Can I let you in on a big secret to matching into a competitive specialty? No, this secret does NOT involve studying more for Step 1 or kissing the hindquarters of attending physicians on your least-favorite rotations. Let me tell you about a secret that is fun and involves something you hopefully are still able to do despite years spent studying in the library.
This secret involves making friends and developing relationships. This secret is networking.
Every specialty has 2-3 national conferences each year at various locations throughout the country. Almost all will have a poster session to encourage the advancement of research and give clinicians, medical students, and residents a forum to present their work. These conferences are an incredible opportunity for you to network with other students, residents, and attendings to whom you will be begging for a job when you apply for residency. Presenting your poster or delivering a podium presentation about your research at these meetings will be an important highlight of your curriculum vitae and residency application. However, if attending the conference for the sole purpose of adding the bullet point to your CV is your only objective, you are missing out on a wonderful opportunity to network with medical colleagues who may help you match or may offer you a job ten years from now.
But is it possible to “network” while a medical student? What is networking anyway? Isn’t networking something you’ve heard your friends in sales or marketing do to generate sales leads? Networking involves establishing relationships with people who can help you advance your career or achieve your goals while also helping them do the same. Here are Ten Secrets to Networking at Medical Conferences.
#1 – Don’t just be a conference participant, be a presenter
The invitation to present your research as a poster, abstract, or podium presentation is your invitation to the party. It is saying you aren’t just friends of the friend whose birthday party you are crashing, but that you actually were invited. You belong. When you meet that influential individual you were hoping to meet (and you will!), being able to say you are presenting your research says to them you have something to offer, you are an expert, albeit in some small area within the field, and you have the ability to develop a project, carry it out, and publish its findings. Being a presenter and not just a participant sends the message that you have the ability to produce results. Program directors, potential business partners, and your future boss want results. Don’t just be a participant, be a presenter.
#2 – Find out who else will be at the party
Do you hope to meet the department chair or program director of your dream residency program and wonder if they will be at the conference? Most conferences have daily schedules and conference booklets with indices of presenters names listed and the times when they will be presenting. Plan your schedule such that you can get to their presentation or stop by their poster to inquire about their work, tell them about your research, and make an initial connection with them.
#3 – You don’t have to say hello to the bride and groom for them to know you were there. Sometimes it’s enough to just sign the guestbook and follow-up later
Have you ever been to a wedding where you have to stand in line for hours just so you can satisfy your social obligation of congratulating the bride and groom? First of all, I hate wedding lines, but we can talk about that later. When you go to your medical conference and are hoping to meet the winner of the Nobel Prize or the renowned department chair, keep in mind that you don’t HAVE to stand in line after their presentation for them to know you were present. Yes, face-to-face relationships are best for networking, but keep in mind that these presenters are humans too. Just like you, they get stressed, nervous, and anxious in the minutes before and after they present and that may not be the best time to introduce yourself to them. Their job responsibilities may include resident education, but when they are at such conferences, they are not thinking about the resident selection for next year’s class. They are focused on advancing their own career and achieving their personal goals by presenting their research findings and networking with their colleagues and peers. Instead of waiting for an hour to shake the hand of the program director you have been hoping to meet, send him/her an email that night asking them a question, thanking them for their presentation, or whatever else you might think of. Do they know you are trying to network with them? Yes, yes they do. They see right through it usually, because, like you, they did the same thing years ago. If you reach out to them with tact and respect, introducing yourself and mentioning your intention of applying to their residency program in the coming years, they will appreciate your contacting them and wish you the best of luck. As soon as you have communicated in person or through email, you have digitally shaken hands, and your relationship has just been established. Remember, you don’t always have to wait in line to hug the bride and groom or the program director. When it comes to networking, it’s enough sometimes to just sign the guestbook and follow-up later.
#4 – Attend pharmaceutical-sponsored and other conference events. You never know who you might meet
In 2011 I attended the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) meeting in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. My wife and I made the trip to enjoy the vacation and so I could present a poster of my research. I was also hoping to meet others within ophthalmology, though as a second-year medical student I wasn’t quite sure how to go about doing so. I saw an advertisement on the ARVO website for an evening sponsored by a large pharmaceutical company at a fancy restaurant to discuss current management of macular degeneration. I decided to sign up for the free event as the topic was of personal interest to me and I rarely (if ever?) miss a free meal at a fancy restaurant. The expert panel for the evening’s discussion included several leaders within the field. After the wonderful meal and very informative discussion, I briefly thanked the presenters and pharmaceutical sponsors for allowing me to attend while just a medical student and thanked them for the discussion. Among the presenters were Dr. Quan Dong Nguyen and his wife, Dr. Diana V. Do, who at that time were both faculty at the Wilmer Eye Institute, affiliated with Johns Hopkins University. Little did I know at that time that Dr. Nguyen would soon thereafter be hired as the Chairman of the University of Nebraska Department of Ophthalmology! Just one year later, I was sitting across the table from Dr. Nguyen as I interviewed for a residency position at his program. It was a wonderful coincidence that I had met him previously and we had already begun to develop a relationship one year before I was asking him for a job. I must admit, Dr. Nguyen didn’t remember having met me at the dinner the year prior, but the principle still remains. Attend pharmaceutical-sponsored and other conference events. You never know who you might meet.
#5 – Attend your home program’s meet-and-greet cocktail party
Most ophthalmology residency programs will reserve a room at a nearby hotel for an alumni cocktail party to tastefully boast the success of their program, to continue to strengthen old relationships with alumni and colleagues, and to develop new ones (see the trend, even residency programs are there to network!). If you are presenting research that is co-authored by faculty at your home-program, you are representing the program and, in my opinion, should be included in this cocktail party event. Be sure to attend the party, dress appropriately to fit-in with others, and enjoy being there. Don’t get sloshed, don’t walk around introducing yourself to everyone and their spouses, but just act like you belong (because you do!). Say hello to the department chair, thank him/her for the invitation, and use the opportunity to further strengthen relationships with those at your home program. Come residency application time they will remember who you are, and will appreciate your having attended the cocktail party. Residency programs love their alumni, and showing that you intend to be an alumnus that will support the program years down the road by continuing to attend events will go a long way to helping them see that you would fit in well at their program. Your home program is your best chance for matching. Do your best to strengthen relationships with your home program by attending their conference alumni events and cocktail parties.
#6 – Be friendly
In 2012 I again attended the ARVO meeting in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. One morning as I was going up the escalator I noticed that the slightly older gentleman ascending next to me was wearing a fantastic tan-colored sport coat. As a fan of sport coats and men’s jackets, I simply complimented him on the jacket. We chatted briefly for the next 15 seconds, and at the top of the escalator went our separate ways. Later that day I was walking with my good friend and mentor, Dr. Barbara Wirostko, and she spotted the same man with the tan sport coat! She said to me, “Steve, come here, I have got to introduce you to Paul Kaufman.” I replied, “Oh, I met him on the escalator, great sport coat.” Somewhat surprised, she asked, “Are you serious? do you know who he is? He’s the chairman of the University of Wisconsin Department of Ophthalmology!” Dr. Wirostko then proceeded to introduce me to Dr. Kaufman, even though he and I had already met. He was the guy with the fantastic sport coat on the escalator. Be friendly. You never know who is the man inside the fantastic sport coat.
#7 – Volunteer
This past year I received an email from the volunteer coordinator for a national conference I was planning to attend inviting me to volunteer as a Floor Manager for one of the conference sessions. My responsibilities would include checking that panel-experts and speakers had arrived, running the timer so the speaker knew how much time they had remaining to stay on schedule, and helping the panel moderator with any problems that may arise. I accepted the invitation and had a great time as a floor manager volunteer. The experience was not only a fun way to be involved during the conference, but also gave me the chance to meet other volunteers as well as the panel of experts in a setting that I was able to help them by making an otherwise stressful situation less stressful. Contact the organizers of the conference you plan to attend and offer to help. Volunteer service is not only personally rewarding but also provides a wonderful opportunity to meet other volunteers as well as the people you serve.
#8 – Don’t be the Bigwig Paparazzi. Seek to meet the supporting cast of residents
You’ve heard the term “bigwig” thrown around discussion boards and among medical student circles. This term typically means someone with perceived importance in your specialty and may be the department chair, program director, or inventor whose name is an eponym for the device they invented. You’ve looked these “bigwigs” up in the conference schedule and found that, ahah, they will be there, and they will be presenting. You go to their presentation, stand in line to shake their hand, and hey, maybe you even get a selfie with them or their autograph in your surgical textbook. While clearly hyperbole, I call this networking approach the “Bigwig Paparazzi.” Not only is it unlikely to yield significant benefit to you and your residency application, but it helps highlight one of the biggest secrets to networking at a medical conference, which is to seek to meet the supporting cast of residents and fellows. Instead of going to the large sessions discussing surgical techniques or influential clinical trials of which you are unlikely to fully understand at this point in your training, attend as many of the poster sessions as possible. Go through the schedule and circle the posters that are being presented by residents at the programs to which you think you may apply. Residents typically are very proud of their program and are eager to tell you what they like in hopes you will include their program among those to which you apply. Remember, the first and second-year residents you meet today will be the chiefs and junior faculty when you apply for residency in a few years, and will be the senior faculty, program directors, and department chairs in the years to come. Developing a friendship with other residents now will do far more for your application and future career opportunities than that Instagram selfie you took with the department chair.
In the fall of 2012 I presented a poster at the American Academy of Ophthalmology annual meeting in Chicago. Anticipating that I would be applying for residency the following year, I circled the poster presentations in my meeting schedule which were being presented by residents and fellows from programs to which I was considering applying. By stopping by these posters, I was able to meet several residents and learn about their respective programs in a casual, low-pressure conversation. These casual interactions gave me a chance to subtly interview them to see how they liked their program and to see how well we interacted on a personal level. I did not initially consider this as a “networking” secret, but in retrospect, I do think it applies. Networking is all about friendships and relationships, and who better to become friends with than the residents you will see at these annual meetings the rest of your life. Only after I had matched at the University of Iowa did I learn that the chief residents who interviewed me did, in fact, remember our conversation at the AAO meeting. I don’t know what influence, if any, our conversation had on my match, but I do know that meeting these two residents and seeing how friendly and accomplished yet unpretentious and personable they were had a significant impact on my dream of matching at their program. When you attend your medical conference, don’t be the Bigwig Paparazzi, but instead seek to meet the supporting cast of residents.
#9 – Stand by your poster – “This is where you live, right here. This is home”
Do you remember the scene in the movie Hitch when Hitch (Will Smith) gives dancing advice to the hopelessly awkward Albert (Kevin James). If you don’t remember, click here for a refresher of this amazing scene. After showing off his pathetic dance moves (cough, cough, some of which were my go-to moves before seeing this scene), Hitch stops the music to tell Albert, “Don’t you ever do that again,” and begins to show off his smooth moves, saying, “This is where you live, right here. This is home.” You might be asking yourself what this has to do with networking. Here it is. You were invited to the medical conference to present your poster. Your poster is home. It is where you are the expert, it is where you have home-field advantage. Standing right next to your poster is where you know more about your project, your methods, results, and conclusions than anyone else. Other real-life experts within your area of focus that are also attending the conference will adjust their schedule to stop by and see your poster. You are the expert of your poster. You may not be the expert in the field, but you are the expert of your poster. By discussing the contents of your poster, you will have a few invaluable moments to teach them something they may not know. If you teach them something that may help them clinically or in their research, they will want to connect with you, will want a PDF of your poster sent to their email, and will want your contact information. They will want to network with you.
You will only be “required” to stand by your poster for about 90 minutes during the entire day that your poster is displayed. This will be when most individuals come by because they know you will be there. But remember the words of Hitch to Albert, “This is where you live, right here. This is home.” Your poster is home. Instead of going to the many lectures and information sessions about topics you may not understand or of which may not be of particular interest to you at this time in your career, stand by your poster. Those that were unable to see your poster during the official 90-minute session will randomly stop by, will have more time to chat, and you will have more time to connect with them. They may not be faculty at one of the programs to which you apply, but remember that every practicing physician at the conference was a resident at some point. They can give you valuable insights or tips and might even know someone still involved in resident education at their former program. During the day or two that your poster is displayed, remember, “This is where you live, right here. This is home.” Standing by your poster is where you have something to offer, it is where others will want to connect with you.
#10 – Be an active participant in conference social media
On the third day of the 2013 AAO conference, an entire session was dedicated to using social media to enhance one’s medical practice. The conference was hosted by the ophthalmologists most actively involved in facebook, twitter, and blogging. Having started my blog in 2012 and becoming more active on twitter (@eyesteve), I was excited to learn from the experts in ophthalmology social media, including @retinadoc, @DrRobMelendez, and @AndrewDoan. I had been live-tweeting throughout the conference, and was having alot of fun engaging with other conference-goers via the twitter feed using the conference hashtags. As the session concluded, I approached the speakers, who had no idea who I was, to thank them and meet them in person. As soon as I mentioned my name, one of them said to the other, “Hey, you’re EyeSteve?!? You’re live-tweeting is awesome, way to go!” Being an active participant in the conference social media will allow you to connect with amazing people who share similar interests and with whom you can share tips, advice, and help achieve your collective goals with a favorite, a like, a mention, or a retweet!
These are just a few secrets to networking at medical conferences, though I know there are many more that you have found beneficial. What other secrets could you share with other blog readers for successful networking at medical conferences?
Leave your networking secrets in the comments below! I would love to hear from you!