A Modest Proposal: A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Conference Proposals

By Reece Gibb

Writing a conference proposal for the first time can be intimidating—especially if you’ve never been in a conference environment before. So many questions come to mind: how do I choose a topic? What form does a conference proposal take? Who is the audience of my proposal?

When you’re considering a topic to choose for a conference, think of both the conference theme and the related audience. Think of a conference as a family dinner. You head home to find a colorful array of relatives mingling with your family: among them the outspoken uncle, the oddball nephew, and your crazed aunt. When dinner is served, conversations start on all sides of the table. A few cousins discuss your aunt’s car accident, while your grandparents argue over whether your uncle should have married a younger woman. Which conversation you chime in on has to do with which subject you feel you have the most contribute to. You may know more about one particular development in the family, but every discussion centers around what’s happening in the family.

In much the same way, a conference is often set around a subject or set of subjects. Like your family dinner, you are heading into different conversations happening at once, so you want to pick a topic that you feel you have a firm grasp on or interest in. When you’ve decided on your topic, look at the conference’s call for proposals (CFP). A CFP is a short prompt that details the conference’s formatting requirements for the proposal, the conference’s theme, and sometimes the “ideal” attendee. Be sure to write down a few of the defining terms and keywords used in the CFP so you can incorporate them into your proposal. The CFP may also ask you to specify which panel or session you are applying to, so make sure your topic adheres to the topic of a specific session.

Once you’ve gotten a feeling for the expectations and language of the conference, ask yourself what you want to contribute to the discussion. In the proposal itself, you want to indicate where exactly your topic factors into an academic conversation. At the beginning of your proposal, you want to introduce “a key source or scholar, or situating your work in line of inquiry or major debate in your field of study”(Sano-Franchini, 2011). More broadly, does your paper, research, study, etc., “challenge, extend, or complicate existing work in your field?” (Sano-Franchini, 2011). Aside from just introducing the essential components of your research, you are stating in your conference proposal how exactly you are contributing to or changing your field of study.

Finally, before you submit your proposal to a conference, it would probably be a good idea to have an advisor look over your proposal. Consulting with someone familiar with your topic who has been admitted to and involved in conferences before can be beneficial, especially as you work through the kinks of writing a proposal for the first time. With these strategies, you can rest easy knowing that you can make the case for why your research deserves to be heard in the “family dinner” of academia.


Sano-Franchini, J.  (2011). Writing the academic conference proposal. GradHacker. Retrieved from http://www.gradhacker.org/2011/06/01/writing-the-academic-conference-proposal/

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