I recently had the amazing opportunity to attend the Vascular Annual Meeting (or VAM), sponsored by the Society for Vascular Surgery. As a medical student who just recently completed my first year of school… this was my first conference (let alone national conference), first time presenting my research, first time to California- a whole lot of firsts. But it was also an incredible learning experience, and I’m going to share my ten tips for anyone looking to go to a specialty conference:
1. Arrive early, leave early (or at least look at the schedule beforehand and figure out the must-see events). The conference I attended was very front-loaded. The first two days were packed with things to do and people to meet, but the third was like a ghost town. If money is tight (which is more than likely between hotels and flights), definitely err on the side of arriving a day early and missing that last day, rather than arriving late and hanging around until the bitter end.
2. The exhibit hall is basically a massive science fair where device reps are eager to demonstrate their newest products and answer any questions you might have. This is a chance to introduce yourself (or, if you’re lucky and have a mentor or faculty you know at the meeting, be introduced around) to begin the all-important task of networking. There will also be coffee, snacks, and promotional goodies to entice you in, as well as devices to play (ahem, develops skills) with, at the different stalls. Be sure to snag a pamphlet as you leave each stall!
3. The Interactive poster session is a chance for you to present your research. During the interactive poster session (a dedicated time within the conference) there are rows of posters organized by subject; you stand by your poster, and any interested party can come by and hear you explain your research and answer questions.
4. Moderated poster session: a step up from the interactive poster session. It’s more difficult to have your research accepted for this session, and there are a number of residents presenting their research here. Posters are divided into groups, and each person presents their work to everyone in their group, and they rotate through. Each poster has three minutes to present, and then two minutes to defend their research against questions from fellow presenters and the moderators. For each poster the moderator and fellow presenters vote on a scale of one to ten on how the presentation went; this is then tallied up, and the winner from each group goes on to compete the following day.
5. Attend as wide a variety of sessions as you can. This includes not only the usual lectures (where there will be a number of speakers on related subjects) but also plenary sessions, “Live” presentations, concurrent sessions, and unique sessions. Plenary sessions are timed presentations of research where you have a chance to ask questions. “Vascular Live” presentations discuss research and are sponsored by device companies such as Gore. Concurrent sessions are where you have to decide which of the three interesting subjects being talked about at once you want to prioritize. The presidential address would fall under the category “unique session;” this is a (self-explanatory) tradition where the outgoing president addresses the attendees, and is easily the best-attended session at the conference. Come early and claim your seat- it fills up fast, and if you aren’t careful you’ll be standing at the back for the whole session.
6. Residency fair- a chance to rub elbows and network with your dream residency! This fair is only for a limited time- so be smart! Look at the map and pick out 7 or so tables you really want to visit. Introduce yourself, where you’re from, and what year you are in either school or residency (for example, don’t just say you’re a first year- say you’re a first year med student). Also make sure to mention whether you’re presenting research at the conference (and if so, in which session), etc. Have a few questions prepared just in case. If, after hitting your must-sees, you still have time, then you can go to more booths (or go back to one you really liked and ask them more questions). IF YOU ARE A MED STUDENT: stay on the side for residencies, not the side for fellowships. This ties in with the “go in with a plan” theme.
7. Go to receptions and dinners. Especially if you have a mentor or faculty from your home institution at the conference, there’s a good chance you’ll be invited to receptions and dinners. Receptions are usually held by a particular program or residency as a chance for past and current alumni to chat and reminisce, but they’re also a great place to meet a wide variety of people and make a (hopefully) good impression. Dinners, on the other hand, are usually held either by a program or a device rep at a nice restaurant. Another fantastic opportunity to meet people and get to know each other over some amazing food.
8. Use the mentor program. This was a special (informal) opportunity where students are paired up with a surgeon, you’re given each other’s contact info and meet up during the meeting to chat, ask questions, get advice, and NETWORK.
9. Apply for a travel scholarship. Students apply for this about 6 months before the meeting, and if accepted are given a “passport” to get stamped- in order to receive the scholarship, you have to attend certain events throughout the conference (that you’re probably going to anyway).
10. Network. In case I haven’t said this enough, a national conference is all about networking. You meet device reps, residency programs, and vascular surgeons from all over the world. A meeting like this gives you a chance to meet alumni from your school after they’ve moved on to new programs and residencies. If they only recently graduated, you might be able to set up a meeting to get to know them, get advice etc. before the meeting is over. Especially important is to know your home program beforehand- at least be aware of who runs the department, and if possible meet them and/or the program director before coming out to the conference.
11. Don’t go alone. Make sure you have a mentor or fellow student who knows people and knows the drill so you aren’t completely lost at your first conference. Even better if you can get a whole group of people together. If none of that is possible, have a sit down with someone in the know before you go.
President VCU VSIG