5 Tips for Making the Most of Your First (EMRA) Conference

Kenneth Kim, MSIV, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
EMRA Legislative Coordinator, 2020-21

You’ve done it. The pandemic is over and you’ve finally made it to your first in-person conference held by your favorite professional organization (pronounced: EMRA). Now that you’re here, however, you’re nervous and don’t really know what’s going on or anyone here. You’ve spent money on travel, lodging, and registration fees to make it all the way here, and you want to get the most bang for your buck (and time).

As someone who’s attended multiple state ACEP and national EMRA conferences in the past 3 years, I want to let you know that conferences are some of the most fun and rewarding experiences I’ve had in medical school. That being said, I still get plenty nervous whenever I attend conferences. You’re not alone if that describes you. 

Today, I’d like to share some tips on how to get the most out of your future, first, in-person conference experience (and some pointers on how things might apply to the virtual conference setting for the present day). I’ll be focusing on conferences set up by professional (rather than academic) organizations where research can be a component, but perhaps not the primary focus.

1. Secure funding and get the most bang for your buck

Before the conference, look into a variety of funding sources in order to subsidize an expensive conference while on a tight medical student budget. Common sources can range from your school, to your PI, to conference travel grants from the professional organization itself. If you do secure funding, make sure to save your receipts to ensure you’re properly reimbursed for your trip.

To optimize costs, see if you know anyone at your school who is also attending and if you can split costs on lodging or transportation. Hostels and airbnbs can often be cheaper than hotels, and the conference hotel is almost always your priciest (albeit most convenient) option. Public transit can save you loads over ridesharing or taxis, so look into the city’s public transit system ahead of time (protip: many cities have a commuter line from the airport to city center). 

If you’re trying to take time off during or in between mandatory rotations or classes, try to optimize your flight itinerary and nights stayed to ensure you’re not paying for a night’s stay if you could just fly in the next morning. On that note, many course instructors can be very understanding with excused absences and make up work if you speak honestly about cost concerns and let them know early.

2. Make a schedule but be flexible

Do some research beforehand: go online to look up the conference schedule, and see what events pique your interest. I found it helpful to log all the events I was interested in on my Google calendar app, even ones that overlapped, so I wouldn’t have to keep checking the conference websites to see what was going on.

You can’t attend everything, but you can optimize your schedule to attend most of the things that you’re interested in. If it’s even moderately interesting, put it on your schedule. If you’re feeling tired that day, you can always skip it and no one will know (unless they specifically require attendance)! If you’re choosing between events/talks, try to go with the one that you know less about. Time to learn something new and make connections outside of your usual circles!

Know when to call audibles to take time off for yourself, grab a bite with a new or old friend, or spend the extra time to network with that cool speaker after their talk. You never know how cool the people you could meet on spontaneous adventures may be!

3. Meet your future friends

While attending talks and residency fairs can be valuable parts of attending professional conferences, perhaps the most important thing is to make connections with your future mentors and peers within your profession. A great way to do this is to attend mixers and less formal events where you’ll often find it easier to approach others.

Networking is hard (and awkward) for almost everyone, but that’s ok. Know that everyone else is probably just as nervous as you! Remember that everyone is attending this conference for similar reasons as you, and that you probably have some shared interests in common, so don’t be afraid to bring up conference-related topics to spark conversation. While it’s easy and feels safe, try your best not to be on your phone too much as it closes you off from meeting others. If you have a business card (or social media handles) on hand, share them!

Find a conference buddy – if you know anyone coming from your school (or even a stranger you get along with at an early event), try and exchange contact info to keep track of each other and make events feel less intimidating.

Though it’s not something I do personally, live-tweeting with conference hashtags or utilizing other social media platforms can connect you further to the conference community and start long-term relationships that will last beyond the conference events. This applies to virtual conferences as well!

4. Be Kind to Others and to Yourself

You never know who you’re going to meet, so be kind to other attendees and organizers as everyone’s trying their best to make the experience as enjoyable as possible. Again, everyone you meet is a potential future friend, mentor, or colleague, so keeping a professional and polite demeanor will go a long way.

Conferences can be long and tiring, and it’s ok to step back and take a breather from all the action. One missed event is not the end of the world. Again, no one person can attend and experience everything. Take in as much of the conference as you can handle but forgive yourself for any more beyond that.

5. Have Fun! Have Fun! Have Fun!

As I said before, conferences have been some of the most amazing times I’ve been able to have in my medical career so far, and I’m excited for the many more that my future holds. Conferences age like wine: they become more and more fun as time goes on as you build a community of friends and become comfortable with the usual swing of events. I highly encourage you to sign up for the next conference that you can safely attend in-person, and I hope your conference journey is as wonderful as mine has been. Can’t wait to meet you at the next EMRA conference!

If you’re feeling inspired, register for upcoming EMRA @ ACEP!  These events are free for EMRA members!