Whether you’re a battle-hardened conference warrior with decades of conference attendances under your belt or attending a conference for the first time, The Productive Physician guide to getting ready for a conference has you covered.

Our step-by-step guide will walk you through preparing to attend academic conferences. We cover planning, executing and following up afterwards so that you can get the most out of the conference experience.

We have a downloadable ‘attending a conference checklist’ as well as packing guides, technology suggestions and networking tips.

Let’s get started!

Planning to attend a conference

There are myriad things to consider when getting ready to attend a conference, and sometimes your daily whirlwind will keep you too busy for conference planning.

You need a tried and trusted plan for preparing for your conference that you can rely on to think of things for you so that you won’t forget a thing.

This guide to getting ready for a conference will take you 29 minutes to read from start to finish!
Download a pdf version to read whenever you like, for free.
I’ll also throw in a conference preparation checklist so you know you’re set.
Finally, you can also have the conference packing list that I use.
This guide to getting ready for a conference will take you 29 minutes to read from start to finish! Go to the full version of this page to download a pdf version to read whenever you like, for free.
I’ll also throw in a conference preparation checklist so you know you’re set.
Finally, you can also have the conference packing list that I use.

Let’s walk through all the things you need to consider in the planning period before you travel.

Booking your Conference

You probably have some idea already of what conferences are relevant in your field. It pays to keep track of the conferences you might decide to attend and sign-up for notifications when they announce registration.

Early BirdThis way, you can ensure that you get access to ‘Early Bird’ rates. These are lower rates that the conference promoters offer to help them get some confirmations on the books well in advance of the meeting. Nothing worries a conference company like low numbers of registrants! And why not save hundreds of dollars?

I have subscriptions with the major Respiratory and Sleep Medicine professional bodies both in Australia and internationally. Whenever they announce they are opening their meeting for registration I am aware of the relevant dates, can make a decision about my attendance, and get the lowest registration rate available. Even if you decide not to attend, the early notice is well worth it just in case you do.

Another advantage of booking early is that many conferences run pre-conference courses on specific topics which often have limited availability. These sessions tend to fill up early. Small group meetings and discussions throughout the conference might also sell out. The sooner you are aware that registration has opened the better.

Members rates

The final consideration is that many professional conferences offer a lower price for members. If you aren’t a member, check the member’s price and the cost of membership. If there is only a small difference and the other benefits of membership are of interest, sign up as a member and take the lower conference rate.

Let’s say that the member’s rate for the conference is $100 less than the non-members rate, and that annual membership is $150. In effect, you will be getting a year of membership for $50 only. You will also get to enjoy the other benefits of membership at lower total cost.

Booking your Accommodation

After registering for the conference you need to consider whether you can fit in some time for relaxation and/or sightseeing before or after the meeting. Your workplace might have guidelines on what is acceptable in this regard and it would be good for you to consider these before committing.

If you can find a day or so either side of the conference and it’s being held in a city or country you haven’t been to before, it would be well worth deciding whether you can make the most of the trip and see the sights.

Once you decide on the dates you will need accommodation, it is helpful to book early. Hotels like to have registrations on their books just as much as conference companies, and they often offer reduced rates the earlier you book.

I often book through Booking.com but there are lots of ways to find great prices. A word of warning, however, is that I recently had a very poor experience with an early booking I had made being cancelled three months later by the hotel. This left me with no confirmed accommodation only weeks before my conference. Thankfully, Booking.com agreed to refund the difference on the more expensive reservation I had to make.

Deciding on location

A major consideration when booking your stay is whether you want to be at conference accommodation, or at privately booked accommodation close to the conference venue. Another alternative is to choose the place you’d most like to stay within the city you’re visiting and then arrange to travel from your accommodation to the meeting each day.

My strong preference after trying all three of those options is to book my own accommodation close to the venue. The benefit of being able to go back to the hotel during the day if you forget something, can’t find a session you’re interested in or just need to catch a nap is too great.

Convention centres aren’t always in prime inner-city locations so this will mean that you won’t be as close to the action if you are planning a heavy social or sightseeing component to your stay. You could stay in the middle of the city and then move to accommodation local to the convention centre once the meeting starts. I usually don’t have a lot of free time either side of the meetings so just book local to the venue and then travel for my sightseeing.

In these days of Uber and Lyft, getting around is much easier than ever before, and many convention cities have excellent public transportation options as well.


It would be nice if this wasn’t an issue, but many convention centres are situated outside populous areas of town and might require walking around or getting public transport to and from. If you don’t know the city you might not aware of any safety issues that a local would understand. You might also be carrying electronic items such as laptops or tablets.

You should always remove your conference lanyard or any other identification that marks you as a visitor, and place them out of sight in a bag or under a shirt. Walking around with an obvious sign around your neck that you’re attending a conference and might be carrying valuables is a good way to attract attention.

Your accommodation might be able to inform you about any areas of town that aren’t safe to visit, and this can also be researched before your trip or even at the time of booking your hotel.

Booking your Travel

Conference TravelJust as for registration and accommodation bookings, there is money to be saved by booking your travel as early as possible. There are many price comparison options available to help you find cheap flights. Unfortunately, the options flying from my home country of Australia are far more limited!

I often use Skyscanner and they allow you to save a search for specific dates and with certain criteria and then email you when there is a price change available. Another good option is Google Flights. Google recently announced an update that suggests they can tell you when prices are likely to change based on historical trends. This could obviously be useful if you are wondering whether prices are likely to hold or change in coming days.

Of course, there might be better options in your region and I’d love to hear about those sites in the comments!

If you’re travelling within your own country you might not need to fly. You can gain similar price advantages by booking train or bus travel early, although the discounts are usually far less than those offered for flights.

Travel Insurance

If you’re travelling – especially abroad – and don’t have any health coverage you could be in for a massive shock if you do need medical attention. Horror stories abound of uninsured travellers having accidents in the US and being faced with enormous bills.

Many airlines will offer travel insurance as an extra during the booking process for your flight, assuming you are travelling by air. Other alternatives include going through a travel agent or even your credit card provider will often offer travel insurance.

Even if you don’t have an illness or injury, you could have lost luggage or unexpected delays that prevent your planned return to work on time. Travel insurance is a necessary part of travelling to a conference.

International travel considerations

Given that many of the best conferences occur in the US or Europe, many times you will be flying internationally. You need to consider whether there are any visa or other requirements for entry to avoid being prevented from boarding the plane!

If you’re travelling to the US, you will certainly need to check what the rules are from your country of origin. If you live in a country listed in the Visa Waiver Program you can apply for an ESTA which grants entry for up to 90 days. Your ESTA is valid for two years after approval unless your passport expires in that period (whichever is shorter).((For up-to-date information about ESTA check the website – https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/))

For European travel, many EU countries participate in the Schengen Area and you might need a Schengen Visa (depending on your country of origin). US travellers can find information about the Schengen Area at the US Department of State. Australian travellers can check the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for information on what you need to arrange.

If you are travelling to another country, you will need to check the specific visa requirements and apply well in advance of your travel. It would be awful to be ready to go and then find you can’t get the required paperwork completed in time!


If you’re travelling internationally you need to check you have a passport and that it covers the period of your travel and doesn’t expire. Many countries will require you to have a certain amount of time after your intended travel covered by the validity period of your passport as well.

In other words, make sure your passport will be valid for at least as long as your destination country requires it to remain so after your intended stay. Many of the resources listed above provide more information on this requirement of entry.


Conference MoneyWhen one travelled internationally in days past it was critical to take cash or traveller’s cheques, but the rise of ATMs worldwide means this is far less of an issue nowadays. Despite this, I have recently had the issue of my credit card not being accepted in a taxi for fare from the airport to my accommodation. They had credit card facilities but the charge didn’t go through.

I wasn’t carrying cash and so I needed the taxi driver to take me to a nearby ATM to withdraw cash to pay my fare and tip. This was a little awkward and I would love to avoid this in future by having a small amount of currency upon arrival at my destination.

Getting the most from the venue

Some will choose to arrive at their destination and then ‘wing it’ when it comes to sightseeing and getting the feel for the city they are visiting. Others will prefer to have some idea of major things they’d like to do when they arrive. It will often be helpful to do a little bit of research before you go in order to avoid missing out.

I like to read a little bit about the place I will be visiting, and try to get an idea of events happening when I am in town. Sometimes there are specific festivals or sporting events that it would be fantastic to experience while you can, and they will often sell out in advance.

This has happened to me once when I travelled to San Francisco and didn’t think to check the baseball schedule. Some of my colleagues had a great time watching the San Francisco Giants while I stayed in my hotel room ruing my disorganisation!


If you did manage to get a day or so either side of the conference, you will probably want to go to a museum or gallery or take in the sights in some way. There are downloadable guides available from many of the companies that book accommodation or travel in major cities. Booking.com offers me a ‘city guide’ every time I book a stay with them and this is often a helpful way to find out what the ‘must see’ venues are.

Another useful trick is to just use Google to get started. Use the search strings below and replace [destination], [month] and [year] to suit. Try some variations on these search strings and see what you find!

events [destination] [month] [year]    (eg. events los angeles october 2016)

things to do in [destination] [month] [year]

concerts [destination] [month] [year]

sport [destination] [month] [year]

gallery [destination] [month] [year]

Arrange Leave Cover

Whether you work for yourself or in a government institution, you will almost certainly need to make some form of arrangements for cover while you are away. This might be a matter of completing a leave form and submitting it to your Department Head or arranging someone to look after your patients in a private hospital.

It will help everyone if you get started with this well in advance of the conference.

Preparing to travel

When the time gets close for you to travel to the conference, a different phase of getting ready kicks in. This is the time where you need to pack all of the documents, electronics and other travel requirements to enable you to enjoy the conference as much as possible.

And, this is the time when you really need that list.

Packing List

After using the same packing list for the last six or seven conferences I’ve attended, I have become quite confident that it meets my needs and I won’t forget anything vital. I feel relaxed that I have everything I need but not more than that when I get in the taxi to start my trip.

Of course, most of the places you will travel will have shops. You could always buy anything important if absolutely necessary. Nonetheless, if you can come up with a list and learn to trust it, a lot of the potential stress of last minute preparations can be reduced and you can simply enjoy the fact you’re about to leave!

Download the exact packing list I use to get ready for conference travel.
Feel free to modify it to suit your specific needs!
Download the exact packing list I use to get ready for conference travel.
Feel free to modify it to suit your specific needs!

The benefits of having a packing list you know and trust are similar to those you can derive from any system that you have refined and learned to trust over many iterations.

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I will be writing about systems in other posts but the short version is that developing a robust system for approaching a task can allow you to reduce the cognitive effort required to complete the task. In other words, if you have a system you trust you can apply the system without worrying about the fine details as you know you will complete the task, just as you have before.


Man in suitMost conferences will publish some form of guideline as to what to wear, with the default often being business casual. It is important to consider what your peers might expect, and this is especially true if you are hoping to network and impress new contacts. Beachwear might not cut it if your targeted contacts are all wearing suits!

You must also consider whether you are attending any meetings during or either side of the conference itself, or any conference social engagements such as welcome dinners.

Finally, it is important to check the usual weather conditions for the time of year at the destination. You might need to pack specific items like hats, swimming gear and so on for Summer or warm coats and boots for Winter.

You can check the usual weather by searching Google. Try the following:

weather [destination] [month]    (eg. weather los angeles october)

If you are Delivering a Presentation

While you might consider business casual for regular conference attendance, erring on the more formal side of course, if you are giving a presentation you should consider whether you need to step it up a notch.

A presentation in this setting is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate your expertise in your area and your performance under the spotlight. I would recommend dressing formally for such an occasion unless you are absolutely certain that the dress standard doesn’t call for that.

When I travel to a conference and know I have a poster or oral presentation to give, I always wear a suit. For days where I don’t have formal commitments I might wear shirt and pants. Just know that first impressions do count.

A pressed suit will send a message that you are professional and experienced, and you can always remove your jacket after your presentation if you really feel over-dressed.

Travel Documents

I like to carry a copy of my documents with me when I travel, although this is probably less important now with online storage and ubiquitous Wi-Fi. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t see how it hurts to have a physical copy of important papers just in case.

I always print copies of the following:

  • Conference registration receipt
  • Accommodation reservation receipt
  • Travel Insurance receipt
  • Airline receipt and itinerary

Depending on the nature of the conference or my social plans I might also print copies of tickets for events or concerts, or schedules for meetings during the conference.

EvernoteOf course, storing these documents in an easily accessible online storage is also critical. I set up a notebook (folder) in my Evernote for each conference I attend, and everything that refers to that conference trip will be stored in it.

By everything, I mean that every email I send or receive, every booking or reservation, every useful piece of information about the venue. It all goes in that Evernote notebook.

The critical step is then to make that notebook an ‘offline notebook’ before you travel. This means that if you have Evernote installed on your phone/laptop/tablet (and you should), those devices will download and store all the note information included saved pdfs. In other words, you will have offline access to all documents in pdf form or within the note text itself, even without a data connection or access to Wi-Fi.

Health and Personal Hygiene

If you regularly take any medication you will need to take it with you on your trip. I prefer to take a supply for at least one week longer than the scheduled trip just in case of any unexpected delays in travel.

Depending on the nature of the medication, it might be a good idea to have a letter from your family doctor detailing which medications you are travelling with and what they are for. This is good practice anyway, but some medications might not be available in some locations so it is important that you can explain why you are carrying it.

For those of you with sleep apnoea, of course, you might need to travel with your mandibular advancement device or CPAP machine. I would be wary of having those in checked luggage due to concerns about possible damage.

Finally, I often try to get my haircut just before leaving to make life as easy as possible while travelling. Additionally, clipping finger and toenails before you travel might mean you don’t need to carry clippers with you.

Carry on Luggage

There are many ways to approach deciding what to carry on and what to place in checked luggage. I tend to follow some simple rules:

  • Will I need/want it during the flight (or any stopovers)?
  • Is it valuable or expensive?
  • Could it be damaged or broken if treated carelessly by baggage handlers?

If I answer yes to any of those questions I tend to carry it in my backpack and keep it with me in-flight.

In addition to my laptop, noise-cancelling headphones, medications and a large bottle of water (purchased after clearing all security screenings of course), I like to carry a spare pair of socks as well as a toothbrush, toothpaste and comb. For longer trips or those with connecting flights, I carry an extra t-shirt and pair of underwear. Even if you don’t have access to an airport lounge, you can always bathe yourself in a bathroom, brush your teeth and hair, reapply deodorant and change your underwear and shirt.

The psychological benefits of refreshing yourself after one flight and before the next can’t be understated. Sometimes all it takes is a clean shirt and pair of socks to give you a much-needed boost.

I use a Red Oxx Sky Train for my carry-on luggage (as well as day-to-day at home as well) and have had mine for three years. It fits an incredible amount of gear in a size that fits the carry-on sizing frames at airports, and I have never been challenged by staff. It is incredibly well-made and I recommend it to anyone who travels frequently.

Electrical Items

You will almost certainly be travelling with an array of electrical items such as a smartphone, laptop, tablet, camera and/or camcorder. You will need to bring whatever cables or charging packs they require to keep them going while you’re away.

For many items, it might only be a micro-USB lead that is needed but remember to pack anything you might need or you risk your device running out of juice at the most inconvenient time.

Conference PowerFor international travel, you might also need to consider whether a power socket adapter is necessary. I carry at least two adapters as I carry more than two devices and know they will need charging overnight. I have recently started taking a 4-socket powerboard with me as it can be frustrating to need to constantly monitor which devices are most in need of a charge.

For information about what kind of power socket adapter you might need you can check the International Electrotechnical Commission. You will find voltages and socket types, with images included for easy reference.

A USB power pack will often be incredibly useful and should be considered a standard part of any travellers kit. They now come in large capacities and often have fast-charging capabilities as well. And they are becoming far cheaper than ever before.

Finally, I now take a standard ethernet network cable with me on most trips. Sometimes Wi-Fi just isn’t up to scratch for video calling or other data-intensive requirements.

Managing Jet Lag

Jet Lag is the worst. I tend to try to get at least a day before the conference that I can use to adjust to the local timezone but, of course, that isn’t enough to truly adjust. Thus, I try to start moving my clock before I travel.

There are several calculators online that provide advice about when to start changing your body clock and by how much. See how you go with Jet Lag Rooster, the Re-Timer calculator and the British Airways advisor.

You can get advice about jet lag and how to adjust your internal clock from the National Sleep Foundation website. The Sleep Health Foundation and CDC also provide excellent general advice.

Disclaimer: Although I am a sleep physician, these suggestions should NOT be considered specific advice. You should always get your own medical advice rather than rely on some guy on the internet.

Mobile Phone

You almost certainly will carry your phone with you while travelling, but you should consider in advance what the implications are for calling, messaging and data while away. This is particularly applicable if your travel is international.

International Roaming

Your provider should give you rates for each of calls, messages, accessing message bank and use of data. Don’t be surprised if they are far in excess of what you have at home. Plan in advance by buying a sim card for the country you’re going to be travelling to, or at least buying an international data pack from your provider.

Conference PhoneI receive a series of text messages as soon as my phone roams to an international provider upon landing at my destination. Those messages usually outline the costs for each mode listed above. It is critical that you consider this before using your phone on another network.

A relative of mine once received a ~$7000 bill from her phone company after streaming video while travelling in Russia and Finland. I warned her before she travelled to turn off her mobile data connection before leaving but she ignored my advice. She was able to argue her way out of the bill with her provider by claiming ignorance but I wouldn’t bank on that happening again!

Unless you have pre-arranged an international data pack, it is critical that you turn off your mobile data connection before boarding your flight. Most smartphones use a lot of data in the background with automatic syncing and push notifications. You could easily accrue a significant data bill just by turning on your phone upon arrival.

Turn off data before you fly.

Offline Maps

I try to do a lot of walking when I attend a conference, partially because I am trying to maintain some fitness and partially because I know that for the majority of the conference I’ll be sitting in a hall doing almost nothing. If you are going to walk around an unfamiliar city it will often pay to have a map.

Google Maps pinWith Google Maps on your smartphone, you will always have accurate local maps available to you wherever you go. However, if you don’t have a local data plan you might get into trouble. I always download a large area around the convention centre and accommodation as an ‘Offline Map’ area for Google Maps. This allows me to have a broad overview all the way down to street-level views of the city and where I am at any moment.

The downside to this approach is that you can’t search for information without data, but points of interest should be able to be searched. Driving instructions can usually be created but walking instructions – at the time of this writing – were not yet available in Google Maps in offline mode.

When you download an offline map area it will often be a large amount of data, obviously depending on how much of the city you want to have available. I suggest downloading over Wi-Fi before you leave. You can delete the offline area later to recover storage space on your device.

Starred Locations

The other preparation I try to do before leaving home is to ‘Star’ places I am likely to want to visit while in town. I think through things like restaurants local to my accommodation, places of interest, important landmarks, shops or malls I want to visit and so on. Once starred, those places will be available in your offline area so you can find your way to each without needing data.

Email Autoresponders / Out-of-Office replies

It is important for your contacts or workmates to know that you won’t be available during the period of the conference. If they get in touch via email they might expect a reply: you need to make it clear to them that they shouldn’t.

It is simple and quick to set up an email autoresponse that lasts for the duration of your travels. This helps to manage expectations about your ability to be contacted during that time. Mine include contact details for the people I have arranged to cover my practice during my time away and a specific date after which I expect to have returned and have the capacity to reply to emails.

Of course, you might choose to check your email while you are away and you might choose to respond to urgent queries as well. For the recipient that will be considered a bonus as they will have seen your autoresponse message and accepted they won’t hear back until you return. It also gives the sender the opportunity to contact someone else if their query is truly an emergency and that is usually much preferred to wondering if they will hear back from you.

Quick tip: I often have the autoresponder set to include one or two days after my return, to allow me to deal with the after-effects of travel and catch up on important issues. If you decide to turn it off early because you’re up and running that’s fine, but it might give you a short buffer if you’re not.

Video calling to Loved Ones

If you are leaving a family at home you will almost certainly wish to stay in touch while you are away. It is helpful to have worked out in advance how you will manage that.

I tend to use Skype but, of course, there are many options you could choose from depending on your preferences. Just make sure that you have any necessary credits purchased to enable you to use the system. I have Skype credit purchased and just re-activate it each time I go away.

It is important to ensure you book accommodation with good Wi-Fi strength and generous allowances. Most online booking services feature customer reviews and it is worth checking comments about Wi-Fi from recent customers. Failing good Wi-Fi where you are staying, I have video-called my family from a conference hall before but it can be awkward as you will often be in public.

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Social Media

Social MediaThere are two reasons to have social media accounts optimised prior to leaving for a conference. The first is that many conferences enable audience participation by using Twitter or Facebook. The conference might even have groups set up for participants to discuss the meeting and make new contacts.

The second is that you will almost certainly meet new people and network while at the conference. Your LinkedIn profile might be one of the first things someone checks after you meet. Having it ready to present your best face is critical to optimising the yield of those meetings and leveraging your new contacts after the conference.

There are many guides to how to optimise your online profiles, so I have not gone into it in detail here. In short, make sure your profiles are current and showcase your professional achievements in a way that new contacts will be confident you are someone with whom they will want to collaborate or do business. Use a spell-checker and check your grammar. Keep it professional at all times. Ask yourself: if there’s something you wouldn’t be comfortable to tell a business contact, should it be in your online profile?

Congratulations on getting this far!
If you’re running out of steam, feel free to download a pdf version to read whenever you like.
Congratulations on getting this far!
If you’re running out of steam, feel free to download a pdf version to read whenever you like.

Presentation materials

If you happen to be delivering an oral presentation or poster at the conference, you must make sure that you take whatever you need with you to the meeting. Imagine your horror upon boarding your plane and remembering you left the poster by your front door!

Presentations using Microsoft PowerpointTM could be emailed or placed in cloud storage by your colleague or partner if you happen to forget to bring it, but I wouldn’t recommend that you leave it to chance in this way. I tend to carry a laptop which has the presentation on it, as well as a USB memory stick with another copy. Finally, I would usually email myself a copy and place one in Evernote and/or Dropbox as well. (Call me paranoid, but I rest more easily knowing there’s no way I can lose my presentation!)

Many oral presentations will benefit from introducing interactive activities for the audience to participate in and Audience Response Systems are used at conferences to engage the learners. Prepare you questions and answers in advance to ensure they can be uploaded by the Conference IT team in time for your talk.

It has become more common to place a clear plastic sleeve adjacent to an academic poster with A4 sized print-outs of the poster for interested parties to take to read later. I think this opens up the potential for future collaborations if someone takes a copy, so I consider this a useful soft-networking technique.

Attending the Conference

I hear you – thank goodness we finally got to the bit where we are attending the conference! All this getting ready stuff is fine and helpful and all that, but what about the big show?

Getting Around

If you have done some research in advance of the event you might have discovered the pros and cons of various transport options before you arrive. Many places, especially in Europe, have superb public transportation around the destinations favoured for conventions, and buying a travel pass might save you time and money.

For cities with less public transport options, you can rely on the traditional taxis or try out ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft. These services will often be cheaper than taxis.

Register Early

If you followed my advice and booked accommodation close to the conference centre, you will be able to consider going through the registration process early. Many conferences have their desk open one or even two days before the event starts. You will often avoid the enormous queues of the less well prepared who try to check in on the first morning.

Do yourself a favour, find ten minutes out of your sightseeing time and go through registration the day before your meeting. It makes the first day so much more pleasant.

Planning your Sessions

If you have downloaded the advance program as a pdf and stored it in your Evernote offline notebook you have access to the schedule and can begin planning which sessions you will attend. Often it helps to plan this well before actually arriving at the meeting, but for many that won’t be possible.

Either by using the pdf in your Evernote or by looking at the hard copy given to you when you complete registration the day before the meeting starts, you can sit and look at your schedule and think through what you want to get from the meeting and how best to meet that need.

If you want to learn more about a particular disease or disease group you can select sessions that will cover that material. Some people follow a theme where they maximise their attendance at each session touching on that topic. Others will look for the sessions that appeal the most to them, either through knowledge of the speakers(s), a desire to network or for some other reason. A final possibility is to taste-test as many different types of sessions as possible.

Whatever your rationale, you will get much more from the event if you plan how you want to approach it and then execute your strategy.

Conference Culture

If you are travelling to a conference that you have previously attended, you might well have a good idea of the culture of the meeting. Are people more formal or relaxed? Do they welcome meeting new people or are they more shut-off?

Some institutions will have protocols around behaviour and dress, and sometimes those cultural norms aren’t written down anywhere. They exist nonetheless.

If you are travelling to a conference in an unfamiliar setting or with a professional group whose norms you aren’t familiar with, it can pay to ask colleagues or contacts who are more familiar with the meeting for advice.

At Each Session

Assuming you have planned your schedule, it often helps to have a notepad and pen to take notes. You could consider pre-labelling a new page for each session you plan to attend.

My preference is to take notes on my laptop so I usually start a new note in Evernote for each session or symposium. I try to do this before the session or preferably before the day has begun. This way I can copy the speakers’ names and affiliations into the note and then I don’t have to worry about who said what or whom to contact about something I found particularly interesting.

Finally, if you’re going to a medical conference you will almost certainly need to have some form of tracking in place as to which sessions you attend and for how long. You need to collect this information for Continuing Medical Education purposes.

Networking tips

Conferences have always been a great way to meet new people in your industry or strengthen existing relationships. As always, a little bit of preparation can make all the difference.

If you know who you want to meet, check when they will be speaking. Then you can introduce yourself after their session. (I prefer to wait until afterwards as they might be preoccupied before their presentation. You will also be more memorable if you tell the person something specific that you learned from their talk.)

Conference NetworkingWhen you do meet someone new, it is often helpful to ask for a business card. Although they seem almost anachronistic nowadays, most professionals will carry these to a conference. Of course, this means that you must also have a supply of cards available.

If you are bringing business cards, make sure that your contact information is accurate and up-to-date. A new contact might try once to get in touch but if they confront resistance from an incorrect email address or phone number you will lower their desire to keep trying. Just think of the potential opportunities lost to a simple typographical error!

This is also where your optimised social networking profiles can be critical: if you do share a LinkedIn address on your business card, for example, a contact might choose to check you out during downtime later in their day. If your profile is an unprofessional mess they probably won’t bother trying to reach out to you any further.

Finally, it is often extremely useful to make some notes during the meeting about who you met, something about your conversation together or the context in which you spoke. This will be incredibly important when you attempt to follow-up later.

Prepare your ‘Elevator Pitch’ in advance

If you do happen to bump into someone you want to meet, it is much better to have worked out what you might want to say in advance. Imagine your embarrassment should you meet a professional hero and then not have anything useful to say.

A short sentence or two explaining who you are and why you wanted to meet them is enough. Mention a presentation they have made or a paper they published. Academics love to be asked about their work. Neil Patel has some suggestions for coming up with a good elevator pitch at Quicksprout.

Professional Behaviour

Anytime you travel for a conference there will be opportunities to socialise with fellow conference attendees. Some will be official functions of the meeting, like a welcome dinner or networking events. Others will be more random, and driven by the social connections you have and the networking you are doing at the meeting itself.

It is important to consider whether you will want to participate in these kinds of events. Firstly, informal gatherings running throughout the conference are great opportunities to network. You might find that you have more success in making new connections when everyone is feeling more relaxed. You might also bring back some great memories of meeting friends and colleagues and socialising together informally.

Of course, as with any pseudo-workplace setting, there are also potential risks to consider. Do you want to be ‘that lady’ who overindulged and had to be helped to a cab to return to your hotel early? Might you risk saying something inappropriate or even offensive in front of the new contacts you’re trying so hard to impress?

It might pay to consider what you are hoping to achieve and whether your goals will be served by attending informal events before you travel. Remember that your new business contacts might well be measuring you up, even in social settings.

After the Conference

Once the conference is over you might need to travel home and get back to work, but there are many other things you should consider doing to optimise your yield from attending.

As with any process of learning, it is very helpful to review your notes, research around the topic, look up key references from academic presentations and so on. Any time you take notes in a session you should consider which things you might want to look up later in order to build upon the new knowledge or at least to confirm it.

Just taking notes and then never looking at them again is highly unlikely to yield long-term knowledge gain.

Everyone has their own learning style, and you likely know yours. Whatever your preferred method, you should consider attending a conference as just like studying a course of attending a class: there will be study afterwards if you really want to learn the material.

Following up with new Contacts

If you gave out a bunch of business cards and collected some of your own, it will be good to reach out in some way with a personal note to the recipient. This could be trying to contact them on social media or via email.

It is much more likely that you will receive a positive response to your attempt to contact if you can remind them of your discussion at the meeting. This is where those notes you took when you met the person really enable you to make a personal connection.

If it is appropriate and your new contact has responded positively to your request for contact, why not suggest ways in which you might help them? You never know when a new contact could become a collaborator, or introduce you to someone with whom you will collaborate. Keep your mind open to the possibilities and you never know how beneficial that chance meeting might end up being!

Update your Curriculum Vitae

Your attendance at a conference demonstrates your commitment to ongoing learning and development. As such, having a list of conferences you’ve attended in recent years is often a good thing to show on your CV.

If you gave any kind of presentation you will certainly need to list this as well – generally, you might list these presentations in reverse chronological order. If you don’t make a habit of doing this upon your return it might be months or years before you remember to do so. It doesn’t hurt to strike while the iron is hot!

Thank your Colleagues for covering you

Although you will probably return the favour at some point in the future, it is still important to be polite and respectful of the fact that other people have still been working in your absence. If they have specifically covered your practice it is good form to touch base upon your return to make sure no disasters occurred while you were away.

When you call you can take the time to thank them. A little courtesy goes a long way!

Plan your next Conference!

The final step is to think through all the wonderful learning and connections you have made. Then? Start planning for another conference! Where might it take you? What new contacts could you make? What will it mean for your academic career?

Conferences are truly one of the best ‘bang for buck’ experiences you can have as a doctor, so get planning!


Has this guide encouraged you to start planning your next conference? Is there something I missed? Do you have any tips for me and other readers? Please comment below!



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