I’m going to a BIG professional meeting…now what?!?

04 Oct 2013

by Amalia Cochran, MD, MA, FACS, FCCM

Your first professional meeting, even if it’s a relatively small meeting, is both exhilarating and scary. What are the norms for the group? What do I need to wear? Who do I need to meet– and who do I need to avoid? Clearly it’s an important opportunity to make an early impression on people who can really impact the rest of your career, and you want to do it right. It’s also a chance to maximize your learning in a unique environment. Here are a few “pro tips” to help you out.

  • If you have a trusted senior resident or faculty member who have been to the same meeting before, ask them what sessions might be most important for you to attend. Also– and this is a “learn from my mistakes” tidbit– ask about attire for ALL parts of the meeting. I went to the AAST as a senior resident and had no idea that the big dinner was VERY fancy. I ended up passing on the potential networking opportunity and had room service for dinner since I had not packed appropriately.
  • Between the advice that you receive and looking for things you are interested in, go into the meeting with a plan. Identify the sessions you want to attend in advance, then use the meeting app (or plain old paper!) to keep track of where you want to be.
  • If someone you know will be at the meeting with you, ask them to introduce you to people you need to know. This is an important part of networking when you are a newbie in an organization, and it’s a great way to get connected quickly.
  • Should you ask that question or not? If it’s a question you are truly curious about and that is relevant to what has been presented, go for it. Please remember the ground rules: Use the microphone, introduce who you are and where you are from. Over time you’ll get to see people asking questions that seem to be simply an opportunity for them to pontificate– don’t be “that woman.”
  • Mingle, mingle, mingle. Those who know I’m an introvert are laughing as they read that because they know how hard it is for me. The good news is that, as an introvert, I can ask a couple of well-placed questions about someone’s work or interests then just sit back and listen. Please go up to people after sessions and ask them about their work if it was something that piqued your interest. And if you see someone who is a leader in the organization, PLEASE don’t be intimidated and think, “They’re too busy and too important.” Most of us in leadership roles are eager to meet new members– you are our future!
  • Be prepared with an elevator speech. You want to be able to give anyone who asks a succinct response to what you’re working on at any given time. What’s exciting you in your research? That’s always a great place to start.
  • If you’re attending a meeting of an organization that will be part of your career in the long term, see if there’s a way to get more involved. Some organizations have open committee structures (the AWS is one!); others are always looking for project volunteers. If you show up and fulfill your responsibilities, it’s a wonderful way to become a leader over time and to get to know some truly terrific people. Remember, though, that over-committing and not getting the work done also earns you a reputation, and it’s not one that you want to have.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. For some of you who are younger and biomechanically better suited than I am, a long day of walking around in 3-inch heels is nothing. I personally am a big fan of Cole-Haan, AGL, Thierry Rabotin, Ron White, and Anyi Lu for their fun flats and low heels. All let me be fashionable without being miserable.
  • Last, but not least– Have Fun! While meetings at this stage of my career almost invariably have some work attached to them, I always come home rejuvenated and recommitted to the work that I am doing. It’s amazing how seeing your friends from other institutions can help you remember that you’re not in this alone and that your work really does make a difference.

Readers who have been to meetings before, what piece of advice would you offer to a newbie? What do you wish someone had told YOU before your first professional meeting?


Dr. Amalia Cochran is Associate Professor of Surgery at the University of Utah. She is heavily involved in undergraduate medical education, serving as the Surgery Clerkship Director and the Director for the Applied Anatomy track for 4th year medical students at the University of Utah. Her research interests lie in surgical education and in clinical outcomes in burns. She is completing her term as the Secretary for the Association of Women Surgeons. Follow her on Twitter.

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