Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Answering a Call For Abstracts – 4 Mistakes I Made So You Don’t Have To (and 2 Things I Got Right)

Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Answering a Call For Abstracts – 4 Mistakes I Made So You Don’t Have To (and 2 Things I Got Right)

[Başak Etkin (@EtkinBasak) is a PhD candidate at Université Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas, and the co-host of the philosophy of international law podcast, Borderline Jurisprudence.]

“Do as I say, not as I do”, the saying goes in Turkish.

As an early career researcher, answering a call for abstracts for conferences or workshops can be a daunting experience – it certainly was for me at first. Now as a PhD candidate with more than a couple of years of experience (!), I choose the calls I answer much more carefully. This post, full of embarrassing anecdotes, will hopefully provide you with some insights about this process.

The 4 Mistakes I Made

1/ I didn’t ask anyone to read my submission before sending.

This oversight goes hand in a hand with a more general point: build a community. Find people with whom you can exchange work. Even if they’re not more experienced, a fresh pair of eyes can bring a new perspective to the table. At the time, I didn’t think I had a community – but, there’s always someone you can ask. I first asked a friend in sociology for a sample, which helped with the structure. Still, I felt like a fish out of water. The first person who offered to read my work was a natural scientist. While they couldn’t comment on the substance, they were used to sending abstracts, so they gave some pointers and checked whether it was well written. The first time I got an actual colleague to read my abstract (we exchanged abstracts for the same call for contributions) was scary, but also eye-opening. Their remarks made my submission so much better and I learned a lot from reading theirs.

Alas, they got in, and I didn’t.

2/ I submitted to a work-in-progress workshop… without a work-in-progress (and got in).

In my defence, I was a beginner and not 100% in on the lingo. I didn’t realise until too late that this wasn’t a standard “present your research in 15 minutes and then take questions” conference. This was the “send your paper in advance and we will comment on it” workshop. The problem was, I didn’t have the paper to go with the abstract. I had enough ideas to throw together a presentation, but not enough to write a scholarly paper. When I got accepted I had to sit down and write a paper, and I wrote a bad one. It was one of the weaker papers at the workshop and needed much more work to get published.

This is the part of the story where I beat escalation of commitment. In psychology, escalation of commitment is a behaviour pattern where we persist with something even if the outcomes are negative, just because of prior investment. Have you ever finished a book you didn’t enjoy or stayed until the end of a boring film because “you’ve made it this far”? That’s escalation of commitment. In this instance, I beat it by stopping working on that paper then and there, because it wasn’t going to be a part of my dissertation and I couldn’t “waste” more time on it back then. If like me you want to beat escalation of commitment but feel bad about your work going to waste, here’s the trick: I’ve since then made sure to keep note of papers or books I read that are relevant to that research topic without actively working on it and hope to come back to it someday (bonus advice: never throw anything out).

All this to say, it’s best to have a draft already underway, or at least some substantial research done, when applying to work-in-progress workshops or those that want a paper to be submitted at a later stage.

3/ I studied a whole area of research to answer *one* call for abstracts.

Here’s a time when I couldn’t beat escalation of commitment. I saw an intriguing call for abstracts a little (a lot) outside of my research area, and I gave myself a weekend to see if it was useful for my thought process and feasible. I liked what I read, and then gave myself a whole week to write the abstract. A week is a lot of time in a researcher’s agenda. Booking it for a task whose outcome is this uncertain is unnecessarily risky and just bad time management. But it was a time when I was frustrated with my research and this new shiny area answered some of my questions. This is not an experience I would repeat. Even if you can learn enough about an area to write a juicy abstract in a week, you might not be able to deliver afterwards. In this particular case, the seminar got cancelled because of Covid-19 but we were still supposed to write a paper for publication. And I did – a better one this time, but very much outside of my comfort zone. And as I didn’t know the area well, I was regularly panicking about not understanding the details or missing important literature.

Yes, research should be challenging, but not panic-inducing.

4/ I obsessed over getting an(y) acceptance.

Speaking of panic: stop worrying about it. At one point, this was practically all I could think about. I was looking at colleagues starting to go to conferences and I felt incredibly behind. But now I know it’s more important to answer the right calls for you than to spread yourself thin to get in just anywhere. Not that there aren’t any bad calls, but there are some that are not right for you. Is it outside of your area? Skip it. Is your research not a good fit for that call? Skip it. Do you have too many deadlines already and don’t have the time for another one? Skip it. You will not regret it, because there will always be another call. Otherwise, it’s just not efficient.

You should be doing your own research, and looking at whether it would fit this or that call, not the other way around. If all the research you do is to chase conferences, then you might not be producing anything tangible. Focus on your own work and when the right (i.e. relevant to your research in an obvious way) call pops up, it will feel easy and effortless to write an abstract – I cannot stress this enough.

All this and yet, somehow, I didn’t get everything wrong (unbelievable, I know).

The 2 Things I Got Right

1/ I recycled abstracts.

I can hear you wondering “What is that supposed to mean?” Did I put my unsuccessful abstracts into the paper bin for revenge? No, silly. I wrote one abstract and sent it to many places. The work that goes into an abstract is non-negligeable, so if by adding or removing ~100 words (which is much less effort than writing something new) you can answer multiple calls – you should do it! Some calls are open, accepting submissions on any topic, which are great for sending in whatever abstract you may have lying around that has yet to find a home. Sometimes there is an important anniversary coming up, of a treaty or an international body. There will likely be more than one conference on its legacy or its future. Late 2018, I rode the “League of Nations’ 2019 centenary” wave with not one, not two, but seven abstracts sent. Remember to change the title a little so that even if it’s substantially the same thing it looks better (i.e., less suspicious) on your CV if you get multiple acceptances.

This is actually a macro-level piece of advice. One should always recycle (without becoming redundant). That one blog post you published? Make another one out of the parts the editor cut out. That talk you gave at x conference? Make an article out of it. You can thank me later.

2/ I asked for feedback.

Didn’t make it? Oh well. That’s the way academia goes. First, don’t fret (and see mistake #4). And second, send an email to the organiser saying thank you, and explaining that you are an early career researcher and would like feedback to improve. Here are some real examples of feedback I received:

“The abstract mixed up aspects that would normally be treated separately […] we were not so much looking for predictions but rather for abstracts that made credible arguments themselves.”

“It is very close to the paper to be presented by one of the invited scholars. Hence the decision to select another abstract to diversify the selection of topic.”

“Our main concern was that the abstract was not immediately addressing the question of the Global South which was central to the CFP.”

In my experience, people are kind and sincere 100% of the time if you are the same way. Whether you’re asking for feedback from a friend before you submit your abstract or following its rejection, do keep in mind that the process is competitive and therefore, this doesn’t mean that your abstract was not good. There can be a variety of reasons yours didn’t make the cut, but if you follow the advice here you hopefully won’t be too upset so long as you didn’t invest too much in that one abstract!

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