To Conference, or Not to Conference? - Tips and Tricks for Medical Students

Osmosis Team
Nov 6, 2014

By William Gunther
Edited by Myles McKittrick

Medical school is not all about studying your life away (that’s only about 99% of it!). But for those of you who are looking for a guilt free way to get out of the books while being able to meet fellow medical students, learn about different fields, network with residencies, and actually have some FUN, then attending a conference is a great option. Having just attended my second conference as a med student, I thought I would post a few tips and suggestions that should be somewhere in your mind as you ponder getting out of your comfort zone and attending your first conference.

1) Don’t Let The Opportunity Pass By (Unless You Need To)
Attending a conference as a medical student is an amazing opportunity! It is vital to remain an active part of your profession, and conferences will be a huge part of continuing your medical education. But KNOW THIS- Your academics are always your first priority. So if you are having academic difficulty or a big exam immediately following the date the conference is held, I would probably hold off on any plans to attend. Planning your studying in advance is also key in order to maximize your conference availability. Tackle your courses in bite sized chunks, making studying manageable on the go and not the end of the world if you miss a couple days. Of course if you can’t make the upcoming date, there is always next year.

2) Attend for Free!
Strapped for cash? Don’t fret! Oftentimes schools set aside money or scholarships to pay for students to attend certain conferences or, if not, school clubs (such as AMSA, AMA, SOMA…) usually budget or receive funding to send students to their respective national conventions. Registration fees for most conferences are usually waived for students, so even if you aren’t getting any financial help, at least you only have to worry about airfare and hotel expenses.
3) Pick A Field You Are Interested In (Or Not)
If you are interested in applying for a neurology residency, it would be a good idea to attend a conference such as one hosted by the American Academy of Neurology before you graduate. But what if you are on the fence about radiology? Attending the Radiological Society of North America meeting would be a great way to get exposed to a field quickly and see if it is worth pursuing further. You aren’t a resident yet, so use every opportunity available to broaden your horizons before you send out applications. Plus, it can give you something interesting to talk about during your interview!

4) Pack Smart
So you bought your ticket and booked your flight & hotel; the only thing left is figuring out what to bring with you. Bring the usual toiletries such as toothpaste, deodorant, and toothbrush, most hotels usually provide shampoo. Bring enough professional attire for each day of the conference, but don’t forget to bring a few casual/out on the town items as well. If you don’t have a garment bag to keep your clothes from getting wrinkled, don’t worry, hotels usually provide an ironing board/iron in the closet. Regarding your white coat, the general rule of thumb is to not bring it unless you are presenting at the conference. As I was eloquently told, wearing your white coat at a conference makes you “look like a nerd”.
5) Attend Lectures……
Conferences usually host world-renowned speakers and guests, so getting to hear about a new surgical procedure by the doctor who actually pioneered it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Sure, as a first-year a lot of the medical lingo is going to go straight over your head, but don’t let that discourage you. Some of those words are sinking in, and they could be invaluable when it comes to exam/rotation time.
6) ……But Not TOO many Lectures
Usually conferences take you to a new city or locale you have never been to before, so don’t spend your whole time in the convention halls! Take a day or two to go out and explore your surroundings. Go on a few tours, visit landmarks, or go shopping. It’s important to not let your time feel like just another few days in lecture. Get out, have some fun, come back refreshed.
7) Network, Network, Network!
I highly recommend bringing a set of student business cards with you to conferences, as it is a prime opportunity to network with some of the most important people in your field. Don’t be afraid to walk right up to people you don’t know and introduce yourself! Even though residency is still very far off for first and second years, it is still never a bad thing to have physicians in charge start to get to know your face. Alumni from whatever institution you attend will most likely be there as well, so hunt them down for any tips or opportunities to grab some letters of recommendation. Networking doesn’t end with physicians either, take this opportunity to get to know medical students from other schools and start establishing those nationwide connections. It’s always nice to find other people going through the same ordeal you are.
8) Present a Research Poster
Poster presentations are a great way to share your research findings with others and many conferences usually have some sort of poster presentation area. So if you are doing research in medical school, feel free to draft up a poster and present! It looks great on a resume, plus it could be a great way to get your school to sponsor your trip.

9) Get ALL THE SWAG
Swag or “stuff we all get” refers to the freebies that usually populate the exhibitor booths at any conference. While medical conferences don’t have the swag on par with entertainment conventions like Comic Con, they still have plenty of free stuff that you can get your hands on. If you leave a conference and actually have to buy a pen in the next six months, you are doing it wrong!

                                       My OMED Conference haul. So…many….umbrellas.

10) Have Fun
If you are a medical student (current or prospective) these four years will be the most difficult of our lives. Whether it’s the course load or just the disconnect from friends and family, it is easy to feel overwhelmed a
nd isolated. Take the opportunity to attend a conference as both a way to achieve some professional development in your medical career as well as a way to let off some steam, make new friends, and have fun.