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Become a veterinary conference commando
Don't blow off conferences. Your brain and your career will thank you
It's the most wonderful time of the year—not Christmas, or Thanksgiving or spring break. It's conference season. Every year, I beg and plead with my boss to finagle as much time off for CE as possible. I harass my fellow doctors to swap days. I badger the practice manager to tweak the schedule. And I shake down the owner to trade in sick days for CE days—as the father of a 3-year-old in daycare, my immune system is practically bulletproof, or so the argument goes.
I know other people like attending conferences, but I love them. I prepare for them like astronauts prep for a moonwalk, and these gatherings have opened innumerable doors for me. In my experience, if you want to get the most out of your time at a conference, you have to know why you're going and you need to have a plan before you arrive for how to achieve your goals. When I prep for conferences, I make goals in three areas. They are:
Shake hands and kiss babies. It may sound odd to make this your top conference goal, but conferences are the one place where you can meet people face-to-face, all day long, who can help your career. Whether you're interested in asking a practice management guru specific questions about your practice's finances, making a career jump to industry, joining a new initiative in organized medicine or adding a clinical giant to your Rolodex for those "freak out" moments when your colleagues just don't have any good advice, conferences are the place to make it happen.
Build your own curriculum. It seems like most conferences today offer somewhere between 3 million and 2 zillion hours of CE over a four-day period. The big conferences have all of your absolute favorite speakers—speaking at approximately the same time. This overlap of teaching superstars leads to what I like to call the "veterinary squirrel phenomenon." This is when veterinarians dart full speed up one hallway to stop, look around, change their minds about what session they want to attend, and then dart right back the way they came. The affected veterinarians then become traffic hazards to all other attendees around them, and they end up late to everything they attend. Don't be a squirrel.
The other problem with taking a wait-and-see-what-grabs-me approach to CE is that you end up with such a mixed bag of new tricks, that you never use the majority of them. You can avoid this problem by deciding what skills and topics you really want to explore, and then devise your own curriculum to make major educational gains in these select areas. You can still pack in lots of variety, but when it's over you'll have some new areas of expertise that you can tout to your boss, colleagues and clients. Just research the conference program ahead of time and make those tough choices on whose lectures you'll attend so that you'll know where you're going and can spend break periods finding your way around the massive convention center in an orderly fashion.
This is what you did before the days of Facebook. Obviously it's great to bump into your friends at conferences, but given how rarely you see these people and how important staying in touch can be for your development and career, you should take socializing seriously. Most conferences have alumni receptions for veterinary schools, so start there. Once your reunion is blocked in for one evening, make sure there aren't any irresistible recreational events offered by the conference, like behind-the-scenes tours, wine tastings, amusement park discounts and so on. If there are, then put out the word to any and all of your friends that you'll be attending and they should join you. You'll end up doing exactly what you want to do with a lot of your old friends. It doesn't get much better than that.
To push your socializing to the next level, leverage social media before the conference. If you're a fairly recent graduate, there's a good chance that most of your classmates are on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Post the fact that you're going to the conference, and ask who else will be there. When people respond, start coordinating ways to get groups together to catch up. Social media is also a great way to promote personal gatherings. Whether it's at an amusement park, bar, coffee shop, breakfast buffet or dinner spot, don't be afraid to pick a time and place and call for a party. If rock stars can have huge parties at hotel bars, so can you.
If you go to a conference and pursue networking, educational and social goals, then you can expect lots of new career opportunities, a rewarding experience, and complete exhaustion at the end of the event. So make your goals, set your plans to accomplish them, and take an extra day off work after you get home. You're going to need it to recover. See you there!
Dr. Roark is an associate veterinarian in Leesburg, Va.