Thursday, November 21, 2013

Zen and the Art of the Conference Proposal, by Valerie Forrestal

Your first year as tenure-track faculty is an odd one. You’re not expected to publish right away, but it’s encouraged that you keep your CV active by adding to it in one way or another. Given the amount of time you spend acclimating to a new workplace during your first year (anywhere, not just in academia), you don’t necessarily have the time or the connections to do anything major. Often you’re expected to spend that first year choosing future research projects, and starting to design your research studies and maybe collect some data if you’re lucky. Sometimes, if you’re like me, you were hired to work on a specific project, and will spend much of your time tackling minor practicalities like building a website from scratch and migrating the entire former site’s content to it. Pish posh.

This forces you to be a bit creative with adding lines to your CV. I’ve looked for limited time and energy-commitment obligations, like less formal writing projects and talks at local chapter meetings. One opportunity I stumbled across on one of the CFP blogs I follow was a call for conference proposal reviewers. I’ve acted as a peer reviewer in the past, so it seemed like a good opportunity for some professional service.

About halfway through the 20-or-so proposals assigned to me for review, I realized that this was much more than just a line on my CV. I’ve submitted many conference proposals in the past (a handful of which were actually accepted,) but being on the other side of the submission process gave me some useful insights for the future. (For the record, the conference was not library-focused, and it was a blind review process, so I feel ok about talking about it publicly.)

First, I shouldn’t have to say this, but based on many of the submissions I reviewed it warrants a mention: Follow. The. Instructions. You’ll read this advice a lot in posts about applying for jobs, but it goes for pretty much any official process in the professional world. Sometimes you think can skip steps. Maybe you know someone. Maybe you’re a big name in the field. Maybe you presented last year. Well, I can’t see your name and I wasn’t at last year’s conference, so do us all a favor and complete all the fields in the form. If I don’t need a certain piece of information I’ll skim over it. Better safe than sorry.

Here’s another piece of advice that comes directly from job application best practices: customize, customize, customize. Maybe you’re submitting a similar proposal to several similar conferences. I don’t care. Take the time to tweak your proposal to at least touch upon this specific conference’s mission and theme. I know you have to put out a lot of proposals just to get a few acceptances, but try to make it feel like this conference is one you actually *want* to present at.

GradHacker recently did a post on Killer Conference Proposals, and while all their tips are good ones, I think their final tip is of particular importance: “Explicitly state an audience takeaway.” Of course *you* find your research interesting and relevant (or at least I hope so). But take a step back and think like a marketer. What are you offering presentation/panel attendees? So many proposals I reviewed talked exclusively about their own experience without in any way addressing why that experience should matter to anyone else. Is the technology you used attainably-priced? Are your assessment standards widely accepted? What kind of implementation time/resources did it take? I’ve sat through many presentations where the project discussed was fabulous, but I came away frustrated because the presenters made no effort to tell me how I could replicate all or part of it, or apply the knowledge elsewhere. Give me something I can use, or reserve this talk for a showcase or project update event.

My last piece of advice doesn’t really apply to a blind review, but I’ll mention it anyway. When I’m participating in an event, I make sure to publicize it throughout my own networks. I like to think this gives a person a reputation as someone who will actively work to help draw in attendees, and thus be an asset to future events.

If anyone else has been part of the conference proposal review process, please leave some tips in the comments! What causes you to reject a proposal outright? What puts a presenter on your good side right away?

Valerie Forrestal is the Web Services Librarian and an Assistant Professor at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. Her education includes an MA in Media Production from Emerson College, an MLIS from Rutgers University, and an MS in Service-Oriented Computing from Stevens Institute of Technology. Valerie specializes in web development, social media, technology planning, and innovation in libraries and higher ed. You can find her online at,, or on Twitter @vforrestal.


  1. Well, I was just on the LITA Forum committee... :)

    I TOTALLY agree with you on reading the instructions, making sure to fill out all the fields, and understanding that, no matter how much of a rock star you may be in your social circle, the committee may be unfamiliar with your work - you still have to justify your awesomeness.

    I found it surprisingly hard, as a reviewer, to tell if presentations would be any *good*. You need to clearly articulate your topic - that's the major thing most reviewers will be looking for - but I have a background in teaching and I'm always looking for the experience. Are you going to DO anything cool in your talk? Will you lead a discussion, or have the audience build something? For goodness' sake tell us.

    As for that topic...well. It needs to be timely, which is hard for conference presentations. It needs to clearly relate to the conference theme....yet not look like 15 other proposals we just got. For example, what with the maker movement being a huge trend this year and also super-related to our conference theme, we got more maker-y proposals than we could accept....if you're submitting a proposal on one of those huge trends, you MUST tell the committee how your take on it will be different.

    And ultimately, we've got a lot of these proposals to sort through, so make our jobs easy. Proofread (omg you're librarians, half of you were English majors, and you misspelled something in your proposal? *seriously*?). Use clear, well-structured English prose (why do I have to even be saying this, and yet). Clearly articulate what your topic is, what your take is, how it relates to the conference theme, and how it stands out from other proposals on similar topics - don't make us guess. TELL us if you're doing anything other than a 50-minute talk (because seriously, that's awesome).

    1. thanks for the tips! very good advice indeed. i did have trouble differentiating between a few proposals, all on the same topic. they all sounded good, but were basically the same, so the best i could do was see who was more qualified to speak on the topic from the bio section. (so make sure you have a concise, honest, and punchy bio!)