Getting the Most Out of a Professional Conference - Before You Graduate

Gary Li

Gary Li , MD

Regional Director

Published September 01, 2015

ACEP15 is just two months away, and I'm already counting down the days. It's always fun to reconnect with friends and hear the latest developments in emergency medicine.

For me, a major highlight of any conference is meeting the residents who attend. They're usually excited about medicine, patient care and making a difference. Their enthusiasm and idealism are contagious, and I often come away from our conversations feeling invigorated and reminded of our "noble cause."

At the same time, it may take a bit of courage for residents and students to rub elbows with practicing professionals. (Yes, I do remember.) And if you're hoping to make connections that will help you land that all-important first job, the pressure's even greater.

That being said, conferences of all specialties offer a wealth of opportunity for residents and health professions students. In this post, I'll share some thoughts on how to get the most out of your conference experience.

Why Go?

Of course, professional conferences offer a plethora of educational opportunities. For residents and students, sessions on operational and process improvement, management, finances and career development might be particularly interesting, since these are often not covered in training.

Another important reason to attend conferences before graduation is to enhance your job search. Networking (at conferences and elsewhere) can help you to evaluate an organization's caliber and how well its values align with your own. Unfortunately, when it comes to choosing a first employer, healthcare providers don't have great track record. Research suggests that a significant percentage of physicians (over half in some specialties) leave their first job within a few years.

So why is this? One mistake new professionals sometimes make is to prioritize geography when evaluating opportunities. Though location is clearly one factor in a job search , a recent survey by the recruiting firm Jackson & Coker found that those who prioritized "quality of practice" stayed the longest in their first jobs.

Conferences can also help to prepare you for the challenges of transitioning from academic settings and residency to practice. If your first exposure to quality metrics and productivity pressures happens at your new job, it's going to be a pretty stressful experience. Talking with practicing professionals who work in a variety of settings and with different patient populations can help give you a clearer picture of what to expect.

And last but not least, conferences can be a lot of fun. The organizers understand how hard providers (including residents and students) work, and they provide plenty of chances to socialize. You'll likely not only make contacts but new friends as well.

Your Conference To-Do List

So you've registered and bought your plane ticket. Now what? Well, every conference is a little different, but here are a few of the offerings you should definitely check out:

Student and resident programs. Conferences aren't just for veterans. Many offer programming for folks still in training:
  • The Emergency Medicine Residents' Association has an entire track at ACEP15 that includes a job fair, parties and lecture and simulation competitions.
  • The Society of Hospital Medicine's annual conference features a Young Hospitalist track focused on career development and transition to practice.
  • The American Society of Anesthesiologists annual meeting offers specific resident and fellow as well as student tracks.
  • The American Academy of Physician Assistants conference offers several "SPARK" sessions for students. Past topics have included malpractice prevention, the Affordable Care Act and the fellowship experience.

Make the rounds in the exhibition hall. It's not just about collecting swag (although that's fun too). Many healthcare organizations rent booths with recruiting in mind, and they're excited to meet potential candidates. Visiting a group's booth can be a great way to meet a wide cross section of people in the organization. (At our Vituity booth, you might find anyone from our newest hire to our CEO hanging out. We also have recruiting and credentialing staff on hand to answer questions.)

Attend the job fair. This is a more focused opportunity to interact with many potential employers. If it sounds stressful, remember that it's often less crowded and easier to navigate than the exhibition hall. And as a bonus, it usually includes free refreshments.

Parties and receptions. Social events are a great place to make connections and continue conversations. People are usually a bit more relaxed, and interactions feel less like job interviews.


If the thought of networking with potential bosses and coworkers makes you a little nervous, you're not alone. Rest assured you don't need powerful charisma or outstanding oratory skills to make connections. Being personable, engaged, interested and curious will go a long way. Some points to keep in mind:

Think conversations, not interviews. If you feel like you're in the hot seat, take a deep breath. Remember that most of us who are staffing the booth and circulating at the reception genuinely enjoy talking to you. I really like explaining to residents what's going on in the "real world" of medicine. And it's interesting to hear what you're doing in your residency — things have changed a lot since I was there! Chances are I'll learn as much as you do during our conversation.

Do some basic preparation. You don't need to research potential employers in depth. After all, the point of networking is exploring your options. On the other hand, it's harder to engage if you don't know what you want — or even know what's out there. Here are some questions to ask yourself before the conference:
  • What type of work situation am I interested in? Would I like to be an employee? An independent contractor? A partner in my own practice?
  • What care settings interest me? Could I work in a hospital? (If so, which size?) How about an urgent care center, skilled nursing facility or teaching facility?
  • What special programs or designations are important to me? (e.g., trauma center, medical home, palliative care).
  • Given these criteria, which organizations that are attending the conference might be a potential fit?

Engage. Walking around and picking up brochures doesn't really make a great impression. Approach booths and individuals with interest and enthusiasm. Ask relevant questions. Listen attentively. Don't be afraid to share your own experiences.

Stay open-minded. Be willing to listen — even if you're not sure an organization is right for you. Remember, you're still in the early stages of finding out who you are as a professional. Also, you never know how your preferences or circumstances may change in the future.

Be personable. Present yourself as a positive potential team member, someone who will be engaged and involved in a practice and someone others will enjoy working closely with.

Talk shop. Not sure how to get a conversation going? Try asking providers about their practices and patients. These are passions you almost certainly share.

Keep perspective. Finally, don't put too much pressure on yourself. Conference networking can help your job search along, but it's just one step in the process. Remember, the conference should be fun!

Are you attending ACEP this year? We are! Come find out what we’re up to!

Did you attend a conference before graduation? What was your experience like? Comment below to share.

[Image Credit: “Conference PEACH” by Royal Cliff Beach Resort licensed under CC BY – SA 2.0]

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