I have a confession to make. I’m a stone-cold convention junkie. Convention, symposium, conference, meeting…no matter the name, I am there! Since I started at the College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013, I have been to at least eight or so meetings and before 2015 rolls into 2016 I will have added a few more notches to that belt. Why do I love conventions so much? Is it the radical swag? The camaraderie of colleagues? The chance to leave school for a weekend? Yes. Yes. Yes. Here are a few more reasons why you should add a convention to your vet school bucket list.
Probably the most obvious reason to come to a conference is the opportunity to learn new things. When you get out into your careers you will have to do Continuing Education (CE). The requirements are different for each state, but in Illinois a veterinarian has to complete 40 hours of CE over a two-year period. Various organizations offer CE, but organized professional groups like AVMA, American Association of Bovine Practitioners, and the state veterinary medical associations (like the Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association) are usually the best sources of CE. Conferences represent opportunities for veterinarians and other professionals, like certified veterinary technicians (CVTs), to get their CE in one fell swoop, usually in a sweet vacation destination.
While CE is not a pressing concern for a student, we still get the benefit of attending these lectures. Plus there is no test after these lectures! It’s all pressure-free learning. Depending on the convention, you could learn just about anything in your area of interest and beyond. Mini pigs, use of social media and other technologies, handling work-life balance, cattle welfare, and becoming a global practitioner are just a slice of what is on the menu. You can boost your knowledge in an area you love and add a little a la carte info about more satellite topics. I like conferences because I look forward to pursuing a more non-conventional career. Some of the topics that interest me, like global food systems and the veterinarian’s role in climate change, aren’t covered every day in our college’s curriculum. Conventions are valuable for me to get more information on these non-traditional topics so I can better educate myself on what’s out there as well as to feed my need to learn more about what I love. Veterinary conferences often offer wet labs to help you work on hands-on skills. At the SAVMA (Student AVMA) Symposium this year in Minneapolis, I attended a raptor necropsy wet lab at University of Minnesota’s awesome raptor center. We practiced techniques like placing an interosseous catheter and air sac cannulation. I even showed a student from another school how to place her first sutures. So, if the idea of sitting through more lectures makes you cringe, there are always wet labs to give you some hands-on learning time too.
It has oft been repeated in the halls of the Basic Sciences Building that we should “act professionally.” What does that mean to you? Veterinary conferences are a great way to immerse yourself in the profession so you can continue to build your own personal brand of professionalism. At conferences I often think of myself as a little calf walking beside its mother and learning the ways of the pasture. What to eat, what not to eat, and how to survive in the herd hierarchy. Conferences can help clue you in on what to wear at professional meetings, proper etiquette at meals, parliamentary procedure, and many more intangible aspects to carrying oneself as a professional. There are usually directed sessions on ways you can, for example, handle difficult clients without losing your cool. Many conventions have sessions directed at students to help guide us on topics such as how to build a great resume, interviewing tips, and advice for when you first get into practice.
Networking, networking, networking is probably the next, and most important, reason to attend conferences. There are lots of opportunities to chat with veterinarians over meals and in the hallways of the convention center. At American Association of Bovine Practitioners this September in New Orleans, I shared a lunch table with a 4th-year student and some vets and I’m pretty sure the student got a job out of that encounter. The majority of the conversation you engage in will not result in an immediate concrete job offer. Good networks take time to build so be patient, young grasshopper. I found a coach for the college’s Animal Welfare Club’s welfare judging team from a contact I met at the ISVMA conference last year. I’ve met awesome like-minded students from around the country (and world!) and even got the chance to meet veterinary rock stars like the first female AVMA president, Dr. Mary Beth Leininger, and the Chief Veterinary Officer for the United States, Dr. John Clifford. I have also had the opportunity to meet Temple Grandin multiple times at various conventions. Contrary to popular belief, networking doesn’t mean having to be sterile and robotic. Remember, veterinarians are people too! I like to just go up to some people I don’t know and ask where they are from and what they do. That is often a great way to break the ice. After that, just let the conversation flow and keep your ears open. If you come with a group of classmates it can be very seductive to stick with the pack, but it will also be very hard to meet new people that way. If networking is your goal then break away and go shake some hands! Don’t worry about being awkward. Remember, you are just a little calf learning the ropes and no one expects you to be the perfect charmer.
Escape the Ivory Tower
My personal favorite reason to hit the convention circuit is the opportunity to escape the ivory tower of academia and take a little swim in the real world. Being at a veterinary college offers a unique privilege to be surrounded by non-stop, high-density learning. The amount of knowledge swirling around the hallways of our college is pretty astounding and it behooves us to take advantage of this while we are here. However, it can be nice to break out and get a taste of what’s to come. Conferences are a GREAT way to accomplish this. I always feel so invigorated and excited about my future when I attend a conference. I get to meet like-minded people, learn about the specific topics I love, and get a feel for the world I’m stepping into. When your spirits are low after a tough run of lectures, exams, or clinics, it’s so important to get that vet med mojo flowing again. Attending a conference really helps you to break out of a study rut so that you can continue to keep hitting the books so you make it to the other side of DVM.
Conferences give you the opportunity to explore a new city or visit an old haunt. I’ve traveled to Louisiana, Minnesota, Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Michigan for conferences. Many events offer local tours and activities if you want to go see the town in a structured fashion. However, you can also just go out and explore on your own. I’ve seen Bourbon Street, eaten Somalian food, and toured the National Wildlife Research Center all while attending a conference. If you need an excuse for a vacation, a conference just might be your ticket to ride.
Grab the Swag
If I still haven’t convinced you of the professional merits of attending a veterinary conference, then at the bare minimum, go for the swag! Most conventions have exhibit halls filled with sales reps just dying to tell you about their product and give you anything from free pens to free clothing to free Hurricane glasses. Many booths have raffles where you can enter to win iPads and TVs and all kinds of things. I actually started a collection of funny stress balls because they are a convention standard and sometimes you see some pretty hilarious ones. My favorite is one that looks like a red blood cell. You never know what treasures the exhibit hall will hold.
Hopefully you now have at least a slight convention twinkle in your eye! But where do you start? Most major organized veterinary groups, from the American College of Veterinary Pathologists to the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, host some sort of annual get together. If you do a quick Internet search I’m sure you can find some group that you want to learn more about. If you are unsure of where to start, then check out general conventions like the AVMA convention. I attended the AVMA convention in Boston this summer and it was amazing, mind-blowing, life-changing, and probably a few other superlative adjectives. In the summer of 2016 AVMA will be held in San Antonio, Texas. If that’s too far for you to travel, we have a convention coming up soon for the Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association (ISVMA). ISVMA’s Convention will be held in Springfield, Ill., October 23-25, and is a great opportunity to start learning to love conferences! There will be a wide variety of topics for those interested in small animals, large animals, welfare, emergency medicine, and much more! My first ISVMA Convention was last year and I was amazed at how eager the veterinarians were to meet students. What are you waiting for?
Pack your good blazer, your business cards, and a firm handshake…it’s convention time!