you have identified – typically the theme of your session.
  • Methods – What research methods, procedures, or techniques did you use in the completion of this study?
  • Data sources – Where and how did you collect data?
  • Results/Conclusions/Interpretations – What can you offer? If it is preliminary data, then say so and that you anticipate offering a more detailed explanation at the conference.
  • Significance of the Study/Implications – Why is this research important? What does it bring to the field? What will it offer over the short-term and long-term? What are the potential benefits to society or the educational community?


How do I write a great proposal?


  • Read through abstracts of years gone by. Familiarize yourself with tone, writing style, language use, themes, topics, etc.
  • Find a critical friend to review for you. This will ensure that you have been clear and explicit in the description of your ideas.
  • Avoid overly critical views and/or unsubstantiated claims. Be honest and be clear, but be humble.
  • Make every word count. Reviewers appreciate someone who is clear, concise, gets to the point, and does not use excessive jargon.
  • Be explicit and specific about your topic and the question/issue/topic you intend to explore.
  • Use the template, if one is provided. If one is not provided, then follow closely the headings given.
  • Use APA formatting (typically in education), even if it not called for.
  • Ensure that your conventions are near perfect – this includes spelling, grammar, punctuation. etc.
  • If in doubt, reference. Include ‘classic’ and ‘cutting edge’ references – attend to the limit you are given (often a single page at the end of the proposal).

Do not…

  • Go over your word limit or page limit. If it says double-space with 1″ margins, follow it!
  • Have a vague title or a title that does not reflect the content of the proposal.
  • Have an unbelievable premise or present unsubstantiated views.
  • Present an abstract without adequate description.
  • Attempt to do too much in the short time period you are allotted.

academia (high res)

Additional Resources

Thanks to today’s blogger and facilitator of the discussion:

Michelann Parr

October 31, 2014

Welcome to the Education Graduate Students blog!

Whether studying onsite at the exquisitely beautiful North Bay campus, or balancing coursework with careers and families (near or from afar), this blog will serve as a common ground and a place to connect, discuss, and grow. In addition to offering a menu of resources and providing information for upcoming deadlines and events, the goal of this blog is to help overcome feelings of isolation that can arise when participating in online education.

Choosing to pursue graduate level education typically entails certain personality traits associated with Type As, including but not limited to: perfectionism, ambition, and a tendency to dance on the edge of burnout. While these traits have enabled us to flourish and thrive over 16+ years of schooling, at the end of the day we also want to emerge from the program healthy, happy, and whole. Well-being isn’t simply a buzzword, it’s an investment in yourself, and worthy of your time and effort.


On Thursday October 16, 2014, seven students from EGS gathered onsite at the North Bay Harris Learning Library to discuss their insights, thoughts, and concerns about the graduate experience. Through collaboration and anecdotal stories, we hovered around the following themes surrounding well-being at the graduate level, and as a group continue to work towards tailoring our success strategies to address these challenges in our respective lives.


Just Walk Away, or The Law of Diminishing Returns

Grad Student

Looking through the lens of an investor, there is a point where increasing the time and energy spent on graduate level course or research work yields incrementally poorer results. One of the graduate student attendees summed it up as the Law of Diminishing Returns: sometimes, you just have to walk away from the work in order to be more efficient. It’s counterintuitive, and several EGS members described feelings of guilt or anxiety (shouldn’t we be working right now?) whenever they have made the active decision to take time to walk away and let the work breathe.

Inspiration frequently lingers beyond the familiar walls of offices or libraries, and doing something as simple as going to the gym for an hour can allow your mind to relax and let the ideas flow. Keep a small notebook or digital recorder with you for revelatory moments, and go for a walk, spend time with your friends, or work on a personal project. Give your mind permission to rest.


All by myself, don’t wanna be…

Engaging in higher-level academia positions us in a state of constant vulnerability; our ideas are criticized and deconstructed, the readings don’t always make sense, and many still don’t understand the full range of options available in terms of routes (thesis/MRP/course) or opportunities (conferences, publishing, funding). Feeling exposed or vulnerable can be compounded by the social limitations of online learning. How can we feel a sense of kinship or empathy when we have never had an in-person conversation with our colleagues? Without the opportunity to engage in real-time discourse, we may only see the academic persona of our peers projected into digital writing and assume they are the sum of their writing; but at the root of that verbose discussion entry there is a human being who is learning alongside you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your peers outside of Blackboard and build a friendly, professional relationship: swap papers, offer constructive criticism, bounce some ideas, and gain new perspective. There is a huge difference between a critic and a critical friend.

Critical friend

The Grad Student Toolkit

  • Digital Recorder – make sure it has speech to text Dragon compatibility for easy transcriptions. Digital recorders ensure that sudden creative bursts that occur during long drives, random conversations, or presentations don’t vanish into the ether.
  • Small notebook – the bedside table is the cliché home of writers’ notebooks, but keeping the old-fashioned pen and paper close can be a lifesaver when inspiration strikes at the gym, grocery store, or hockey rink.
  • Self Control Software – social media and news sites can be deadly to efficiency. You know your habits better than anyone: if you need help becoming more focused, be proactive and prevent distractions from manifesting by installing a blocking feature on your computer such as Self Control (programmable to block any site) or Facebook Limiter.

Additional Resources

What I Wish I Knew In Grad School – 16 Tips

12 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in Grad School

Thanks to today’s blogger, and more than effective summarizer of our discussion:

Marianne Vander Dussen

October 22, 2014