Writing a conference abstract
A huge part of being a PhD student is sharing our knowledge and research with the academic world, be it publishing in journals or attending conferences. Academic conferences can be great fun. You get to travel to new exciting countries (or in my case, to England), meet folk who work on similar research, get freebies, eat conference food (ok, that part is not always that fun) and generally have a break from your lab or office spaces. And the graduate schools are happy to count conference attendance towards your graduate training credits as well! Here at the PGR blog, we love going to conferences, and even wrote a bit about how to maximise our conference experience.
Of course, to attend a conference, you must get accepted; and to get accepted, you must apply. With an abstract. Perhaps not surprisingly to those who know me, writing conference abstracts is not really my forte. So now that I have to write one in the next few weeks, the only natural thing to do is to give other people advice about how to write them. Still counts, right?!
So, whereabouts am I in my abstract writing adventures? First I picked a conference I’d like to go attend. I’ve checked the program and the topics covered. I’ve figured out where my research fits in, and selected a part of my research that I love, is at a stage where I have enough results to present, there’s scope for plenty future work, and it’s something I’ve not presented before.
And then it came to writing the abstract.
How does that work again? I struggled to write even a first sentence I was happy with. I went back to the conference website, and spent a bit of time reading exactly what their abstract requirements were, the conference themes and goals, the word count. I decided that with a 500 words limit, I should/could spend some time talking about why I did some of the experiments, and not just about how I did them and their results.
Next, I wrote down some bullet points about what I wanted to include in the abstract. Well, first I panicked about not having the perfect abstract after the first draft, then I raided the vending machines, and then took a deep, still terrified, breath. My bullet point list got written after that.
At this point some of the graduate training courses I attended proved to be extremely helpful. That time I was nervous about being told to do stretching exercises in front of people in those public speaking courses? Turns out hiding in the basement and doing power poses also helps before starting to write. I’ve recently attended a Creative Writing course, and while conference abstracts might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think “creative writing”, I learnt about logically planning a story, how to structure paragraphs to make them engaging and easy to follow, and so on. There are many other courses on offer at UofG, such as Effective Writing for Sciences, which I am looking forward to. I would fully recommend checking the list of available courses and enrolling is some of the writing ones.
Using the bullet points as the structure of the abstract, I went on to fill the gaps. Doing that, rather than just starting with a blank page, made producing a draft a lot less scary. I knew which references I needed and which datasets I will use. This abstract doesn’t require figures, which made it a lot easier.
So that’s where I am now. I have a draft. Next, it will probably be passed back and forth between my supervisor and I until the poor abstract will get dizzy and look very much like the academic version of Frankenstein’s monster. But that’s all part of writing and submitting a conference abstract or a paper, and is perfectly normal. Once that is done, I will make the final figures and submit.
And hopefully this summer I will be able to write about my amazing conference experience and how well everything went.
To summarise, these are my best tips for writing a conference abstract you’re happy with: decide what conference you’d like to go to and which part of your research you’d like to present, and read the submission requirements carefully. Then make a list of what you want to include in your abstract (what you’ve done, what your results are, references you need, which figures best support your statements and so on). Once this is done, fill in the gaps and construct your arguments to follow logically. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect, drafts aren’t meant to be. Then ask for feedback, from your supervisor and other people who are not as familiar with your research - odds are the people reviewing the abstracts won’t know every detail of your work either.
If you feel like you need extra help with writing, the Learning Enhancement & Academic Development Service offer one-to-one appointments, as well as writing boot camps if you think a change in environment and having other people writing around you would help.
What about you? Do you have any conferences planned for 2018? How do you find abstract writing, and do you have any tips and tricks about writing the best abstract conference organisers have ever seen? Leave us a comment, or tweet us at @UofG_PGRblog!