Approaches to Writing Conference Papers

This topic isn’t a medieval one, but since many of my readers are students or professors, this will probably be an important topic. Anyone progressing past a bachelor’s degree will someday have to write a conference paper. After attending several conferences recently, I’ve noticed that academic conference presentations seem to fall into three different categories:

The Workshop Approach

This is the approach I see from people who are tenured faculty or in tenure-track positions. With the Workshop Approach, presenters bring research in progress, notifying the audience what the general goal for the research is in order to enlist audience help on aspects of the research that merit further development. This approach sees the academic conference as a chance to workshop ideas among colleagues.

The Dissertation Approach

This approach is used either by master’s or PhD students or by those who have recently completed such a degree without having previously presented much of the research. This approach turns individual chapters or sections of a thesis or dissertation into a shorter conference paper. Presenters ordinarily inform the audience that this is a piece of a larger work, either during the presentation or while answering questions. The purpose of the approach can either be to gain advice for developing the research in a similar way to the Workshop Approach, or simply to have something to do with that dissertation apart from sending it to the thesis committee. If the presenter plans to expand the dissertation to a full-length scholarly book, then the Dissertation Approach overlaps with the Workshop Approach.

The Freelance Approach

In this approach, the conference attendee presents a polished, fully-completed piece of research. It is not a part of a larger work, though it often is intended to complement or lead into other research and may someday become part of a larger work. The presenter does not present for the purpose of gaining ideas for improving the research, but to affirm the validity of the research in the scholarly community. The presenter expects to fluently answer any questions asked during the presentation. Though avenues for improving the research may arrive, the presenter expects to have accounted for most of them already.

I call this last approach the Freelance Approach because it is the one I have used as one who is not expected by my college to do research. My purpose is, simply, to gain a reputation. I’m a new scholar who does not have tenure or a long list of publications, so I attend conferences both to network with colleagues and to start building a presence in the scholarly community so that by the time I am able to afford to enter a PhD program, I will be someone worth having.

All three of these approaches seem like good approaches (and this isn’t an exhaustive list of purposes for writing). At my first conference, I was surprised to see people with PhDs presenting incomplete research, but presenters nearly always find the feedback that they need to finish the research. Examine your reasons for attending an academic conference, and keep these in mind when writing proposals. Which purpose is right for you? Or, for those of you who regularly attend conferences, which approach do you normally use?

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