Not that Kind of Conference: Attending Clinical Conferences as a PhD
Fall is here, and with that, the start of conference season. For a number of years, I attended one or two conferences annually, focused on my Terrible Disease of Interest, but at meetings largely composed of PhDs like me. More recently, I have started attending the clinical meeting relevant to the MDs who treat said Terrible Disease. The meeting is large and most of it is not directed towards me, however, I am here to tell you why I go and why you should consider attending. N=mostly me, with a few observations of more established investigators.
Be an active member of your clinical Department: While your chair and clinical colleagues will not know your smaller, basic science meeting, they all know the large clinical one. In fact, the entire department is likely going, and as a member of the department, postdoc or faculty, you should be there too. It is also a nice opportunity for your chair to show off the research in the Department, and a chance for you to connect with other chairs who support similar research programs, as well as meet the PhDs in those departments. If you are a postdoc, these research-intensive departments are likely to be hiring. It is never too soon to start making connections with your future chair. If you are a member of a basic science department, attending these clinical conferences becomes even more important, as you want to be a known entity, particularly if you are developing a translational research program.
Learn emerging trends and treatments: A large part of our job as translational scientists is selling the importance of our science. This means not only understanding the problem, but also understanding the clinical treatment of said problem. There is often a lag time between a seminal clinical trial and adoption of the practice into the clinic. If you rely on the literature for keeping up to date with the latest treatment guidelines, you can miss important changes in care or controversies. I was recently surprised at a clinical meeting to discover something I believed to be widely accepted and of concern was actually wildly controversial in clinical practice. Needless to say, there were some re-writes on that section of the grant. It did not change the science or the preliminary data, but it did impact why the problem was significant and why our approach was innovative.
Find your community and build your network: Being a scientist on the edge of basic and translational research can be isolating. The clinicians think you do basic research and the basic researchers think your studies are clinical. Large clinical meetings will have a basic science component, and there you will meet the graduate students, postdocs, and principal investigators (PIs) that work in the field. This is your community—get to know them. The PIs you meet will likely review your papers and grants, and it is good for them to know you and your work. This is also the easiest time to network (tips for networking). Everyone is looking for someone to talk to during the poster session, so go meet some fellow scientists. If you are a postdoc, tell people to come check out your poster.
Identify collaborators and mentors: In the research portion of these meetings, you will identify the clinicians that are interested in a research program. These are the clinical faculty you, as a new PI or postdoc, want to meet. Clinical collaborators and mentors provide access to knowledge and resources (clinical samples, patients, data, etc.) that you normally cannot access. They are invaluable to leading a translational science program and can lead to some interesting projects and collaborative grants. Moreover, by examining their research programs, you can identify areas of potential collaboration or learn how they successfully interact with their PhD counterparts, be they in biostats, molecular biology, or epidemiology.
The reverse is also true for clinician-scientists: If you are a clinician-scientist interested in building a basic science program, come to our conferences too. You too will build your network, identify mentors, learn where the field is heading, and most importantly, spend a couple days hanging out with people who like the same science you do! We promise not to ask you how your science will cure our Terrible Disease of Interest.
In summary, if you get a chance to go to the big clinical meeting in your field, go. You will make some new contacts and appreciate the clinical complexity of the disease which you study. If nothing else, you will get some free swag and meet some new friends.
Did I miss an important point? Do you have questions or concerns about the post? Or perhaps an anecdote to contribute! Feel free to send some electrons my way in the comments, via Twitter @PipetteProtag, or through traditional electronic mail firstname.lastname@example.org