Advice to young historians #94

PhD students! An edifying tale for you.

This morning between 8am and 10am, I had to read 60 abstracts for a workshop I’m co-organizing later in the year. That’s two minutes per abstract, and I wouldn’t have wanted it to take much longer since I was giving up my Sunday morning to do it, with another hour for a Skype call with the other organizer after that. Quick reading, to be sure, but not shoddy: the notes I made on the abstracts in that time ran to well over a thousand words. (I had time to wake my mum up with a cup of tea, too.)

Distracted from paperwork

Distracted from purpose is right

Click image for the results of this rather alarming search.

Sixty abstracts, but only twelve places at the workshop: tough competition. If you’re submitting an abstract for a workshop or a conference, the chances are the organizers will be wading through at least this many abstracts—more, quite likely, since the workshop I’m organizing is in a relatively small field. They will be doing what my co-organizer and I did this morning: looking for reasons to eliminate abstracts and get down to a manageable longlist. And this will be surprisingly easy, as it was for us (we’re now discussing a final programme). Here are a couple of things you may want to bear in mind, then, based on my experience this morning, and similar experiences running workshops in the past.

First, there’s a good reason why CFPs (if you’re a first year, that means ‘calls for papers’) usually set a word-limit for abstracts. Respect this, even if it seems ungenerous. Our word limit was 250 words, and at two minutes per abstract that meant I had plenty of time to read abstracts that kept to the limit. You only have to do the maths to see that 60 x 250 makes for a fairly manageable 15,000 words—only the length of an MA dissertation. Several of our sixty were in the 400–650-word range; none of them got onto the longlist. The last abstract (surname beginning in Z) came in at a laconic 122 words, and I’d have been tempted to accept it on those ground even if it hadn’t been entirely to the point—which it was.

Second, and much more important, what is the conference or workshop about? The title tells you something; the text of the call for papers tells you more. Of the sixty abstracts I read this morning, there were only a handful that just weren’t very good. (A lower proportion than usual, actually.) But at least twenty-five of them disqualified themselves because they didn’t show how the paper would relate to the aims of the workshop, as carefully laid out in the title we’d chosen and the call for papers. Many of these were very good. But we had at least a dozen abstracts that were really good and demonstrated why they were relevant to this particular workshop, with these particular aims. Some good news for you: as a rule, PhD students are better at this than more established researchers, many of whom seem to have a pre-written abstract ready to sling off at anyone foolish enough to say ‘travel and accommodation costs will be covered by the organizers’.

Bear these in mind when you’re writing your abstract and the organizers will thank you!

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