Congrats! You wrote an abstract or paper proposal based on one of your dissertation chapters, you submitted it to a conference – and you got accepted! But now the hard work begins: you need to take your dissertation chapter and transform it into a conference presentation. How can you possibly distill down all of the complex ideas contained in your chapter into a short, 20-minute-long presentation? And how can you ensure that your audience understands your argument?

A Conference Paper and a Dissertation Chapter are Different Species of Writing

First things first: you need to accept that you can’t pack all of the ideas and concepts contained in a dissertation, or even a dissertation chapter, into a conference paper. And you don’t have to: the conference paper and the dissertation chapter are different types of writing, designed to do different things. Your dissertation chapters are the culmination of years of work. They need to document all of the primary source research that you conducted, all of the secondary sources that you engaged with, and they need to articulate your contribution to your field. They’ll contain the results of complex qualitative or quantitative research and data analysis, literature reviews, and descriptions of methodology. In a conference presentation you don’t have hundreds of pages to prove a point, and so much of the background and context to your argument needs to be set aside. Think of your conference paper as your opportunity to make a splash: it’s your chance to tantalize other scholars by presenting them with one or two coherent and exciting ideas drawn from your dissertation research.

The Conference Paper is Just the Teaser

One of my dissertation advisors gave me this piece of advice: think of the conference paper as a teaser. It’s a tantalizing glimpse or taste of the completed work. You can’t include all of your ideas in it. This guide from the University of North Carolina recommends that you limit the information that you include in your conference paper. You need to pick your most compelling points so that the people who hear your paper will want to rush out and read more of your research.

Choose One Idea to Focus On

Once you start to think of a conference paper as a teaser, the process of turning a dissertation chapter into a presentation becomes more manageable. When you’re choosing how to focus a conference presentation, choose one or two main ideas or arguments to structure your presentation – don’t try to pack too much in. Ask yourself: what points will make people most interested in reading my entire dissertation? What is the most compelling or original point that I make in this dissertation chapter? What would I want to hear about if I were in an audience? Get a Life, PhD has some great tips on just how to focus and structure your conference presentation.

Choose Compelling Examples or Data

Once you’ve chosen your argument, select the most compelling examples or data that help to illustrate your point. You won’t have time to talk about every piece of data – so choose those that are the most interesting and effective.

But Don’t I Have to Prove That I’ve Done My Research?

Many worry that they need to show that they’ve done their homework: that they know all the of the scholarship on their topic inside and out. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in conference presentations that are far too heavy on background and literature review-type material. While you may need to provide some of this context in your conference paper, the key is to do it strategically and to keep the focus on your original argument. If you’re referring to other scholars’ work in your presentation, paraphrase instead of quoting at length – that way, you maintain your own narrative voice. You can also demonstrate your knowledge of your field by providing conference attendees with a handout listing a selected bibliography. It’s a way of demonstrating that your project is in conversation with other scholars’ work without devoting too much presentation time to other scholars’ work.

Need help turning a dissertation chapter into a conference paper? Our expert PhDs are here for you! We can help you revise and edit your presentation, and even help maximize the impact of your powerpoint slides. We can also assist with copyediting and formatting bibliographies and handouts. Beyond conference papers, we provide dissertation services that will take you from the proposal stage to your defense. Contact us for more information about dissertation editing, dissertation consulting, dissertation formatting, data analysis, and research services from our team of expert PhDs.