Tips for Getting Started in Academics: Creating a Successful Conference Proposal

Theron Muller, Jerry Talandis Jr., University of Toyama

If you are looking to build a career as a language teacher in Japan, you may have noticed that many job listings require evidence of academic work activities. One way to acquire such experience is through presenting at academic conferences. However, the actual process of preparing a presentation proposal is not necessarily common knowledge or readily transparent. In this article, we outline a few tips on how to approach this important task.

Why Bother Doing an Academic Presentation?

First off, since conference presentations entail a significant investment of time and energy, we would like to address the question of Why bother? From the point of view of professional development, giving a presentation helps improve your research abilities. Committing to sharing an academic project can motivate you to improve your practice and clarify what you want to say (Talandis & Stout, 2015). Furthermore, when examining the text histories of six published papers, Theron found all included a conference presentation. In addition, presenting can connect you to colleagues with similar interests, thus enabling you to develop and expand your professional network. These connections can lead to additional future career-building opportunities.

From a pragmatic perspective, if you are looking for a teaching position in higher education in Japan, there often are expectations that all applicants, even for part-time positions, be active in their field. This includes attending and presenting at conferences, writing for publication, and being involved in a teaching organization (such as JALT). Having academic presentations and publications on your record will open more doors than not having such achievements.

How Do I Get Started With an Academic Presentation?

Conferences tend to hold open calls for papers. You submit a proposal that is evaluated by a conference committee. If it is assessed positively, you are invited to present. Note that unless otherwise specified, you do not need to have actually finished a paper to apply. Your presentation can be on something you are still working on. The actual paper can come later, if at all.

Conferences provide various presentation formats. For beginners, we recommend doing either a short paper or poster session. The former consists of about a 15 or 20 minute oral presentation, then questions for about 10 minutes. Poster sessions are typically longer and less formal—you prepare a large poster of your project, hang it up on a wall, then chat with conference attendees as they walk by. Posters are generally less competitive in terms of the review process and are an excellent way to break into academic presenting. They give you a chance to talk informally to one or two people at a time, thus allowing you to gain experience gradually while honing your message.

After presenting at a conference, you may have an opportunity to publish a paper in a conference proceedings. Many conferences have them. In JALT, all presenters are eligible to submit a paper to the Post-Conference Publication (PCP). The PCP is not a proceedings per se; it is a peer-reviewed online journal featuring articles based on the presentations from the previous year’s conference. This is an excellent and accessible career-building opportunity, as you will be able to list both a conference presentation and a refereed academic article on your CV. See for more information.

To get your proposal started, you’ll need to prepare four separate elements: an abstract, a short summary, a title, and your bio data. Next, we discuss each of these in turn.

What Are Some General Tips for Preparing My First Conference Proposal?

First and foremost, follow the submission guidelines. Check the Call for Papers page very carefully. Find the section that explains the instructions, and follow them exactly. This is important because proposals that do not follow the guidelines are more likely to get rejected. Another tip is to clearly connect your proposal to the conference theme. If your topic does not quite match, it may be okay, but do try to make some connection. This may involve looking at your topic from a new point of view to establish a stronger link. Finally, submit on time! Late submissions are generally not accepted, even if they arrive only minutes after the deadline. A good proposal needs to be carefully crafted and proofread, so plan ahead to avoid a last-minute rush.

What Constitutes a Good Abstract?

This is the most important element of your proposal. Conferences tend to ask for abstracts between 150 to 300 words. The abstract is generally what conference committee members assess when deciding whether to accept your proposal. As a result, they need to be written very well, with care taken to follow the expected style of writing. A quick search will yield lots of information on how to write an abstract. Generally, a good rule of thumb is to follow Hoey’s (1983) SPRE discourse model: Situation, Problem/Puzzle, Response, and Evaluation. For your abstract, the Situation involves identifying the general academic area of your topic. Cite a key reference or two here as space allows, keeping in mind that references are included in the overall word count. We would recommend at least one to contextualize your topic within the broader literature.

Next, state the Problem or Puzzle clearly, to which your topic is the Response. In other words, what are you investigating, and how? For the Evaluation, clearly lay out any take-aways or benefits your audience may learn from attending your presentation. Finally, for your conclusion, restating your connection to the conference theme is a good idea. We would recommend against mentioning the SPRE elements or using them as section headings—they are simply guiding underlying principles. The abstract should be a single paragraph, so two or three sentences on each idea should result in a clear and well-balanced statement of your intent.

Another tip: Make sure to use all of your allotted word count. For example, if your limit is 250, then get as close as you can without going over. Also, avoid going way under the word limit, as that makes your abstract look incomplete. Choose your words carefully and polish everything. Scrutinize each sentence and make sure it is as efficient as possible. When you are done, have a colleague read it. Incorporate their feedback that you agree with, then have it proofread by someone other than you.

What About the Short Summary?

The short summary is generally what is printed in the program handbook, while the full abstract is what the conference committee evaluates when deciding whether to accept your proposal. JALT, for example, has a 75-word limit, which makes this a tough challenge. Do your best to boil down your longer abstract into three or four sentences, touching upon the S, P, R, and E, as outlined above. You may be able to pull key sentences from your longer abstract and tweak them a bit to fit. Again, aim to hit the limit right on the nose and do not go over.

What Should I Include in My Bio Data?

Bio profiles are a feature of many conference programs, so you may be asked to prepare one. These are easy to write, as they often follow the same general format. They include: your affiliation, job title, and current research interests. That is enough, especially when you are just getting started. Things to avoid include long lists of organizations you belong to and blatant self-promotion.

How Do I Write a Good Title?

Titles need to communicate the essence of your presentation topic and fit within the allotted space. Avoid overly bland wordings and abbreviations or technical jargon that may be unfamiliar to non-specialists. One common structure is general area: narrow focus, which is the format we used for this article. If you check online for title writing tips, you’ll find other options and advice. Whatever approach you use, you need to choose your words carefully to make them fit. For example, JALT presentations offer only 50 characters, including spaces between words. Come up with several ideas then run them by your colleagues. Getting an outside perspective can help you find the best fit.

That’s All, Folks (for now)

In this short article we’ve touched upon some specific information that can hopefully help you to construct a successful conference proposal. Presentations are a powerful career-building opportunity. Presenting can not only help you secure a better job, but it can also enhance your teaching and research skills, expand your professional networks, and lead to greater overall job satisfaction. There is a lot more that could be said about conference presenting. If you would like to know more, please get in touch with the editor of this column. We would be happy to write a follow-up piece in response to reader feedback.

Authors’ Note

This article is a modified extract from a blog post that Theron wrote in November 2017. The original post is available here:


Hoey, M. (1983). On the surface of discourse. London, England: George Allen & Unwin.

Talandis, Jr., G., & Stout, M. (2015). Toward new understandings: Reflections on a year-long action research project with Japanese university students. In S. Borg & H. Sanchez (Eds.), International perspectives on teacher research (pp. 14-28). London, England: Palgrave MacMillan.

Theron Muller is an Associate Professor at the University of Toyama, Japan. He is lead editor on two book projects, Innovating EFL Teaching in Asia (2012) and Exploring EFL Fluency in Asia (2014), both published with Palgrave Macmillan.

Jerry Talandis Jr. has been teaching English in Japan since 1993, and is currently a Professor at the University of Toyama. His research interests include pragmatics, language testing, and professional development through classroom-based research.