From proposal to podium: Tips for getting your abstract accepted at academic conferences

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Charles DeCarlo

Striving for excellence in research is one of the defining characteristics of an academic surgeon. But simply doing great research is not enough. The dissemination of that research through academic forums, presentations and publications is just as critical because others need to share in that research, peer-review it, and, ultimately, implement your findings for the world to become a better place. 

On the personal front, presenting your research at meetings is an excellent way to maximize the exposure of your research, while simultaneously providing a platform for career advancement, networking and collaboration. After a great research project is conceived and completed, the next step is to get your work to an academic conference. But this can be a daunting and confusing task. I am excited to share my tips for success with you for every step in the process.

Choose a project that is both relevant and feasible 

Making your project stand out and be worthwhile starts at the design phase. Your research question should aim to fill a gap in knowledge and not reproduce something that has already been done. However, strictly filling a gap in knowledge may not be enough to earn a plenary presentation. An attractive abstract addresses current events/developments in the field, studies rare disease processes, or introduces or expands on new techniques or methods. 

Producing a methodologically-sound abstract that addresses one of the aforementioned is the best way to secure the podium. 

Before embarking on a project, familiarize yourself with the literature in the field and ascertain exactly where your project fits in. It does not have to be something earth-shattering; simply detailing how new guidelines on a topic impact your local hospitals practices may be enough as long as someone, somewhere will be able to use your research to take better care of patients. To that end, make sure that your project is feasible—it should be something you can complete in the time, and with the money, or resources, allotted to you.

Writing and submitting your abstract

The title, the background/introduction, and conclusion of your abstract are key to piquing interest in your work, while summarizing your key findings and conveying the overarching message. Each of these sections should be concise yet emphasize the significance of your work. While we all strive to have robust and valid methods, the gritty details of your statistical methods do not need to be included in your abstract.

Conferences want their program to include content on a broad array of vascular disease. Try to ensure your research is categorized appropriately, but recognize some categories are harder to be selected for than others simply because the space does not exist on the program. To that end, familiarize yourself with all the conferences in your specialty so you can ensure the maximal chance of acceptance, ideally for a podium presentation.

Prepping for your talk

Congratulations on getting accepted! People have different processes for preparing, so this might not work for everyone. Personally, I write down everything that I am going to say and memorize it rather than relying on presenter mode or written notes. I find that this helps my confidence, improves the flow of the presentation, and allows for better eye contact with the crowd. For your slides: keep it simple. Figures and pictures are good; copious text is not. 

Your big moment

It is hard not be nervous when presenting, especially if it is your first time; however, there are a few things in your favor. First, you know your project and data better than anyone in the crowd. Second, most people who stand up to ask questions have found your project interesting—people very rarely will stand up to attack you. 

Writing the manuscript before your presentation (or at least doing the literature review), and anticipating questions with the help of your mentors, are the best ways to be prepared for discussion of your presentation at the podium. While this is certainly a step outside most people’s comfort zone, it gets easier the more you do it.

The rest of the meeting

Networking is a great way to create new professional relationships, and advance your exposure and career. While there are sometimes organized events to promote, this such as job fairs, most networking opportunities occur outside of the meeting sessions. Welcome receptions, dinners and breaks between sessions are great opportunities to meet people. Conferences should also be an enjoyable experience, so don’t hesitate to set aside time to check out the host cities, meet up with friends, etc. Attendings want to talk and hear from you. 

As a final word, rejection of your abstract from a meeting is not an indication of a poor abstract. Many great abstracts do not make the cut, and everyone has had an abstract rejected that they thought was great. Do not let rejection deter your efforts. Find another meeting and resubmit.

Charles DeCarlo, MD, is a PGY6 integrated vascular surgery resident in the division of vascular and endovascular surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

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