I have taken students to two national conferences and ~4 of the students have presented at our campus wide undergraduate research conference. In one instance, all four of the undergraduates in our group were presenting a poster together and so we were wrapping all of their work into one abstract. In all of the others, the abstract writing was more traditional, each person was putting together an abstract for their own work. In all of these instances though, I went about this process the same way: with lots of examples from my own work and lots of iterations.
Step 1: reviewing my conference abstracts. Conference abstracts are a little different than abstracts one might write for a paper. For one thing, they have to be pitched so that they fit in with a theme, and for another thing they have to be descriptive, but not overly wordy (which should be a goal of MS abstracts – but that’s not always how it works). Therefore, I begin each conference season with showing students many examples of my own conference abstracts and explaining how this process works. I will often bring up my abstracts with a group of undergraduate students and show them how many introductory sentences I wrote, how far I went into the results (i.e. how much detail), and how much summary I put in at the end.
Step 2: finding a session. I like to help students find a session, especially at the national conferences. When I was an undergrad, I was left to my own devices at my first national conference. As a cave scientist, I ended up in a volcanology poster session. I also didn’t register for the conference (as I thought that the cost of submitting the abstract was the registration) until I was at the conference, and I ended up staying >1 hr of a train ride away. Anyway, help your students. You can do this as a group with other undergraduates or first year grad students. Explain what the sub-discipline codes are in your field, how you find sessions that are within the field of interest for your discipline, and how to read session proposals. Guide them into a group of sessions that seem appropriate and then let them decide. Help them out!
Step 3: Reading other abstracts. One thing I like to ask students to do is to find a session from the previous years’ conference that is similar to the one they chose, and then read some of the abstracts from that session. This gives them a sense of how other scientists respond to session proposals and the range of ways scientists write conference abstracts.
Step 4: Set them loose. If you are following this blog, then you would have seen a previous post about “working the sentences (link)", an activity which helps students with their first abstract. You can have students tweak their abstract, that they have already written, to fit the conference session. Or, you can start with that exercise again, with the conference session in mind for how they write the first and last sentence of the abstract. This might be up to how the project has gone so far, maybe their first attempt at an abstract doesn’t work anymore for the project.
Step 5: Iterate on the writing. This is the first time, for many students, that their scientific writing will be reviewed by a wider audience than just you. Make sure they understand the importance of what they are doing, without making them feel embarrassed or stressed about the prospect. One way that you can relay importance is by iterating their work with them – making sure that they know that you are helping them improve so that the wider audience in question will understand what they are saying. When you are giving feedback, remember to take the time to explain why you want to change something or why wording it differently makes more sense. This will involve you students in the editing process.
Step 6: Submit! The most fun part – hopefully you already have a plan for paying for the abstract submission (if needed) and your students are proud of the work they have done. Submitting is a wonderful step into their first adventure at sharing their findings with the scientific community, make sure you give them space to celebrate!
I am a Ph.D. Candidate who actively tries to create an equitable and enriching experience for undergraduate researchers, I post weekly about the things I teach and my experiences with undergraduates.