Tag Archives: academic writing

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.


(this post originally published by Karen on http://theprofessorisin.com.)


How Do You Write an Email or Letter to a Professor?

One of the most common points of confusion among undergraduates and new graduate students is how to contact professors to serve as potential faculty advisors.  This can be a minefield.   I have been on the receiving end of many emails from hapless students who clearly had no guidance, and whose communication with me ended up appearing flippant and rude.

Here is that sort of email:

“Dear Professor Kelsky, I am a student at XXX College and I’m thinking about graduate school/doing research on xxx and I’m getting in touch to ask if you can give me any advice or direction about that. Sincerely, student X”

This is an instant-delete email.

Here is what an email to a professor should look like:

“Dear Professor XXX,

I am a student at XXX College with a major in xxx.  I am a junior and will be graduating next May.  I have a 4.0 GPA and experience in our college’s summer program in xxx.

I am planning to attend graduate school in xxx, with a focus on xxx.  In one of my classes, “xxx,” which was taught by Professor XXX, I had the chance to read your article, “xxxx.”  I really enjoyed it, and it gave me many ideas for my future research.  I have been exploring graduate programs where I can work on this topic.

I hope you don’t mind my getting in touch, but I’d like to inquire whether you are currently accepting graduate students.  And if you are, if you’d be willing to talk to me a bit more, by email or on the phone, or in person if I can arrange a campus visit, about my graduate school plans.  I have explored your department’s graduate school website in detail, and it seems like an excellent fit for me because of its emphasis on xx and xx,  but I still have a few specific questions about xx and xxx that I’d like to talk to you about.

I know you’re very busy so I appreciate any time you can give me.  Thanks very much,



Why is this email good?  Because it shows that you are serious and well qualified.  It shows that you have done thorough research and utilized all the freely available information on the website.  It shows that you have specific plans which have yielded specific questions.  It shows that you are familiar with the professor’s work.  It shows that you respect the professor’s time.

All of these attributes will make your email and your name stand out, and exponentially increase your chances of getting a timely, thorough, and friendly response, and potentially building the kind of relationship that leads to a strong mentoring relationship.

If the professor doesn’t respond in a week or so, send a follow up email gently reminding them of your initial email, and asking again for their response.  If they ignore you again, best to probably give up.  But professors are busy and distracted, and it may take a little extra effort to get through.

Good luck!

Karen’s Foolproof Research Proposal Template

Unveiled here:  Karen’s Famous and Foolproof Research Proposal Template.

This Research Proposal Template has won hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money for multiple graduate students and scholars in the social sciences and humanities over the past 15 years.

You may share, but please credit Dr. Karen Kelsky of the McNair Scholars Program at the University of Oregon (see also at The Professor Is In, http://www.theprofessorisin.com).

Let’s walk through this step by step.

The first step is to identify what large general topic of wide interest that your specific project relates to.  These are topics that anyone, including your grandmother or someone sitting next to you on a plane, would say, “oh, yes, that’s an important topic.”  Examples include:  immigration, sustainable energy, changes in the family, curing cancer, new social technologies, environmental degradation, global warming, etc. Until you can identify a really broadly interesting theme that your project relates to, you will never be successful in applying for grants.

This is because your application must *excite* the readers, and the readers are likely from a range of different disciplines.  They will not all be interested in your discipline’s narrow debates.  They want to know that your work and your intellectual and scholarly vision are wide, and broad, and encompassing.

Once you have established your wide, much debated, topic, you then identify two bodies of literature relevant to your own training that dealt with this topic.

If you are an anthropologist, and your research is on Haitian communities in New York City, for example, you will start by pointing to the wide debates on immigration in America.  Then you will write, “scholars in many fields have addressed these important questions.  Within cultural anthropology, scholars such as xxx, xxx, and xxx have all explored the role of cultural beliefs in shaping immigrant communities.  Within Caribbean Studies, meanwhile, scholars such as xxx, xxx, and xxx have focused on the specific demographic and economic trends which have fueled outward migration.”


This brief survey will be no more than 3 sentences long. And indeed all of the above must be done in two paragraphs and no more.  Complain, claim that it is “impossible,” and then get it down to two paragraphs.  Because it is only the Introduction to the “Kicker” Sentence, the axis on which your entire appeal for funding rests. And the Kicker Sentence must be on the first page.

The Kicker is your “HOWEVER” sentence.   The “however” sentence is the crux and the anchor of your entire proposal.


It reads like this:

“However, none of these works have addressed the central question of XXXXXXXX.”

XXXXXXX in this case is YOUR view of what is most essential to an accurate understanding of the big topic, but which  has never to date been studied by anyone else.

This brings you to the GAP IN KNOWLEDGE:  “Despite much excellent work on themes such as XXX and XXX, scholars examining the transformations in immigration in America have not yet fully explored the importance of XXXX in creating and sustaining these communities.”

Now for the URGENCY:

“Yet, without such an understanding, we are left with an inadequate analysis that creates the condition for ill-informed policy decisions and a self-sustaining cycle of misunderstanding and resentment….”


“This study will remedy this gap in the literature by examining the class and racial politics of an immigrant Haitian community in New York City in order to more fully elucidate the heretofore unrecognized relationships between XXX and XXXX in one highly contested immigrant context. ”


Remember, YOU are the HERO who is going to save us from ourselves and our inadvertant but devastating ignorance about the true significance of XXX!


This is immediately followed by a CONCRETE AND UNMISTAKABLE STATEMENT OF YOUR RESEARCH PROJECT (One of the most common grant proposal mistakes is to never include a single and foregrounded, easily identified sentence encapsulating your research project) :

” This study will focus particularly on XXX.  Through a close and fine-grained analysis of XXX, I will show  that in contrast to previous assumptions, in fact immigrant communities are XXXXXX.”


The rest of the essay then provides substantiating evidence.  In other words, concrete evidence that the project is doable, by you, according to reasonable and well thought out disciplinary methods and timeline.

SPECIFICS:  This is one to two paragraphs of more specific information about the background, context, history, and limitations of the research.  This demonstrates that you’ve looked into the project thoroughly and are familiar with it from several angles.

LITERATURE REVIEW:  This builds on the very brief references in the first paragraph, and demonstrates that you have, in fact, read the major literature related to this topic.  All citations must be complete and correct.  Zero tolerance for misspellings or typos.  All sources MUST, without exception, be listed on the attached bibliography.

METHODOLOGY:  These are the specific methods that you will use to conduct the research.  These differ by discipline.

TIMELINE:  This is a month-by-month (or week-by-week) plan of research.  What will you do when?  Be specific!  Name dates!

BUDGET:  This is a general list of costs and any already committed funding sources.  Break down your legitimate research expenses, including lab supplies, field supplies, travel both large and small, books and materials, internet or computer access fees, etc.

All of this substantiating evidence is meant to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you will CORRECTLY UTILIZE the grant money once you receive it.

Finally, you cannot finish without a  STRONG CONCLUSION.  Even one sentence suffices, but do NOT neglect to include it.  It may read like this:  “I expect this research to contribute to debates on XXXXX and play an important role in shaping debates on XXXX and XXXX in the coming years.”

This Conclusion demonstrates that you are a master of both the micro and the macro implications of your project.  You have an unassailable timeline and budget, but you also have your eye on the wider scholarly world and your role in it.

Do all of this, my friends, and you will walk away with generous, abundant funding for your every project.  You will have the leisure to do the best work, and the best work will in turn legitimize you for the next major grant for which you apply.  You will be on the “GRANT GRAVY TRAIN“, and that is the key to the most successful and fulfilling academic careers.

The A+ Graduate School Essay

As we continue on our path of learning the strategies for success in applying to graduate school, I will now introduce your guide to all things personal essay-related:  The A+ Graduate School Essay.  This pamphlet summarizes my years of wisdom and advice related to writing the personal essay.

As I wrote in yesterday’s post, the personal essay for your graduate school application is the single most important element of the application, and arguably the single most important piece of writing that you will do in the early part of your career.

The A+ Graduate School Essay teaches you the key things you need to know to write a brilliant personal essay.

A spectacular essay will be instrumental in bringing you years of graduate funding in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A mediocre essay will play a large role in consigning you to a graduate school life of overwork and debt.

And of course a really poor essay will keep you from entering graduate school at all.

This pamphlet summarizes the core techniques for writing the essay that will get you admission WITH FUNDING!   Share freely, but if you repost, please give full credit:  “Written by Karen Kelsky, Ph.D., McNair Program, University of Oregon [with this URL]”

Read and learn!  And comment!  I want to hear your thoughts!

The A+ Graduate School Essay

How Much Time Should You Spend on Your Graduate School Application?

One of the most frequent questions I get when I advise undergraduate students considering graduate school is:   how much time should I spend on my graduate school application, especially my personal essay?

The short answer is:  two months.

You should plan to spend at least two months working on your personal essay/statement of purpose for your graduate school application.

Why two months? 

Because the best essays get you into the best programs with the best funding package.

Let’s break it down.

Consider that even the most minimal funding package includes a tuition waiver and a stipend.

For the sake of argument, let’s value the tuition waiver at $12,000 annually, the cost of graduate tuition at a moderately priced state university.   Let’s assume a 40%  TA appointment, which carries a stipend, again at mid-level state university rates, of approximately $15,000.  Together, these equal $27,000 a year.  Keep in mind that the vast majority of graduate programs end up funding multiple years (even when they don’t guarantee it up front).  Rarely does a student enjoy funding one year only to have it withdrawn the next.  So, multiply $27,000 by five years (a very abbreviated Ph.D program indeed!), and you come to $135,000.

Now consider the amount of work that went into your application.  Say, for the sake of argument again, that you spend 2 hours a day, 7 days a week, for two months.  At 10 hours a week for 8 weeks, you have dedicated 112 hours of work.

That comes to about $1200 per hour of work.

Is $1200 an hour an outcome you can get behind?

Now let’s dream bigger.  Suppose your stellar essay gets you into a private university with an abundant endowment.  Their graduate students enjoy multiple year funding with NO teaching requirement!   Your 5 years of funding could now encompass tuition waivers worth $40,000 annually and $30,000 in stipend.  $70,000 a year for 5 years?  $350,000 in funding.  For 112 hours of work.

Is almost $3200 an hour an outcome you can get behind?

Get to work on that essay.

Expect to put it through 20 or more drafts.

Expect to show it to 10+ readers. Make sure these readers are professors and advisors at your university.  Pull every string you can to obtain help.

Make sure to have it read by faculty and advisors in different academic fields and subfields, to ensure it speaks across a broad audience.

Expect to labor over EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE.

In fact, expect to labor over every single word.

Include not one wasted word, not one line or phrase that does not communicate something specific about your and your plans, that does not advance your core theme and argument, and that does not SHOW (rather than TELL) your exceptional and concrete plans, preparation, and aspirations.

Expect to see your wonderful, compelling, original draft, that you slaved over for hours, torn apart, criticized, and rejected by your academic readers.  Expect to tear your hair out and maybe shed tears.

Expect to pound your breast and claim that it is “impossible” to say all you “need” to in “only two pages.”

Then, get it down to two pages.

There is no single endeavor that you will engage in, possibly in your entire working life, that will yield such generous, abundant, and life-changing results as your graduate school essay.  Write a stellar one and a path to success opens, bringing with it the time and leisure to truly relish graduate school and think the great thoughts and attend the local and national events that lead to brilliant dissertations and jobs.

Write a mediocre one and the path may still lead to graduate school, but a graduate school that carries with it the stress of indebtedness and the strain of overwork as a inadequately funded Teaching Assistant.

Naturally, a bad one will not lead to graduate school at all.

Now, get to work on that essay.

What’s the Difference Between an Assistant, Associate and Full Professor? And Why Should You Care?

Do you know the difference between assistant, associate and full professors?    And most importantly, do you know why it matters to YOU when you are looking for people to write your letters of recommendation for graduate school?

An assistant professor is a faculty member who does not yet have tenure.  This probationary period lasts for 6 years in most cases.

An associate professor is a faculty member who has received tenure.

A full professor is a faculty member who has received tenure and who has produced a significant body of work post-tenure to qualify to be promoted to the highest faculty status.

All three of these kinds of professors are legitimate, full-time faculty members who can serve as your advisors and write your letters of recommendation.

While full professors have the most status to bring to their letters, an assistant or associate professor who knows your work intimately and enthusiastically supports you may well write a more effective letter.  The key is that the best letter will be specific, detailed, substantial in length, and warmly focused on you and your talents and potential.  A letter that is short, vague, and general, even if written by a high status professor, will ultimately carry less weight.

If you have a full professor writing you that lengthy, detailed, specific, and warm letter, then you’re golden!

Secrets of Good Academic Writing: Techniques from “When Writers Write,” by Kathleen MacDonald

Academic writing differs from literary writing in that it does not need to be dramatic.  Like all writing, however, it still needs to sustain the reader’s interest.  Academic writing is not inherently “dry”; it can, and should, move with energy, shine with clarity, and intrigue with precision.

The litmus test for every academic sentence is:  does this sentence advance my main point?

The sentences and paragraphs in question may be providing background information,  historical context,  methodology, or literature review.  It does not matter.  Every sentence must, in its own way, advance the core central point of the paper.

In the blog, over the next few weeks, I will be sharing points about good academic writing drawn from Kathleen MacDonald’s excellent textbook, When Writers Write (1987).

She does a fine job of breaking the subject down into a manageable number of core points that graduate school-minded students can absorb and master as they make their way through their term papers, honors papers, theses, personal essays for graduate school, and other writing.

Today we are sharing parts of MacDonald’s “Academic Writing Checklist” about knowing your reader, ie, YOUR PROFESSOR.

"Convince me"

She is particularly good at explaining  the psychology of the American university professor sitting down to read a student’s paper:

The secret of good academic writing – the type you often have to do for history, psychology, and
other courses – is the assumptions you make about the person reading your paper. In academic
writing, it’s best to assume that the person reading and grading your paper is not your real teacher
but is someone we’ll call your teacher’s twin. Not only does your teacher’s twin not know who
you are, he or she also:

1. Is impressed by new, original ideas and is turned off by mere summary of what’s been said in
class or what the book itself says. (The exception to this is if your teacher has specifically asked
for a summary.)
2. Initially disagrees with your ideas/interpretations/reactions.
3. Can be persuaded to agree with you if you give enough evidence and explain logically enough.
4. Resents being told to take your word for anything – and so expects precise, detailed proof,
often including page references and enough documentation (title of book, author, etc.) so
he/she can look things up for him/herself.
5. Is insulted if you do not anticipate and answer his/her intelligent questions and objections.

Professors can be skeptical and crabby.  But they are readily impressed by original ideas concisely stated and well defended.   Imagine their objections in your mind as you write (granted, you may not be able to anticipate them all and that’s ok), and produce writing that anticipates and answers them!