LOA Travel Log: Why Every Medical Student Should Attend an Academic Conference

LOA Travel Log
(Or, “Why every medical student should attend an academic conference”)

During my research fellowship, I have had the incomparable experience of spending an entire academic year working within a residency program in my intended field, Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery. However, I recognize that many of my colleagues will never get a chance to spend that kind of extended period with members of their specialty of choice prior to joining their ranks. If you are lucky enough to enter medical school with a firm grasp of what you hope to pursue, you might get the chance to spend a summer working with a faculty mentor. If you decide later in the game, your entire exposure—to a specialty to which you plan to dedicate the rest of your professional life—might equate to as little as two weeks as a third year clerk. If you happen to select a field like anesthesia or emergency medicine, you might never have a chance to experience the field until the day you show up as an acting intern, the plan taking you from medical student to resident already set into motion.


So what is a medical student to do? Not everyone has the desire or the ability to pursue a year of dedicated research. I certainly would not encourage the route I have taken for anyone who is not truly motivated to gain a comprehensive research experience.

My advice: find an opportunity to attend an
academic conference relevant to your field.

My research mentor strongly encourages students in his lab to submit for and attend conferences. I therefore traveled to three different meetings in the field of OHNS over the course of this spring. These trips were incredibly informative and formative for me. Here’s why I think you should give it a shot:


1) You get to interact with faculty and residents outside the hospital

Ever wonder what people are like when they’re not in clinic? When they don’t have fifteen floor patients to manage and an OR case starting in five minutes? I found that at conferences, while people are there for business purposes, they also take a little bit of time to kick back. The conferences tend to occupy much of the daytime, but evenings are largely on your own. People might do group dinners or activities, giving you the opportunity to sit down in a relaxed setting and allow members of the department to get to know you, and vice versa. Ask them about their outside interests as well as their work. Find out what it’s like to live the life you’re working toward.


2) Face Time

Don’t underestimate the value of exposure. At national conferences, you gain access to people from across the country—even across the world—in your field. In some cases, this might only involve access to hear the person speak in a large forum. In others, that might mean hand-shaking and face-to-face conversation. Think of how that could help on the interview trail!


3) When you’re presenting, suddenly YOU are the expert

During our medical school careers, we spend a lot of time at the bottom of the totem pole. We often know the least and we have experienced the least.  Heck, you probably don’t even know where the closest bathroom is. If you present research at a conference, you are considered an authority on your specific topic. People ask you questions, not because they are “pimping” you, but because they are curious what they can learn from you on the topic at hand. It can be nerve-racking, for sure, but it’s also a huge confidence boost. And as per the old “see one, do one, teach one” adage, you learn a lot from sharing your own knowledge.


4) If you’re bored at this point, you might be bored for the rest of your life

Picture this: you’re sitting in a massive hotel “ballroom” filled with rows of chairs. There’s a powerpoint slide on a projector screen 50 feet from your seat. Someone is discussing the latest technique they’ve developed for a procedure or a randomized trial they’ve performed on the efficacy of a certain intervention. Are you asleep yet?
I had attended conferences in the past, and felt like I had to convince myself that the topics being discussed were interesting. Occasionally, a specific presentation would catch my eye, but largely I was fighting off the Zzzzzz’s.

The conferences I attended in OHNS were different. I found myself enthralled by the presentations given. I was excited by how innovative the field seemed, and by the opportunities that such work presented for my use in the future. Certainly, not every minute topic struck a chord, but I was much more likely to be fascinated than fast asleep.


Whatever field you choose to pursue, I think it should intrigue you that much. We’re at such an infantile stage of our training; when we attend a conference where new innovations in our field are being presented we should be like wide-eyed children seeing a magic trick. In time, the secrets will be revealed to us and we’ll be able to perform what now seems mystical. Eventually, it might even become routine. But for now the mere thought of being privy to inventions of great minds in our field should be simply riveting.


Make good use of your time, be it within the normal curriculum or on an “extended track.”  Good luck, and may we each find our particular niche!


By Candace Mitchell