If you're lucky enough to attend a conference in your field, make the most of it. Professional conferences can expose you to new ideas and skills, reinforce your passion for your work and boost your career. "Every conference is a career-development tool if you choose to use it that way," says Sheila Murray Bethel, PhD, CEO of the Bethel Institute in Walnut Creek, California.
Here are nine tips on how to make a conference worth your time and effort:
Define Your Expectations
Before packing your bags, do some soul-searching. "Ask yourself, ‘What do I expect to get out of this meeting?'" Bethel says. "You'll get out of it what you put into it."
Think about your primary intention for going and what you hope to gain from the conference, suggests Julie Fuimano, MBA, RN, a Philadelphia-area personal and career coach with Nurturing Your Success. For example, your goal could be networking or learning a new clinical skill that will help you do your job better or advance in your career.
Examine the Offerings
Once you've defined your expectations, you can pore over conference brochures and schedules with real purpose, well in advance of your trip. If you're overwhelmed by the glut of sessions, narrow your options by asking people who have attended the same conference before which sessions they thought were the most advantageous, Bethel says. Fuimano suggests researching keynote speakers and unfamiliar topics online to get an idea of whether to make them a priority at the conference.
Bring notepads, pens and business cards to exchange with people you meet and to stick in vendors' bowls for a chance to win conference prizes. If you don't have business cards, make some on your computer using sheets of blank business cards that you can purchase at any office-supply store. Don't bring any distracting work-related projects with you. "If you can't afford to leave your work at home, don't come to the conference," Bethel says.
Mix It Up
Once at the conference, make time for professional development as well as skill building. Healthcare professionals should be especially vigilant about tailoring their conference agenda so they enrich themselves personally and professionally as well as clinically, Fuimano says. "You're not just there to learn something new, but to develop you," she explains. "You want to master your craft but also develop yourself as an individual."
Bethel recommends taking one session for nothing but "fun, fun, fun!"
Keep a Record
If your employer sent you to the conference, you may be expected to present what you've learned to your unit upon your return. Take organized notes to make preparing such a presentation easier, Fuimano says.
Put hot ideas on large Post-its that you can work from later, Bethel suggests. Some of the ideas you will most want to remember may come up in casual conversations rather than in formal sessions, so keep your pen handy.
Don't Overdo It
Get enough sleep and pace yourself, especially if your conference lasts several days. "There is only so much your brain is going to take in anyway," Fuimano says.
Keep an Open Mind
At any worthwhile conference, you will be exposed to unfamiliar ideas. "If you go to the conference locked into preconceived ways of thinking, then you are wasting your time," Bethel says. "Keep your mind open to new ideas that may revolutionize your career."
Make a Good Impression
Present a professional image at all times. Avoid heavy drinking. How you present yourself reflects on your organization. "People will remember you," says Fuimano, who has worked as a healthcare recruiter. "You might say, ‘I'll never work here -- I'm in a different area of the country.' But healthcare is a very small world. Things get around. If you develop a poor reputation, word travels. If you develop a good reputation, that travels, too."
Consider sending a handwritten note of appreciation to the person who sent you to the conference, Fuimano suggests. Such a note may open the door for similar opportunities for you or others in your organization in the future.