Networking is defined as “the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically, the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business” (Merriam Webster Dictionary). For physicians, what does this translate to? It means building relationships, joining conversations, and expanding the circle of people with whom you interact. Medical conferences provide a perfect setting for networking, because conferences bring together a very large number of professionals with similar interests. For pulmonary and critical care physicians, the most popular conferences include the annual conferences for CHEST, the American Thoracic Society (ATS), and the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM). However, smaller conferences or courses may feel less intimidating while also providing opportunities for networking.

Networking may be beneficial no matter what level you are in your career, be it student, resident or fellow, junior faculty, or division chair. Networking may help you to discover job opportunities, learn from leaders in your field, initiate collaborations, find mentors, and establish friendships. Despite its importance, how to network is not necessarily taught, so how does someone start networking at a medical conference (see Figure 1 for networking timeline)?

 

1. Set the Stage

Before the conference, determine your goals and start preparing. Your goal may be to meet one particular person or it may be to meet people from multiple places. For example, if you are looking for a job, you may want to try to meet multiple people from places or institutions where you are interesting in working. Most large conferences will pre-publish a program and have an app that you can search. Generally, the app includes attendees as well as presenters. Use the program or the app to look for people you may know – past mentors, alumni from your program, or even people you may have previously met in passing. For example, during my early years as faculty, I took 6 months leave to live in China (for personal reasons). There, I met a senior pulmonary and critical care physician who had trained in the United States but had been living in Beijing for more than 10 years. We have both since moved back to the United States, and I have met up with him at several conferences to catch up and reminisce. If there are particular people you would like to meet, you can reach out via email or social media in advance or make sure to note on your schedule to attend specific presentations.

 

2. Present Something

Most societies have deadlines for abstract/case report submissions about 6 months prior to the conference, so you have to be prepared well in advance to submit something. While it may be considered more prestigious to have an oral presentation, having a poster also provides a great opportunity for networking. However, don’t just have someone else bring the poster and hang it up for you. Be present during the designated poster viewing time, especially the time when the poster moderators are scheduled. People who are interested in your poster topic may seek you out and speak to you about it. Consider printing out regular page-sized versions of your poster that include your contact information for people to take with them. Since similarly themed posters are generally grouped together, talk to the people who have posters around you. This may be a great way to find future collaborators.

 

3. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

Last year, I attended a small group session at the ATS conference about networking. The attendees were asked to use one word to describe how they felt when they thought about networking. Some of the memorable responses were “fear”, “vomit-inducing”, and “awkward”. For some of us, it is much easier just to stick with our usual groups of colleagues and friends than to try to branch out. After the CHEST conference this year, a few of the fellows told me that they were just standing around and talking, and someone came up and introduced herself and just started chatting with them. While they found this to be very bold, they also had a pleasant conversation with this individual. You may form a relationship just by being friendly and striking up a conversation. Junior faculty may be more approachable and less intimidating than senior clinicians or researchers as well as have more time and understanding of your situation. Set a small, reachable goal, such as to introduce yourself to a specific presenter after a session. Prepare some standard topics or questions to use as conversation starters when you meet people. Some example questions are: “Where are you from?” “Can you tell me more about your project?” “How did you get started in this area of research?” “What inspired you to do the work you are doing?”

 

4. Carpe Diem: Seize Opportunities

Conference organizers understand that networking is an important part of conferences, and they therefore provide activities to help attendees network. These may include, but are not limited to, receptions, group meetings (for example, network meetings at CHEST and assembly meetings at ATS), lunches, pharmaceutical-sponsored events, and sessions targeting specific demographics like women in medicine. In addition, your home institution may have a meet-and-greet, which is a chance to mingle with alumni and other invitees. Some conferences may have dedicated spaces for specific attendees such as physicians early in their careers, trainees, or non-clinician researchers. You may also meet people at booths or lounge areas within the exhibit halls. Take advantage of all of these events and spaces. If you feel uncomfortable or intimidated in these environments, bring a friend with you for moral support (but don’t just stand in a corner talking only to your friend). Some professional organizations (such as ATS) may have a formal mentorship program where the society will set you up with a mentor who you can meet up with at the conference.

 

5. Use Social Media

It may be easier to “get to know” people via social media, such as on LinkedIn or X (formerly Twitter), than in “real life”. Update your LinkedIn profile before the conference. Follow the hashtags associated with the conference you are attending and respond to other people’s posts. Once you start communicating on social media, you will feel like you already know someone and will make meeting in person easier. Start writing your own posts to show your eagerness and enjoyment of the conference and see who likes your posts or retweets you!

 

6. Get Help

You may feel like you don’t know anyone at these huge conferences, but ask your mentors or section/department leaders to take you under their wing. Include both mentors at and outside your facility. The section chief from my institution was the President of CHEST, and she took the time to introduce me to people even though she was very busy during the conference. Not everyone will necessarily know someone this prominent, but mentors can help you set up meetings or introduce you to people you want to meet.

 

7. Follow Up After the Conference

Don’t lose the momentum that you built during the conference. Contact the people you met by email and thank them for their advice, time, or friendship, and follow up on potential opportunities with your CV or propose a collaborative project (clearly defining your role). If you haven’t already, start following the people you met on social media.

For people who are not natural talkers or extroverts, networking can be intimidating, but there are a lot of opportunities at medical conferences to get to know people. You may need to reach outside your comfort zone, but you should still honestly represent yourself and your interests. Remember that you don’t necessarily need to meet 100 people. Just establishing a few relationships that are meaningful and mutually beneficial can make a real difference in your life and your career.

 

Christina Kao, MD, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Section of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep at Baylor College of Medicine. Her interests include lung transplantation, sepsis, and medical education. She has served on committees in both CHEST and the American Thoracic Society.