To be sure, my opinions are not universally shared so take what I say with a big grain of salt. With that caveat (I love saying caveat these days), here are my basic rules of conference proposals:
- If you can organize an entire panel, complete with chair and discussant, do so, as it will save the program organizer work. Plus the panel will be more coherent. Not all panel submissions are accepted but I am pretty sure the rate of success is higher than for lone paper submissions.
- If organizing a panel, have a mix of people--not all grad students from the same department. This actually gives you an excuse to network and meet new people. Identify who does work that is related to what you are doing, and invite them to the panel. Don't be afraid to invite junior AND senior faculty from other places. Many will thank you for taking the lead, saving them from doing the work or risking a lone submission. Ask your adviser or friends for suggestions and even help in getting a discussant (usually cannot be and should not be a graduate student). The bigger the name, the more likely the panel will be accepted.* People like to get a big name to be chair but I never understand that--the chair just keeps the panel running on time (or not).
- If you are on an organized panel, do not also submit the paper individually. You can submit a different paper but do not do the same one twice--more work for everyone.
* Why? Because panel allocations for future years tend to be driven by attendance (ISA is revising its allocation policy this year so this may be less true), and people tend to go to the panels with the bigger names. The bigger names are not always smarter but they tend to be more articulate, which makes for a better panel. Some folks are know to be excellent discussants, which are a rare commodity. They may or may not have big names. Another reason is that program organizers may be more anxious about rejecting a big name.
- Whether you put together a panel or just submit a paper, you have to provide a description of the panel. Try to keep it short and clear. Some program organizers get hundreds of submissions (FPA gets around 500 papers and I forget how many panels). If you have an overly long abstract, it sends a signal that your paper might be very long (I have been a discussant for papers over fifty pages on a few occasions--not fun), and that your presentation may go long.
- So, keep it simple: what is the question, why is it important, what is your answer, how do you propose to test it (that might just be four sentences!).
- The paper is not going to be written until many months from now so you don't have to go into great detail. If you look at articles in journals, notice the abstracts--150-200 words that explain what the paper is. That is the goal (again, this is for poli sci/international studies, I have no clue about history or sociology or econ or whatever else).
- Aim for a title that is clear about the topic but not incredibly boring.
- Some people get really into linking the paper to the grand theme of the conference. For APSA and ISA (I cannot say about other ones), you don't have to match the big theme to get on the program. It can help but pay a bit more attention to the call for the papers that the particular section posts (if they do). Even then, it is better to have a coherent, interesting paper idea than one that is a mess because you tried to tie it to some broader theme that does not fit.
- Do make sure you send it to the right two sections (other associations may have one or three options), with the preferred section first. Do not just submit it to one.