The APTA Combined Sections Meeting (CSM) has always held a special place in my physical therapist heart. It has given me a lot of firsts: first professional conference I ever attended, first to inspire fervent engagement in our profession, first to land me a job as a physical therapist, and first to solidify my professional social network. So to say that CSM is one of my favorite conferences is an understatement.

Why should you attend CSM?

I still remember walking into the Exhibit Hall in the San Diego Convention Center in 2013. I was in awe of the massive size of the room. There had to have been thousands of booths (at least that’s what it seemed like). I listened to lectures and met scientists whose research papers I had read in school. The breadth of topics made me feel like I could work as a clinician, as a researcher, in policy—the opportunities were endless.

After attending my first CSM, I was hooked. I went back to my home institution, Washington University in St Louis, and vowed to be a physical therapist that transformed society through our patients, our profession, our association, and our healthcare system. CSM transformed my trajectory as a student, a physical therapist, and a leader.

Afraid of missing too much, just before attending my first CSM I turned to my Twitter community for advice on how to make the most of the conference. Below were five tips I found to be the most helpful for getting the most out of the Combined Sections Meeting. These tips are based on advice from seasoned PTs, professors, former first-timers, and my own personal experience. Have any more? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TheSteph21.

  1. Look at the schedule ahead of time.

This one seems obvious but it is essential not to feel overwhelmed when attending CSM. It is an enormous meeting with lots of programming, meetings, events, and people. Look at the schedule prior to going to the conference and write down or circle the talks/meetings that interest you most. Most big conferences offer mobile apps now as well which I highly recommend. Having session times, speakers and meeting rooms in the palm of your hand can be a lifesaver.

Think about what you really want to get out of the experience. Do you need CEU’s? Do you want to build your professional network? Do you want to see friends? Is there a topic about which you wish to learn more? Whatever your goal is, use this to guide your programming choices. CSM is a very busy, fast-paced conference and without proper planning you may feel overwhelmed.

  1. Don’t think you have to go to everything

This is a big one for first-timers, especially students. There is a lot going on at the same time. If you try to make it to everything, you will be exhausted. Again, focus on what you want to get most out of the meeting and use this to guide your process of elimination. If you go to a talk that you don’t like or isn’t what you thought it would be, it is okay to get up and leave and try a different presentation.

  1. Attend the morning business meetings

Morning business meetings offer great opportunities for networking, voicing your thoughts to section leadership, hearing what is happening in your section, exploring a section you are interested in joining, or getting some free coffee or food. When I attended CSM for the first time, these meetings helped me decide what sections were important to my development as a PT, my contribution to the profession, and in deciding which section I would donate my time.

  1. Visit the Exhibit Hall

The exhibit hall is one of the most amazing spectacles at CSM. You don’t have to stop at every booth but it is enjoyable walking around and seeing what companies and booths catch your eye (or who has the best free stuff). If you are interested in specific companies or products, be sure to look up what their booth numbers are prior to coming to CSM. Write them down and make them first priority when visiting the exhibit hall. It is easy to get sidetracked once there. Don’t be afraid to try out new products or interact with the people working at the booths. The exhibit hall can be a great place to network with potential employers, residencies, continuing education companies or brands.

  1. Set aside time to meet up with colleagues you interact with on social media

You plan to attend some of the social events anyway. Why not tweet at some of your Twitter colleagues for a meet up? Forming relationships on social media does help grow your social network so when you have the chance, solidify these relationships with a face-to-face meeting. I have formed many close friendships this way (in fact, I got my job at RehabAuthority this way).

Following these five pieces of advice will ensure your experience at CSM is memorable and educational. When you leave San Antonio, I hope you leave feeling inspired, invigorated, and hopeful. There are a lot of physical therapists and physical therapist assistants in our country. This conference enables us to come together and truly transform society.

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