Presenting at academic conferences is an important step take as an early career scholar. Presenting helps us explain complex ideas, respond to unexpected questions, network, and often reshapes our work in response to comments from attendees.
To speak at a conference, you’ll want to find a call for papers (often abbreviated CFP) that addresses questions you’ve been working on. To find CFPs, check your department’s email listserv, as well as those of any professional organizations whose specialties align with your work. You might consider setting up a filter to redirect any email containing the term “CFP” to a separate folder in your email inbox. This way, you can choose to deal with CFPs on a recurring basis rather than the many times a weekday that you’re likely to receive such emails.
Other places to watch for CFPs in the humanities include Penn’s great CFP compiler.
Ask your adviser, mentors, or fellow students in similar areas–and run some Google searches–if you’re not sure of what professional organizations exist for your (sub-)discipline or field. Think both disciplinarily and interdisciplinarily.
Literature students will want to check CFPs posted for upcoming conferences, such as the Modern Language Association conferences. Americanist literature students should check https://www.theasa.net/jobs-opportunities/cfps, while modernists should keep tabs on https://msa.press.jhu.edu/cgi-bin/cfp_archive.cgi.
Be sure also to check the parameters of different conferences, as some conferences guarantee panels before they seek papers to fill them out, while others, like the MLA, seek papers for unguaranteed panels, which then must go on to apply for a position on their program. Also note that some CFPs will ask for paper proposals for pre-formulated panels, while others will ask for proposals for a broader conference whose organizers will later do the work of sorting accepted papers into panels. Relatedly, conference organizers will likely often have a broader vision of what topics may fit their event than panel chairs may have for their intended panel. Know this when drafting your paper proposal.
To select relevant CFPs, think about your work for courses or toward a dissertation. Conference papers ideally will be related to work you are already completing. (Proposal composition can be helpful for other kinds of graduate writing too: When I was beginning to write my dissertation prospectus, I found CFPs asking for work similar to my ideas, and used those CFPs as prompts to write not only the paper proposal but also drafts of my chapter outlines.)
Be wary of applying to conferences solely based on their location. You may have friends living in a town hosting a conference whose subtopics you can use to shape an upcoming seminar paper, for example, but make sure the resulting paper is one that can help scaffold the broader body of work you are trying to produce in graduate school, and that the conference will foster useful discussion for your thinking. If you are a modernist considering writing a paper on classical literature’s influence on Virginia Woolf, for instance, you will probably benefit more from presenting your findings at a conference oriented toward the twentieth century than one hosted by a classics department.
One slight caveat: while the above applies to graduate student conferences, too, if a graduate student conference is conveniently located, I suggest worrying less about whether it matches your niche subfield perfectly. Graduate student conferences, particularly at your home institution, are a great opportunity to practice presenting conference papers in a convivial environment. (Plus, such conferences are often free.)
In addition to taking note of the content of the CFP and the organization sponsoring or hosting the conference, you should also notice whether the conference has a theme. Can the research you are doing fit this theme? It’s okay to skew your academic interests a little bit to suit the criteria of a conference theme, but if you stretch too far, the conversations at the conference may be less helpful to your thinking. Be honest with yourself.
More resources on finding conferences:
UPenn’s CPF collector has great material for humanities and social science, but it is lacking in scientific conferences. You can find it here.
WikiCFP collects CFPs for scientific conferences. Find it here.