Conference Confidential: Insider Tips and Strategies for Success

Last Updated on June 23, 2022 by Laura Turner

​Conferences are to medicine as trade shows are to business. Love them or hate them, you’d be hard-pressed to make it through four years of medical school without attending at least one. If you’re productive in research, avoiding them is frankly impossible. From the largest of annual meetings to the smallest of regional symposiums, conferences can be very intimidating for the uninitiated.

Attending a conference requires learning a whole new set of rules and skills. Master these, however, and the experience can be one of the most valuable of your entire four years. This article will get you started with an overview of how to pick the conference you attend, what to do while there, and how make the most of it through valuable networking.

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Picking the Perfect Conference

First things first, why even go to a conference? Most often, students will have submitted an abstract and been accepted to present their research as a poster or oral presentation. Alternatively, you might attend for the educational opportunity or to meet others in your field of interest. Less commonly, a student might be involved with planning the conference or some small part of it, such as a session or panel. Whatever brings you, conferences are an incredible opportunity to immerse yourself in your chosen specialty, meet and network with leaders in the field, and get valuable feedback on your research projects.

So you’ve decided on going to a conference, but how do you pick the right one? Assuming you plan to present research, you’ll want to find one that thematically lines up with what you want to submit. Start by looking up the annual meeting of the specialty that your research fits into best and add to the list any affiliated regional meetings that are coming up in your area. You may even consider a few specialties; for example, urology research would fit well at the annual meetings of both the American Urological Association and the American College of Surgeons. Next, try to dig up a list of smaller meetings with topics that fit your work. If you’re hitting a brick wall, asking your school’s research office for leads or getting on a few academic email lists can be a great way to discover new opportunities.

In general, conferences fall into one of three tiers: local, regional, and national meetings. As you go up the hierarchy, they get larger in both size and prestige. A presentation at your specialty’s national conference will be more impressive on your CV than one at a small local poster session, mainly because larger conferences are much more selective in accepting abstracts. Still, each size has its own benefits. The smaller ones are much more intimate, making it easy to meet and talk with physicians, while the larger ones can leave you drifting anonymously in the crowd. Furthermore, the narrow scope of many local and regional conferences might fit your abstract’s theme best, and starting small is a great way to build a foundation before testing your presentation skills at a national meeting.

Once you’ve whittled away the options and have a short list, get your abstract ready in accordance with the conference’s instructions, and be sure to submit by the deadline. Etiquette is very important here. Namely, it is often considered taboo to submit the same work to multiple conferences in the same tier. However, presenting work at different levels is usually considered more acceptable for a student. For example, you might submit to the specialty’s annual meeting and hedge your bet by also submitting to a local conference. If the annual meeting rejects you, it’s likely you’ll still have the opportunity to present at the local one. Best case scenario, you get into both and the local presentation helps you to garner feedback and revise your work prior to the big stage.

Making the Most of the Meeting

Planning ahead and putting in a bit of work prior to leaving for your conference goes a very long way. Smaller meetings are a piece of cake, as only one schedule exists and all attendees will be at the same sessions each day. Put another way, you go where you’re told. Larger meetings can be pretty chaotic though, with hundreds of different sessions each day that you’re free to jump into at will or RSVP for as needed. Walking into one of these huge national meetings and being handed a 300-page program can be a little daunting, but if you prepare beforehand it won’t even phase you.

For all conferences, large or small, your first step is to figure out who will be there and make a list of people you’d like to meet. Generally, this list will consist of program directors and department chairs from residencies you plan to apply to. You may also want to tack on leaders in the field, authors of papers you’ve read, or even connections you’ve made online (never underestimate the utility of #MedTwitter) but have yet to meet in person. Lastly, don’t forget to check in with friends and colleagues from other schools to ensure you can run into each other and reconnect.

Putting this list together can usually be accomplished by searching the conference website for an agenda and combing through it for speaker names you recognize. Before doing this, rapidly skim residency website for faculty and program director names if you don’t know them off the top of your head. Larger conferences such as annual meetings often have an app that you can download, which is truly a godsend. Punch a name into the app and it’ll instantly tell you if the person is a registered attendee and whether they have any presentations lined up that you can go to. If so, be sure to work these into your schedule and stay after to introduce yourself.

The next step for large meetings is to figure out a rough outline of which sessions you’d like to attend each day. Doing so will make that phone book of a program seem much less fearsome and allow you to wake up relaxed and ready to go each day. Start by earmarking all the sessions being led by the people you want to meet, and then flesh things out by looking day by day for interesting talks that you can attend. The plenary sessions (AKA the main stage) are often the most cutting edge, but be sure to explore smaller venues as well. You don’t have to stick to this schedule religiously once you’re there, but having a game plan will make for a much better experience than showing up wide-eyed and just winging it. 

Once you get there, head straight to registration to pick up your badge and free goodies and then wander the conference a bit to get your bearings. The national meetings are often in buildings the size of airplane hangars and knowing your way around from day one will save you time and trouble throughout the trip. Be sure to check out the exhibition area, where companies set up elaborate booths and give out tons of free loot and snacks. These booths are great for practicing skills and playing with all the latest technology as well. At surgery meetings, for example, you’ll find arcade-esque laparoscopic and robotic simulation stations set up as far as the eye can see. 

Finally, if you have a presentation coming up, be sure to find your session’s room and take some time in the hotel or a nearby coffee shop to practice, practice, practice. Nothing will spoil a great trip more than agonizing over your performance. Get this prep out of the way on the flight there or the first night, and make sure you’ve got it down cold so that you have no regrets once you’re through. For more on poster and oral presentations, check out the links cited earlier.

The Power of Networking

One of my first mentors in medical school, an M4 at the time, sat down with me a few months in and laid out the most useful lessons he’d learned over the years. In particular, his words on networking have stuck with me to this day. “Most people are intimidated by interview season,” he said. “Now imagine that instead of sitting down in front of a scowling, scrutinizing interviewer, you were just shooting the breeze with an old friend?” That right there is the power of proper networking.

Conferences are a goldmine for making valuable connections, especially as a student. Networking is one of those X-factors that can really make a difference for residency if done right. However, few students realize this and even fewer properly take advantage. Lucky for you, being one of those few can instantly set you apart from the pack. Head into your conference with a networking game plan, and you’ll emerge on the other side with connections that might just help you get into your dream program.

Start by making a list of those people you already know you want to meet, as mentioned previously. Really do your homework here, finding out who the big names are not only in the field but also at the programs you’d eventually like to apply to. This might be your only chance to meet these people before interview season, so be exhaustive and then dive into the meeting’s app or agenda to see if they’ll be in attendance. If you already have connections, it never hurts to drop them a quick email asking if they’ll be there and offering to meet up briefly to reconnect.

Once you’re there, throw any shy or modest tendencies to the wind. If you’re not comfortable approaching somebody and introducing yourself, take a deep breath and find a way to do it anyway. Go to talks given by those you want to meet, and stay after to chat with them. State who you are and how interested you are in their work or their program. Don’t be overbearing, as they likely care much less about you than you do about them, but simply making that human connection goes a long way in being remembered. If you strike up a conversation but want to respect their time, offer to walk and talk. Lastly, thank them for their time and mention that you’ll look out for them at future meetings.

If conferences are where the seeds are planted, social media is where the watering occurs. The last thing you want is to make a great connection, only to have it dry up and be forgotten. Twitter has become incredibly popular in medical and research fields and is a great way to remind your network that you exist by posting, liking, and retweeting professional content. Other platforms also come in handy, such as ResearchGate and LinkedIn. However you keep in touch, make sure it reflects you well and always keep your personal, political, and religious views out of it.

Plan ahead and network efficiently, and the team of people willing to help you advance your career will grow with each conference you attend. Manage these relationships with tact, and don’t be afraid to reach out when you have something to ask for help with. Odds are, they’ll be glad to assist that bright young student who showed so much drive and initiative at the conference.

Armed with this roadmap, you should be more than prepared to make your next conference far more than just a free trip. Treat each day as an opportunity, a blank check, and make a concerted effort to walk away each evening having gained something of value. Whether it’s knowledge or networking you seek, conferences are one of the best opportunities to make it happen. Make the most of every minute, and you’ll reap the benefits when it comes time to apply for residency. Most importantly, never buy coffee while you’re there. The big pharmaceutical companies all give it out for free in pop-up cafes that put Starbucks to shame.

Welcome to “Research for the Rest of Us”, a column about navigating the complex intricacies of life in the lab. These articles aren’t for the superhuman Nature-publishing, Nobel Prize-winning MD/PhDs out there, but rather for the rest of us: the Average Joes simply trying to get our feet wet in research. Join us as we journey through this complex world of academic adventures, from picking a project to matching into your dream residency and everything in between.