When looking for a conference to present at, or when writing a conference paper proposal, you need to think about the conference itself. Your best bet is to look at the Call for Papers:


  • What subjects does it indicate the conference will cover? Does it offer some sort of thematic statement? Does it invite almost anything that sort of fits into a basic topic or historical field?


Many small or regional conferences will have a very precise theme, and you need to fit your paper (or panel proposal, see below) into it. This does not mean you should not be adventurous, if they think you went too far they can always turn you down, but it does mean that in your proposal you need to spell out how and why you think your paper on tort law in 19th century Indiana fits into a conference considering immigration in the Atlantic World.


Larger conferences may have a general theme, but may allow papers on other subjects. OAH, for example, has a theme every year, but will consider submissions on US history that do not directly address that theme. Here, it is still best to try to tie your presentation to the theme (it may help get your proposal accepted), but it is not vital.


Some conferences are simply open to proposals on the broad topic. The Law and Society Conference, for example, will generally consider proposals that have anything to do with the study of law and society, anywhere, any time.  There, the limiting criteria are approach (it is mostly a social science, theory driven conference).


  • To whom is the Call for Papers addressed to (Graduate students? Faculty and students? Historians and social scientists? Historians only? Historians and law professors?)


This tells you something about your audience, something about the intellectual approaches that will be taken, and something about the sorts of questions the conference will be most interested in. A conference for law professors may be intrigued by legal history, but may not have lots of space for legal history papers and will often be most interested in the practical, present day application of an historical argument. A conference for historians of the antebellum era may be intrigued by the use of law in history, but will be most interested in learning how your research relates to larger historical issues, not narrow legal history questions.


This will also help you figure out what “use” the conference is to you.

1.      Is it a local or regional conference? If so, you will meet many historians who live and work in the region, but might not meet that many who do work in the field you are particularly interested in. This is good for local networking, particularly if you would like to stay in the region to teach, and good for expanding your intellectual horizons (“Look, there are people here whose work is about something entirely different from mine, and it’s interesting!”). It may also expose you to approaches that are used in other areas of history, but not your own, that might be applicable to your own work.

2.      Is this a grad student conference on a narrow field closely related to yours? If so, you will meet people you can put together conference panels with, and learn about how others who have been trained elsewhere are working on these issues.

3.      Is it a national conference in your field (legal history, women’s history, etc)? If so, this is a good way to meet people who are roughly your contemporaries who are working in your areas of interest, and to meet people who are more senior, who you might be able to consult about your work, or ask to serve as commentators on future conference panels. This is also a good way to learn what is hot in your field.


  • What does it tell you about the sort of proposal you need to put together to get a paper accepted (and about what will happen to that proposal)?


Usually a Call for Papers will lay out some ground rules. You need to follow these carefully.


Length: Often you will be told to write a proposal of a certain length (250 word). Stay within that limit. The conference organizers will have to review a lot of proposals, they are not likely to be amused by proposals that are three times longer than need be.


Additional material: Does the Call for Papers ask for a CV as well? Send one (you should not send a long cv; 1-2 pages is best, emphasize your educational background and field(s) of study, other publications or presentations, if any, your dissertation topic (if defined), your dissertation advisor, and anything that might be relevant to the conference. But keep it short (it never hurts to let some member of the faculty review your cv before you send it out).


Type of proposals: Does the call for papers say individual papers will be accepted? If so, that means that you can submit a paper proposal on your own and hope that the conference organizers can find a panel to put you in (some conferences are better about this than others: Social Science History Association usually tries to do this through its networks and often succeeds). If the Call for Papers asks for proposals from panels, you need to try to find a panel. One place to start is with the faculty at your grad program. They may know people who could put together panels with you, or know people who might know people. Another resource is the H-Net listserv(s) that cover your field(s) of interest. Send a message to the list indicating that you are trying to put together a panel for conference X, that you have a paper on subject Y, and that you are looking for 2-3 other people who might be working in similar areas to make up a panel. You’ll probably get some responses, and if the panel seems to work, put it together. You should check with faculty members as you go this route, both to help you figure out the best way to present your panel and to watch out for potential problems. (It may also be that someone will post a notice to a listserv that proposes a panel that relates to work you are doing, in which case, it might be wise to respond and see if you can get included in the panel.)


If the Call for Papers says panels only, don’t waste your time sending in an individual submission. The odds are good that even if the Call says that individual papers will be considered, you will NOT have your paper accepted unless you are a part of a panel. (Again, there are some exceptions. Check with the faculty on this.)


Vetting of proposals: Conferences often have committees that review proposals and some proposals don’t make the cut. Calls for Papers will usually tell you this. Don’t assume that just because you submitted to a conference on time, your paper will be accepted. At some conferences, more proposals are rejected than accepted, and at most conferences some proposals will just have to be rejected to keep the conference at a reasonable size.  Just as you should not assume your paper will be accepted, you should not assume that if your paper was rejected it means your project is stupid and you should quit. It probably means that your proposal did not fit the theme, or that the conference had too many proposals and the committee applied some unknown criteria in making decisions about what to accept and what to reject. It may also mean that your proposal was not as clear as it could have been or as interesting as it might have been, so you should consider revising it before you submit it somewhere else.




  • Your proposal should fit the themes of the conference as well as it can.
  • It should be the required length.
  • It should be narrowly focused. Remember, you will probably get 20 minutes for your presentation, you might get only 15. You need to focus your paper (and thus your proposal) on one or two key issues that illuminate the problems in your larger paper (or in that part of you dissertation). You are providing the audience with a taste of your ideas, not the whole thing.
  • It should be catchy. A clichéd approach, but one that works even so, is to begin your proposal with a brief paragraph that that sketches an historical event, or quotes a document, or does something to make the historical problem you are going to examine concrete. Is there a case that you will focus on? If so, can you summarize the key aspect of it? Is there a written opinion that is an important element of your analysis? If so, perhaps there is a key sentence that will introduce what your analysis considers. If you begin with something concrete, and use it to set up the rest of your proposal, you catch the attention of the people reviewing the proposals. (You should also consider doing this for your conference paper, it can be incredibly boring to listen to someone drone on about even the most fascinating historical problem, if all the person does is discuss the problem and his/her solution. Offer a nice example to set up your analysis, and refer back to it as you present, this will make your presentation hold together better.)
  • It should briefly explain what you will prove and why it matters. Once you’ve set out your catchy paragraph, explain why that interesting story or quote matters. What are you going to show us with your analysis? Why should we care? Why should this presentation matter at this conference (here’s where to fit in the tie between your paper and the conference).
  • If your paper is part of a panel, which is probably itself organized around a theme or issue (different theories of nineteenth century citizenship, for example), you should also briefly refer to this theme.
  • If you are organizing the panel (as opposed to merely submitting a paper to a panel someone else is setting up), you need to worry about a couple of other things:

1.      You need to work out the theme that ties the different papers together. Obvious approaches are comparative (across regions, across periods, comparing different countries), or relational (the papers all address 18th century theories of punishment in murder trials, one paper looks at arguments for the death penalty, one for arguments for imprisonment, one looks at the development of the idea that there are different degrees or types of murder, and that punishment should be tailored to fit the type). There will usually have to be a panel proposal that ties all the proposals for the panel together, and this is where you set those themes out.

2.      You need to find a commentator, preferably someone more senior than you, who will actually comment on the papers after everyone has given them. The commentator is supposed to make connections between the papers, raise questions about the ideas in the papers, and generally spur discussion. You should consult with faculty members about finding commentators.

3.      You need to bear in mind that conferences like panels to bring people together. This means several things: first, your panel should not be made up entirely, or even somewhat, of people you are in grad school with. Second, some conferences strongly encourage transnational comparative approaches, so you might try to connect to people doing related work outside the US (here is when checking with faculty for leads is helpful). Third, some conferences strongly encourage diversity, in the sense of having at least one male panelist, or one female panelist. (Both the second and third point can trump the first, in other words, if the third person on your panel is also from UF, but does African history rather than US, the international mix to your panel is a plus that will probably outweigh the UF connection. This makes sense, by the way, the concern is that graduate programs will put together panels that are self-reinforcing, your advisor comments on a panel made up of only her students. That’s not real helpful for you, or for people at the conference. Hence the desire to mix people up.) As that suggests, none of this should be a problem, there are enough grad students and historians out there that you can easily find any sort of mix you might want, and there is much to be said for what these seemingly annoying requirements do to increasing your professional networks. It is just wise to keep these sorts of things in mind.








Some links with tips on writing conference paper proposals and conference papers (very good statements about conference papers and presentations, also some information on conference paper proposals)