Conference Proposal Tip: Second Choices

One of the things I enjoy most about academic life is organising conferences. It’s something I’ve done quite a bit of ever since the first year of my PhD. For the most part this was a mix of smaller workshops with medium-sized international specialist gatherings. But two years ago I was elected (helpfully unopposed) as Communications Officer for the Social History Society. This means I’m involved with the annual conference, mostly in terms of building an online presence to promote the conference and keep the discussion going outside of the sessions themselves.

Social History Society, 40th Anniversary Conference at Lancaster University (photo: Routledge History)
Social History Society 40th Anniversary Conference, Lancaster University (photo: Routledge History)

As I write this, our conference and strand convenors are pouring over the huge number of abstracts we received for papers, panels and posters for our London 2017 conference. I don’t have anything to do with deciding which proposals to accept or reject, so I won’t be offering any advice on how to write a successful abstract. (If you want that, there’s some good advice here.)

But I will recommend one simple way to give yourself the best shot at being accepted to a large, popular academic event like the SHS annual conference. It’s not something I know of anyone missing out because of, but I can see how it could easily happen. It’s such an easy thing to do yet oddly enough, both this year and last, a fair number of people putting in proposals for the SHS conference did not do. My advice…

Always select a second choice of strand.

Like many large conferences, at the SHS we have themed strands and when putting in your proposal you are asked to choose which strand you think you best fit. We also ask for a second choice, alternate strand.

That much you will know simply by looking at the online submission form. But here are some less-than-shocking things you might not know unless you’ve been involved in organising an event of this kind.

1. Big conferences can be substantially over-subscribed. It’s the best of problems to have as a conference organiser. While I’d like to think this is down to how successful I am in promoting the call for papers, I doubt it. In the two years I’ve seen the submissions for the SHS conference, more have been rejected than accepted. And this is not because most submissions are rubbish. In fact…

2. The quality of submissions is really high. There will always be some poor abstracts that give reviewers plenty to complain about. But, in my experience, these are the annoying minority. Most proposals are relevant, well-written and suggest the researcher has something novel to say. At smaller or more niche gatherings, organisers might overlook a less-than-impressive proposal if it speaks to an under-represented area of the discipline or be able to shuffle things round and fit in an extra good one, but bigger and more popular conferences can be really competitive meaning some good proposals will miss out.

3. Some strands are more popular than others – and you can’t always guess which ones. While some strands are unsurprisingly popular year after year, others go up and down. One of the SHS strands that received fewest submissions last year, jumped to almost top this year. This means that you don’t know if you have more competition in one strand or another, and you don’t know whether the sort-of fit in another strand might give you a better shot.

4. Strands may well make decisions independent of each other. Every conference will have its own way of working and sharing out the jobs. But for a really big conference, the over-arching job of conference convenor may well be more administrative than anything else. They may not have time to go through every abstract that missed out in one strand, checking if it might be a good fit elsewhere. Moreover, if the conference caters to a broad field of study, they may not be well enough versed in your area to spot what is novel about what what you have to say. In some cases the specialist will be a reviewer rather than convenor and the real decisions made by an organising committee, but then you don’t want to miss out on getting someone who knows your field championing you to those who do decide.

I suppose the reasoning behind not picking a second choice strand is that you are really convinced it is a perfect fit for one strand in particular. To me, however, it usually gives the impression you just haven’t looked at the details of any of the other strands.

In the case of the SHS conference, we’re so over-subscribed that I can’t imagine it would make much difference. And as I said, I don’t know of any cases where a good paper missed out specifically for this reason. But then, nobody would know, would they? It would simply fall between the cracks.

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