Scientific conferences are a great way to show your work to researchers in your field, get useful feedback and network. For most conferences, you will need to submit an abstract of your research project to register.
I remember when, a few months into my graduate studies, my supervisor recommended that I submit an abstract for a conference. It was exciting but also intimidating. I felt I did not know my work well enough to write it. In fact, the process of writing the abstract gave me a much better grasp of my research project.
I have since then written over a dozen abstracts for conferences and developed a process I’ll share with you today.
But first, what makes a great abstract? A great abstract contains all the key points and no unnecessary details of the research it relates to. It is a stand-alone text that conveys a clear message and tells you whether the research paper, poster or presentation is of interest to you.
The abstract is the only information that scientific conference organizers will have access to. From it, they will assess the quality of your work and decide whether it is worth including in the event. Writing a great abstract improves your chances of being selected.
There are two main types of abstracts: classic or academic abstracts (the focus of this article) and layman summaries (more on these later).
How to write an abstract for a conference
1. Check the guidelines
Make sure you carefully read and follow the submission guidelines. Not doing so could get your abstract automatically rejected. One study reported that over 70% of abstracts submitted were rejected for not adhering to the submission guidelines.
Conference websites will usually provide detailed indications about formatting (font, spacing) and word count (typically 200-300 words). If no indications are given, you can consult abstract examples in the handbooks for previous years of the conference.
Make sure to check the indications for writing the authors’ names (sometimes the presenting author must be highlighted) and affiliations. At the same time, don’t forget to include everyone who has contributed to the work.
2. Choose your abstract title
The title should make it clear what your project is about and spark interest. If you’re not given specific directions, try to make it around 12 words. If you can’t read it in one breath, it’s probably too long!
3. Define the background and motivation
This section answers the “why” of your research. Start with one or two sentences stating what is known in your field of study. Then, point out the gap that your research addresses or what question(s) you’re trying to answer. You need to convey what is the purpose of your project and its relevance. Sometimes the guidelines will require you to write the goals and/or hypothesis of your project.
4. The methodology
In this section you need to answer the “how” of your project. Outline the tools, study design, sample characteristics. There’s no need to be overly detailed here. For example, you don’t need to get into the specifics of the statistic tests you used if your project goals are not related to statistics.
5. Main results and findings
This is the “what” section, as in “what did you find”? Ideally, the results should be the longest section of the abstract, say 40-50% of the total word count. This gives you some leeway in how many sentences you can use. State the main findings of your work in accordance with what you wrote in the background section.
The results should be unbiased and factual. Stay away from writing about the significance of your findings here. You can use linking words such as “moreover” or “in contrast” but avoid “interestingly” or “unexpectedly”, especially if it won’t be clear for the readers why the finding has such connotation.
If you’re just a few months into your project, you might not have a lot of results yet, and that is ok. Do not try to extend this section by adding results that are not significant or just preliminary. You can show those in the actual presentation or poster and discuss them accordingly.
6. Conclusions and relevance
Clearly state the main conclusion(s) that arise from your results. This is the moment to express the significance of your findings. Contrast them to existing literature; are they in accordance or opposition to previous studies? Highlight any novelty in your discoveries. Express the implications of your findings within the field and what new research avenues they open.
Sometimes, abstract submissions will allow you to add keywords. These are a great tool for people to find your work when they search for specific words. Choose words related to your research that are commonly used in your field. For inspiration, look up the keywords in related research papers you read.
It is common for conferences to ask for a structured abstract. In this format, each section (background/introduction, methods, results, conclusions) is identified and separated from the rest. In traditional unstructured abstracts, all sections are combined. Other than that, the writing is pretty much the same in both cases.
Layman or lay summaries are written in plain language so they can be understood by the general public. They are required for certain scholarships or to obtain government fundings. In these cases, people who are not experts in your field need to be able to grasp the significance of your research.
When writing a lay summary, don’t think of it as a “translation”, sentence by sentence, of your academic abstract. Rather, think of how you would explain and convey the importance of your project to a family member or a friend. Avoid any field-specific jargon. Be brief for the more technical sections (methods and results) and expand on the background, main conclusions, and relevance of your research.
You can read these guidelines for more guidance on how to write a lay summary.
- Start writing your abstract early. Whatever time you think it will take, double it. Having a draft of your abstract way before the deadline will allow you to go back to it, edit and make improvements.
- Ask your colleagues, other graduate students and certainly your supervisor to look over your abstract and give you feedback before you submit it.
- Most likely you will find the word limits constricting. One thing that will help is to use, as in all scientific writing, short clear sentences. Make every single word count. Every sentence should serve a purpose.
- Find the handbook for previous years of the conference you are interested in. It will contain some successful abstract examples to model.
- Read abstracts of papers in your field and evaluate whether they are successful or not.
- Finally, practice makes perfect. Keep updating and improving your abstract as your research goes along and submit to multiple conferences.
Abstract submission management
If you’re in charge of collecting abstracts for a conference, it’s best to have a system or use a software to avoid errors and confusion. A custom form for abstract submission is better than collecting them by email. Other things to consider are how you're going to manage the peer reviews and make abstract available online if relevant.
Only the key points of your research should be in your conference abstract. A great abstract can generate excitement and interest in your project. Writing a great abstract demonstrates that you know your stuff, and ultimately, that is what conference organizers are looking for.