Pondering Acceptances? Don’t Ignore Your Rights or Overlook Your Responsibilities

We are well into the season of anxiety for students applying to graduate school. Some have heard and some have yet to hear the results of their application efforts.  We hope that many will hear good news from at least one school on their lists of prospective schools, and we hope that good news involves a funding package that is at least adequate.  With that news, a new adventure will soon begin.  But, what about those who have heard good news from more than one school, or those who were wait-listed at one school and accepted at another?

Students may face understandable pressures to accept admission and funding offers quickly. From an institutional point of view, the sooner the incoming class of graduate students can be determined, the sooner institutional attention can be shifted to something else.  Similarly, from a student point of view, the sooner an offer is accepted, the sooner the student mind may turn to different anxiety producing issues. Also, students may fear that, unless they act quickly, offers may be withdrawn. As understandable as those pressures are, students must fight the impulse to accept before they have all the facts.

The Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) has long had a “Resolution Regarding Graduate Scholars, Fellows, Trainees and Assistants.” Renewed in 2009, that resolution lists hundreds of signatory universities who are CGS members.  Become familiar with the provisions of that resolution. The text of it is available on the CGS website. For simplicity’s sake, click on the following link:


In short, students may be assured that offers will remain in force with a degree of fluidity until April 15.  A student need not accept any offer of admission or funding until the April 15 deadline. If a student accepts an offer and wishes to withdraw that acceptance before April 15, all she or he needs to do is write a brief letter of resignation of the appointment and send it to the institution in question.  At that point, the student is a free agent once again.

After the April 15 date, however, the agreements are more formal and more contractual. A student may still be released from an acceptance, but may not accept another offer without first gaining a written release from the institution whose offer was first accepted.


Consider all options carefully.

Don’t accept too soon.

Act with a clear view of your rights and responsibilities as spelled out in the CGS resolution.

How to Write an Email to a Professor: A Reconsideration

From time to time, we need to revisit and update an earlier post because new information casts it in a new light. The core of the April 20, 2011, post remains sound. Undergraduate students are often confused about how to contact faculty at other institutions.  Also, the process can be, and often is, a minefield. Additionally, the example of a shallow email instantly destined for the electronic dust bin remains a good example of what not to do.

Our attention for this post needs to be directed to our earlier advice about what sort of email to write and what that email should contain.  With the ever increasing volume of email and the problems of spam or other nuisance messages clogging everyone’s in-boxes, students need to pay special attention to the length of the messages they send to professors. Along with the positive comments that students have made about the earlier post, we and our students have received a parallel set of comments from faculty members. Those comments have indicated that our earlier suggested template yields messages that are simply too long. Also, some faculty members seemed concerned that a response might be tantamount to a commitment they were unwilling to make.  Finally, our earlier message prototype failed to take into account programs in the sciences and experimental social sciences that require a series of lab rotations during the first year of graduate study.  Consequently, questions about whether a particular professor was accepting students into her or his research group may appear ill informed and out of place.

Any message to a faculty member needs to begin with a clear reason for writing.

  • Is there a question relating to a published work that only the author (Professor AA) can answer?
  • Are you particularly interested in school XX and trying to arrange a visit to the campus that would include time to talk with several professors in the department, Professor AA among them?
  • Has your research, which draws on the work of Professor AA, been accepted for presentation at a professional conference? Might Professor AA be interested in attending your session? (The latter question assumes, of course, that Professor AA will also be in attendance.)
  • For the above possibility, it may be more useful to keep in mind that conferences not only allow for presentations of research, but also offer great possibilities for networking. Might your research advisor be able to help you meet Professor AA? If so, then it becomes more natural to invite the professor to your session.  A meeting at the conference may open other doors.

Messages relating to any of the above scenarios need to be brief but convey that the writer is serious rather than seeking an answer that modest diligence would provide. Potential messages have such varied forms that a prescriptive example may do more to lead astray than to enlighten. Therefore, use valuable resources more readily available. Before drafting emails to professors at other universities, talk with McNair staff (if applicable); talk with professors at your own institution to find out what sorts of things they find irritating in letters they receive. Although it is not possible to be all things to all people, insights from current professors help inform a student’s approach and make letters and emails more effective.  Moreover, a current professor may be willing to read a draft email and make suggestions to fine tune the message; those suggestions may increase the likelihood of a response.

Final thoughts drawn from the April 20 post: If the professor doesn’t respond in a week or so, send a follow up email as a gentle reminder of your initial email, and asking again for a response. If you still receive no response, it might be better to shift your attention keeping in mind that professors are busy and distracted, and it may take a little extra effort to get through. Good luck!

The New Keeper of the Blog: A Bit About Gail

Although Karen Kelsky, who started this blog, has now moved on to other endeavors, I don’t want the blog to wither on the vine. Therefore, in my own humble fashion, I’ll try to follow her excellent lead.

You might wish to know who I am. My name is Gail Unruh, and I am a member of a tiny minority of people who are male but have a given name that many assume to be exclusively feminine. Although I have a PhD (U. Oregon, 1987), I periodically still receive mail addressed to Ms. Gail Unruh. Currently, I am the director of the McNair Scholars Program at the University of Oregon, but I have taught history at the UO and Miami University in Ohio.

I came to my position by a circuitous route. Encouraged to pursue my education by parents, neither of whom continued past high school, I was often on strange ground and unable to rely on parents or other family members for information.  When I decided to pursue advanced study in history, my father fretted that I would become what he called (not affectionately) “an educated fool.” As part of my educational path, I have worked in a grocery store, taught high school in rural Colorado, worked as part of a land survey crew on two construction projects for coal-fired power plants in northwestern Colorado, and worked as a mover and truck driver certified for interstate driving (complete with commercial driver’s license).

I understand feeling marginally connected to universities, but I now quite enjoy the university setting. Approach the blog, the university, and me with open minds, and everyone can benefit as we learn from each other. Universities are not perfect environments, but they are wonderfully challenging and enriching. And students from different backgrounds who attend universities make those institutions even more interesting.

How to Write a Literature Review: A Brief Guide for the Perplexed

Students are often mystified by the process of writing literature reviews, and the response can be even more extreme. Some authors have tried to create comprehensive, how-to guides for preparing lit reviews that become so complicated and ponderous that they add to the problem rather than help to solve it. Sociologist Howard Becker wrote of graduate students being “terrorized by the literature” (Writing for Social Scientists, 1986). Becker’s description captured his concern that students sometimes feel that unless they know “all” of the literature, someone will “get them.” That someone, as fear would have it, may be a professor, one’s own committee, or a fellow student who is intent on climbing the ladder of influence by littering the area beneath it with bodies. Those fears are overblown, as many fears are.

Instead of being fearful, threatened, or intimidated, the best ways to approach a literature review are first to understand its purposes, and then to have some basic ideas about how to create a literature review for yourself.

The central purpose of a literature review is not to show that you are conversant in all the literature (whatever that may mean), but rather to show that you have an awareness and an understanding of those pieces that bear on your research. Some works may be the classics in a specific field and have broad applicability. Researchers can use those classic sources to anchor their work within the field in the broadest way. Other sources will likely refer to research similar to your own, while still other sources suggest a theoretical or methodological framework that is applicable or adaptable for your research. A good lit review helps ensure that a researcher’s work is properly grounded in the field while demonstrating the researcher’s competence. Also, a good lit review will show how a researcher plans to draw on the existing literature for support while showing how a particular project may diverge from or expand on that body of existing literature.

With a basic understanding of what a literature review is, a novice researcher may remain uncertain about how to create one. A good way to begin the task would be to create an annotated bibliography. Not much in vogue these days, an annotated bibliography adds comments (i.e., annotations) about each source. Those comments are less about the content of the source, for surely you will be taking notes about content. Rather, bibliographic annotations usually cover three issues:

  • a summary of the salient point(s) and the evidence the author provides for support;
  • an assessment of the value and relevance of the source;
  • a statement about the relationship of the source at hand to other sources.

Annotations have varying lengths, but commonly range from a couple of sentences to a short or medium-length paragraph. The annotations do not have to be done all at once, nor are they immutable as if carved in stone.  Rather, they can be edited and modified as you read other sources. After all, this process, too, is part of the dialog of research. Using some form of bibliographic software (e.g. Zotero, End Note, End Note Web, or Mendeley) allows you to store the annotations right on your laptop and have them in the notes field for each source. By weaving together your source annotations, you can create the basis of a functional literature review. It may take some tweaking, editing, or refining, but you are well on the way toward the goal of a workable literature review for your research project.

Do Not Fear the GRE

Our McNair students, across the board, dread the GRE exam.  Even just talking about it in class sends them into a vortex of anxiety and fear.

This is understandable.  The GRE exam is one of those high-stakes hurdles that plays a significant role in an applicant’s graduate school future.  Programs do examine those results closely, no question.

But adding to that understandable and legitimate level of apprehension are two sources of anxiety that are avoidable.  The first is that students overestimate, on occasion, how strict the “cut-off” lines are for GRE scores, in terms of their application’s chances of success.  And the second is that students are led to believe that the GRE is some kind of magical exam that cannot be studied or prepared for.

Both of these impressions are false.

Programs often do not have rigid cut-off points for scores.  Scores are often viewed holistically, in conjunction with the rest of the application.  And also more specifically, in relation to the field of specialization in graduate school.  In other words, for an applicant in the Romance Languages department, the quantitative score will count for precisely nothing.  Even if you fall in the 4th percentile, it still doesn’t hurt you chances.

Other departments are willing to consider lower scores even in the target areas (ie, the verbal score in a languages department), if the score is contextualized by an exceptional record of academic achievement in terms of GPA, research experience, and a clear plan of research.

Regarding the second issue:  the GRE is an exam like any other.  It is not a magic test that reveals some kind of intrinsic “capability” for graduate study, or intelligence, like an IQ test (purports to be).  It is simply an exam of things learned.  You can study for it like any exam.  You can cram for it like any exam.  Plan to do both.  Avail yourself of the many resources available on the GRE website, and at your institution, for GRE preparation.  There are courses, and there are websites, and there are books.  Use them.  Study hard.  Be sure and time yourself, and do the prep within the same time limits as the exam itself, since it is often not the material, but the pace, which derails anxious test-takers.

With plenty of advance preparation and practice, you can pull up your score significantly.

And then, take the test, and move on.  Don’t fret or agonize.  Just pass the hurdle, and move on with your life.

They Are Looking for Reasons to Reject You-And That’s Good News

One of the things that graduate applicants don’t understand about the application process is that it is a very human process on the selection end.

The people who read your application are approximately 5 faculty members who have been tasked with the duty of wading through some 200-1000 applications for admission to their graduate program, and deciding on the final 10-20 applicants who will be admitted.  It is an excruciating and exhausting job.

Understand that these faculty members are not paid extra for this effort.  They come to it after a full day of teaching, grading, preparing lesson plans for the next day’s lecture, enduring a painfully boring faculty meeting, dealing with a distraught student, arguing with colleagues over the curriculum, picking their kids up from daycare, getting them to soccer practice, coming home and starting dinner, eating dinner, cleaning up from dinner, sniping with their spouse over who cleans up from dinner… and then, and only then, sitting down to read through a massive stack of applications (a physical stack in the old days; now a list of computer files).

The fact is, the easiest and most pleasant task of the faculty member is to find a file to reject.  Because fast rejection instantly reduces the pile.  The time consuming part is in the last cut, the cut from 20 to 10 or so.  But the cut of 100 to 20, or 500 to 50—well, that happens fast.  Because it needs to.  Because nobody has time for it to be slow.

Any problems with your application in terms of missing materials, unclear information, or a personal essay that is meandering and vague, means instant reject.  Nobody is going to hunt through your essay for the nugget of genius on page 3.  If they aren’t sold in the first two paras, that tell them precisely who you are, what your grad school goal is, and why you’re qualified to do it (and why you should do it there, at their program), then they aren’t sold at all.

Stories, memories, random philosophical reflections….these lead to rejection.  Clarity, conciseness, a laser-like focus on goals and qualifications—those make the cut.

The good news is:  follow the format for the Admissions essay that is given here, in this post, and you’ll have an essay that does everything it should, quickly, on the first page.



Why You Should Apply to 6-10 Graduate Programs

In my work with McNair students (and indirectly with the larger pool of Trio students) at the University of Oregon, one of the most common things that I hear is:  “I’m thinking of doing a Masters/Ph.D. in xxx at UO/Portland State/Oregon State.”

A statement like this may sound innocuous, but it’s actually a huge red flag.


Because it shows that the student has no idea how graduate school really works.

Undergraduate study is often, for many students–particularly those who are first generation, low income, or underrepresented–all about location. Indeed many of our McNair/Trio students actually start at one of the community colleges near their family’s home, and only later transfer in to the UO to finish out their degree.  This makes sense.  There is a lower barrier to entry if you stick really close to home, and keep things familiar and as inexpensive as possible.

But while that is fine as a logic for your BA, it is disastrous as a logic for graduate school.  Because graduate school decisions must be made on a complex calculus of (in no particular order):

  •  the funding package the program offers you
  • the stature and enthusiasm (for you) of the advisor with whom you’ll be working
  • the status of the department
  • the overall status and reputation of the university
  • the placement rate of the department (ie, how effective it is in placing its MAs/Ph.D.s into jobs)
  • the fit of the department to your scholarly interests

None of those things has anything whatsoever to do with geography.  Indeed, for students in Oregon, which does not have a density of top-ranked research institutions, these criteria usually point directly away from the state.

The fact is, your criteria for choosing graduate school, if you want to have a hope of high-quality permanent employment at the end of it (as a professor or as another kind of professional) must focus on issues of quality of the program, fit with your interests, and financial package.  And these are things that you find when you apply on a national basis.

In addition, you do not know from the outside exactly how enthusiastically a department will respond to your application, or how much funding they have available for you.

This is why in addition to applying nationally, you also apply in quantity.  At McNair our official requirement of our students is that they apply to 6-10 programs.  This is because the so-called “perfect fits” often end up not accepting or funding the student, while the “stretch” programs do.

If you are admitted with generous funding to more than one institution, you CAN negotiate.  You can say to one institution, “I’ve been given xxx funding by institution A.  I’d  prefer to come to your department.  Can you match this offer?”  And some of the time, they will.  And some of the time, they won’t, and then you have to make a hard decision.

But it’s my official position (me being Karen Kelsky) that you should never take out new debt for graduate school.  So the place that funds you well enough to avoid that is the place to go.

And folks in Oregon—sorry, but in our broke state, that will very likely not be anywhere around here.

Graduate School in a Downsizing Academy

The most important step that you can take when considering graduate school is to ask yourself, what is the job that graduate school will prepare me for?

If you are not focused on your post-graduate school goal, then your process of choosing graduate programs, applying to them, picking an advisor, deciding on a dissertation topic, and everything else, will likely be unfocused and relatively ineffective.  One unfortunate outcome for many of those who do not have a clear career goal in their graduate school plan is unemployment accompanied by debt.

The fact is, jobs for Ph.D.s have been evaporating for 40 years, and have now declined to crisis levels.  The reasons for this are the overall disinvestment in higher education in America.  Universities have less money to spend, and less of that reduced amount is spent on teaching per se.  Instead it goes to athletics, student services, and bloated administration.

The quantity of actual permanent tenure-line faculty plummets, as these professors are replaced by short-term contingent instructors known as adjuncts.  Currently the percentage of college instructors who are adjuncts is hovering at about 65%.  Yes, that’s right.  The majority of university faculty are now hired on a part-time basis, with no benefits or job security, and paid just a few thousand dollars a class.  Visit the website of the organization New Faculty Majority to learn more.

In this context, newly minted Ph.D.s struggle to find permanent work–the kinds of full-time faculty positions with benefits that currently account for only about 35% of university teaching positions.  There are vastly, vastly more Ph.D.s than there are jobs for them.

This is where your planning comes into play.  If you are hoping to obtain one of these scarce positions upon completion of your Ph.D., then your strategizing for that outcome must start in your very first year of graduate school.  Actually, the point of this blog post is to tell you that it should start before you enter graduate school.   In fact, you should not choose a graduate program unless it has an excellent and well-publicized record of placement for its Ph.D.s in permanent, tenure-track positions.  Don’t consider attending a graduate program that doesn’t.

In addition, the program must have abundant funding, and be prepared to offer you a multi-year funding package, so that your years of study in the Ph.D. do not leave you with substantial debt.

With a Ph.D. from such a program, you will be situated to be competitive for the few tenure-track jobs that are available when you finish, and you will embark on the next stage of your life without the burden of crushing debt.

This is not the typical path.  The typical Ph.D. student does not know to look for these attributes in Ph.D. programs to which she applies.  She enters the program, dedicates years to it, only to find out at the end that she has been given no meaningful preparation for actually obtaining a permanent, full-time, tenure-track position.   She may have required years of loans to survive.  Proudly submitting her dissertation, she discovers that her applications for tenure-track jobs are rejected one after another.   She finds herself spending semester after semester doing part-time adjunct teaching that doesn’t pay the bills, or allow her time to do the research and writing that are required for a tenure-track job-worthy record.  After some years, she is confronted with the painful choice whether or not to give up on her dreams of an academic career in order to right her financial ship.

I wish this story were the exception but it is not; it is currently the norm.

The way to avoid this outcome is to ensure, as I wrote above, that the doctoral program you enter is doing everything possible to train its graduate students in all of the skills necessary to obtain tenure-track positions.  These include grant-writing, publishing, conferences, and networking, as well as generally keeping a close eye on the state of the job market in the field and evolving hiring priorities, and assisting their Ph.D.s to follow them.

It is not easy to discern whether a graduate program has a commitment to this kind of professionalization training.  Clues to look for include a “placement” page on the website that is up to date, and shows the job placements of recent Ph.D.s.  Also look for workshops dedicated to grant-writing and the job market, and an active brown-bag or seminar schedule that brings top scholars to visit (this promotes networking).   Ask currently-enrolled graduate students whether they are encouraged (and funded) to attend national conferences, and whether the department offers an academic writing seminar and support for publication.  Finally, ask current graduate students and faculty about recent Ph.D.s–where are they now?  If they answer with some version of, “gosh….I don’t really know,” turn on your heel and run in the opposite direction.  Only consider attending a department that has a strong institutional culture of tracking its Ph.D.s and identifying with their success.

It goes without saying that the individual advisor you choose should be looked at in a similar vein.  How good is he at placing his Ph.D.s in tenure-track positions?  If you can’t get a clear answer on that, or if the answer is, “not very,” don’t consider that individual as an advisor.

In all things related to graduate school, remember—you are in the driver’s seat.  Protect yourself.  Departments and advisors may assist you, but your success ultimately rests in your hands alone.

“Is That Your Final Answer” Or, Why Students Ramble

Students tend to ramble.  And the further into their graduate studies they get, the more likely they are to do it.  The question that must be asked is: why?

I was working with a Ph.D. student last week on  interview responses for an upcoming fellowship interview, and for the first time, I understood the answer to this question.

Students ramble because you are afraid to stop talking. Because if you stop talking, then your answer is finished. And if your answer is finished, then you have to commit to it. And it has to sit there, and either be right, or wrong. One way or another, you sink or swim on that answer.

And nobody wants to do that. Nobody wants to be pinned down as having answered a question in one particular way, because what if that way is the wrong way? What if that isn’t what they “want to hear”? So, you say to yourself, somewhere—probably unconsciously– “if I just keep talking, maybe I’ll suss out what they really want to hear, and then I can say that! Because, whatever they want to hear, I’ll say! If I just knew what it was!”

(This is the close cousin to the related problem that students often jump in before the questioner has finished talking. Why? Because you want to look like you “already thought about that,” and “didn’t really need to be asked,” and “really, should and would have said it already if you’d had a chance, but in any case will definitely tell you everything you could possibly want to know about it right now.” Because you’re afraid to look stupid. And if for some reason you left something OUT of your answer, then you have failed to tell them what they “want to hear.” So the slightest peep from the interviewer has to be met with an avalanche of new talking, talking which will surely cover everything they could possibly “want to hear” on the subject.)


Guess what? If you want to have a career in academia, you have to commit to your final answer. You actually have to speak in declarative sentences with a strong falling tone at the end that signals, aurally, the period.

You have to stop, and then wait. Wait while your interlocutor processes what you said, reflects on it, and then responds with thoughts of her own.

And guess what? She might disagree with you. Yeah, she might. And you still have to respond in declarative sentences.

Here’s how this looks, in a sample dialogue drawn from a typical interview scenario for a tenure-track position at a university:

Interviewer: What text would you use for the introductory course?

You: I would use Martindale.

Interviewer: Oh….? Why?

You: Because I think Martindale does the best job of bridging social and political economic viewpoints. He’s not the strongest on contemporary developments, of course, but that can be augmented with other readings. For the basic textbook, I think he gives the best and most thorough overview.

Interviewer: I used Martindale last year and I thought it was terrible. The students hated it. It was disappointing because I’d heard such good things about that textbook.

You: Really? That’s interesting. What happened, do you think? What did the students dislike?

Interviewer: They found his writing too hard to follow, and the format was confusing.

You: Interesting. When I’ve used that textbook students have given it positive feedback. But that may be because I make them study guides of each chapter, and walk them through the chapter the first day we cover it in class, alerting them to the parts to focus on for the lectures and exams.

Interviewer: Ohhhh, what a good idea! I’ll bet that would help. We should talk more! I’m ordering my books for the next term this week, and I’d like to talk with you more about the options.

You: Perhaps over dinner after my talk today? I’ll look forward to it.

OK, what happened here? What happened here is that the interviewee stuck to his guns. He had a position, he stated it clearly, and he defended it. He did not panic and fall down when the interviewer took an opposing viewpoint. And what happened as a result? He had a meaty, substantive exchange with the interviewer that resulted in him coming across as a credible, authoritative and effective teacher. It resulted in a deeply satisfying dialogue. It also ended with the interviewer wanting to know more.

And that, dear readers, is where you want your interviewers to be. You want them eager to know more, and ready to ask for it.

Now, here’s how that usually goes, for the ramblers among you:

Interviewer: What text would you use for the introductory course?

You: I would probably use Martindale, although, you know, there are a lot of good options out there and I’ve heard good things about Nelson, and Richardson, and you know of course, NO textbook really covers everything so you always have to augment, but I’m sure you already know that….!

Interviewer: Ok, ok!  So, anyway, why would you use Martindale?

You: Because I think Martindale is pretty good on social and political economic viewpoints, although, you know, a lot of people say that he’s not that great on contemporary developments, but that isn’t always the main thing, because sometimes I assign other readings for that, like the Patrick piece from the Annual Review, and this great article I found on current theory that was in this one reader out of Routledge, and even though sometimes those are too hard for undergraduates it’s pretty important that they get a sense of the field….so, um, yeah, what was the question?

Interviewer: I used Martindale last year and I thought it was terrible. The students hated it. It was disappointing because I’d heard such good things about that textbook.

You: Oh, wow, really? Oh gosh, I never even thought of that. I wonder if my students thought that? You know, a few of them DID say to me that it was kind of hard to follow and I noticed that their quiz scores were really low in the beginning, so I was trying to figure out what to do, and I thought of maybe making study guides that would help them, so I made some and it seemed to help, but you know, it’s hard to say, and I should really look at some other textbooks, like maybe Nelson, which is what my advisor used when he taught that class and I was his TA, so yeah, I hope maybe I can ask you what has worked for you because you know I’d definitely do whatever was expected for the way the department teaches that class……. you know?

Interviewer: Ummmm, ok. So moving on to the next question….

Here’s what happened in this case. In this case, in the candidate’s abject eagerness to “please” the interviewer and say whatever it is that he thinks she “wants to hear,” he ended up doing several things:

  • overwhelming his interviewer in several panicked, inarticulate monologues.
  • squelching all opportunity for collegial dialogue.
  • undermining his own authority and credibility as a teacher.
  • reinforcing an outdated subordinate identity as a graduate student TA.
  • burying the effective teaching method that he devised to deal with the text, which was creating chapter study guides.
  • boring and alienating the interviewer, who drops the subject and irritatedly moves on to another question.

In short, the panicked, rambly effort to just keep talking until some kind of magic “right answer” will present itself…… that effort is precisely the behavior that bombs the interview and disqualifies the candidate as an effective teacher, a confident professional, and most of all, an appealing colleague.

The fact is, there are not that many “right answers” in an academic setting. Sure, there are sometimes strong ideological orthodoxies that some departments adhere to, and it’s important to keep all of your antennae alert to those. But you can discover many of those by thorough research ahead of time.

The fact is, there are fewer orthodoxies per se, then there are opinions. Because academics specialize in having opinions. And in order for you to make an impression as a credible academic, you too must have opinions, strong opinions, that you’re prepared to state clearly, and defend.

That doesn’t mean being a jerk. The best speaker and scholar is the one who is open-minded and pleasant. But not one who is a doormat, and who is so afraid of offending someone that he literally won’t stop talking because his“final answer” might be wrong.

No, ramblers, that has to stop. Ask yourself, “is this my final answer?” And be ready to say, “yes.”

[This post is adapted from one originally published at Karen Kelsky’s other blog, The Professor Is In.  The opinions expressed on that other blog are those of Karen Kelsky personally and do not necessarily reflect the position of the University of Oregon McNair Scholars program.]

How to Write a Proposal Abstract

Today we look at the paper/conference proposal abstract.  This is a critical genre of writing for scholars in the humanities and social sciences.  Usually between 200 and 500 words long, it is a short abstract that describes research/a talk/a journal article that you are GOING to write.  This is in contrast to the abstract of the research/dissertation/article that you have already written.

Mastering the paper abstract is one of the most important skills you can acquire while still a graduate student.  Learn the tricks of the paper abstract and you have the ticket in hand to a steady ride of conference and publishing opportunities.  These are the conferences and publications that a few years down the line, set your c.v. apart from your peers, and land you that job.


The paper abstract is highly formulaic.  Let’s break it down.  It needs to show the following:

1) big picture problem or topic widely debated in your field.

2) gap in the literature on this topic.

3) your project filling the gap.

4) the specific material that you examine in the paper.

5) your original argument.

6) a strong concluding sentence.


Each of these six elements is mostly likely contained in a single sentence.

Sentence 1:  Big picture topic that is being intensively debated in your field/fields, possibly with reference to scholars (“The question of xxx has been widely debated in xxx field, with scholars such as xxx and xx arguing  xxx]”).

Sentence 2:  Gap in the literature on this topic.  This GAP IN KNOWLEDGE is very, very bad, and detrimental to the welfare of all right thinking people.  This is the key sentence of the abstract. (“However, these works/articles/arguments/perspectives have not adequately addressed the issue of xxxx.”).

Sentence 3:  Your project fills this gap (“My paper addresses the issue of xx with special attention to xxx”).

Sentence 4+ (length here depends on your total word allowance, and more sentences may be possible):  The specific material that you are examining–your data, your texts, etc. ( “Specifically, in my project, I will be looking at xxx and xxx, in order to show xxxx.  I will discuss xx and xx, and juxtapose them against xx and xx, in order to reveal the previously misunderstood connections between xx and xx.”)

Sentence 5:  Your main argument and contribution, concisely and clearly stated. (“I argue that…”)

Sentence 6:  Strong Conclusion!  (“In conclusion, this project, by closely examining xxxxx, sheds new light on the neglected/little recognized/rarely acknowledged issue of xxxxx. ”).


Start by writing out your own version of the sentences above, succinctly if you can, but without stressing about your word limit too much.

Once that is done, edit to your word count.

One of the key points of the paper abstract is that it is very short, and every word must count. No fluff, no filler, no blather.

Remove wordy phrases like, “it can be argued that,” “Is is commonly acknowledged that,” “I wish to propose the argument that”—these are all empty filler. Work in short, declarative sentences.

If you are wondering—how do I make an argument when I haven’t written the paper yet?  Well–that’s the challenge.  Come up with a plausible, reasonable argument for the purposes of the abstract.  If you end up writing something different in the actual paper itself, that’s ok!

Make sure that your final product shows your:

1) big picture

2) gap in the literature

3) your project filling the gap

4) the specific material that you examine in the paper.

5) your argument.

6) A strong conclusion.


For your reference, here are two abstracts that demonstrate how the principles above work.  Each has parts missing, as noted.  Inclusion would have strengthened the abstract:

1.  Access to marriage or marriage-like institutions, and the recognition of lesbian and gay familial lives more generally, has become central to lesbian and gay equality struggles in recent years [Sentence 1–Big problem].  [Sentence 2–Gap in literature MISSING here].  This paper considers what utopian fiction has to offer by way of alternatives to this drive for ever more regulation of the family [Sentence 3–Her project fills the gap]. Through analysis of Marge Piercy’s classic feminist novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, and Thomas Bezucha’s award-winning gay film, Big Eden, alternative ways of conceptualizing the place of law in lesbian and gay familial lives are considered and explored [Sentence 4–Her specific material in the paper]. Looking to utopia as a method for rethinking the place of law in society offers rich new perspectives on the issue of lesbian and gay familial recognition [Sentence 5–Her argument, weak]. I argue that utopian fiction signals that the time is now ripe for a radical reevaluation of how we recognize and regulate not only same-sex relationships but all family forms [Sentence 6– a strong conclusion.].

[Imagining a Different World: Reconsidering the Regulation of Family Lives. Rosie Harding. Law and Literature. Vol. 22, No. 3 (Fall 2010) (pp. 440-462)]

2.  History, it seems, has to attain a degree of scientificity, resident in the truth-value of its narrative, before it can be called history, as distinguished from the purely literary or political [Sentence 1–Big problem]. Invoking the work of Jacques Rancière and Hayden White, this essay investigates the manner in which history becomes a science through a detour that gives speech a regime of truth [Sentence 2–Literature, no gap mentioned]. It does this by exploring the nineteenth-century relationship of history to poetry and to truth in the context of the emerging discipline of history in Bengal [Sentence 3–Her project fills the gap]. The question is discussed in relation to a patriotic poem, Palashir Yuddha (1875), accused of ahistoricality, as well as to a defense made by Bengal’s first professional historian, Jadunath Sarkar, against a similar charge in the context of Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s historical novels [Sentence 4–Her specific material in the paper]. That the relationship of creativity to history is a continuing preoccupation for the historian is finally explored through Ranajit Guha’s invocation of Tagore in “History at the Limit of World-History” (2002) [Sentence 5–Her argument, weakly stated].  [MISSING Sentence 6—a strong  conclusion].

[History in Poetry: Nabinchandra Sen’s “Palashir Yuddha” and the Question of Truth. Rosinka Chaudhuri. The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 66, No. 4 (Nov., 2007) (pp. 897-918)]

Good luck with your abstract!! And be sure and get in touch with Karen at kelsky@uoregon.edu if you need some help.