Thriving at Your First ASCO Annual Meeting

Get Permission

Roberto A. Leon-Ferre, MD

Roberto A. Leon-Ferre, MD

The ASCO Annual Meeting is the world’s largest multidisciplinary oncology conference, attracting over 30,000 attendees each year. Countless advances are unveiled in Chicago year after year. The sense of excitement generated by knowing that clinical practice may change for the bettering of our patients’ lives after a 4-day retreat is palpable in the environment. The opportunity to connect with old friends and colleagues from around the world—and the prospect of meeting new like-minded colleagues and potential mentors and collaborators—is the icing on the cake. 

While incredibly energizing and exciting, the size and scope of the Annual Meeting can leave a first-time attendee stunned, not knowing where to start or how to take full advantage of the event’s many offerings. I can vividly remember the sense of overwhelm that inundated me when I first set foot in Chicago’s McCormick Place as a fellow. For a second, I was mentally transported to the first time I visited New York City’s Penn Station, watching people frantically running to catch the next train (or in this case, presentation). Here are some tips I wish I knew ahead of my first Annual Meeting: 

1) Carefully look at the “menu” and plan your time. 

There are many simultaneous sessions at the Annual Meeting. Planning is paramount! The key to matching the meeting’s offerings to your interests and needs is to prioritize and select those events you do not want to miss. One of the most convenient ways to do this is by downloading the iPlanner app, which contains the full program and allows you to create a personalized daily schedule with your selected sessions. In addition, you will be able to mark sessions to watch later as recordings, which is particularly helpful if you are interested in two concurrent sessions. 

2) Decide what types of sessions will be most helpful to you. 

When I attended my first Annual Meeting, I was a first-year medical oncology fellow just starting to understand the basics of cancer care. While I had decided I wanted to be in academics, I had not decided yet what my focus was going to be. As such, the variety of sessions available at the Annual Meeting was intimidating. You will definitely want to make time to attend the Plenary Session, as the most impactful research is presented there. However, as a junior oncologist, I found the Education Sessions particularly valuable. In these focused sessions, experts provide snapshots of where the field is. I found that after learning the background from the experts, it was much easier to put in context the new developments being unveiled at the meeting. At the beginning, I was attending Education Sessions across several disciplines. As I developed my interests in specific areas, I prioritized my attendance at Education Sessions within a few tracks. If you have particular areas of interest, you will also want to allocate time to attend the pertinent Oral Abstract and Poster Discussion Sessions. 

3) Take full advantage of the Trainee & Early-Career Oncologist Member Lounge. 

If you are in training or a freshly minted oncologist, you will want to spend time at the Trainee & Early-Career Oncologist Member Lounge. This is a space designed “by trainees, for trainees” and effectively serves as a safe home base within the larger bustle of the Annual Meeting. The lounge offers sessions specifically developed for junior attendees addressing not only scientific topics but also career development. 

Some of the most helpful lounge sessions to take advantage of in your first few Annual Meetings include: 

  • Tips for Navigating the Annual Meeting 
  • Cancer Takeaway Sessions, where experts highlight and summarize the most impactful research presented at the different Annual Meeting tracks 
  • Guided Poster Walks, in which small groups meet with an experienced oncologist who selects key posters to visit, usually around a specific cancer type, and discuss how they interpret the results. 

If you are about to embark on the daunting task of finding a job, you will want to attend these opportunities: 

  • Career Choices Session, where a panel of oncologists from different practice settings (academia, private practice, hybrid practices, industry, and government) share their insights, followed by roundtable discussions with opportunities for small-group Q&A 
  • One-on-one mock job interviews, an opportunity to practice your interviewing skills with a seasoned oncologist in a low-stakes environment. 

The lounge also fosters one-on-one or small-group interactions with other fellows, junior oncologists, and experts from around the world. You can find the schedule for the lounge in the iPlanner app. 

4) Catch up with old colleagues and expand your network. 

In addition to all the scientific sessions, one of the most valuable aspects of the Annual Meeting is the opportunity to meet and connect with like-minded people from around the globe. A short conversation in the coffee line can turn into a long-lasting collaboration. The poster presentations are a natural venue to connect with researchers and discuss common interests. In addition, make sure to use the “Find a Colleague” feature of the iPlanner, which allows you to search and send a message to other meeting attendees. 

5) Be ready to take notes. 

Whether paper-based or digital note-taking, I find it extremely helpful to distill key presentations I attend to one or two key bullet points. I also make note of presentations I want to revisit after the meeting is over. This helps me put everything I learned in context and makes it easier for me to share what I learned with colleagues who were unable to attend. Keep in mind that your registration includes access to slides and videos captured at this year’s sessions on Meeting Library (, to aid your memory after the Annual Meeting is over. 

6) Enjoy your time in Chicago! 

Whether this is your first or twentieth Annual Meeting, make sure you have fun and make the most of it. It is amazing that for 4 days, the greatest minds shaping how we care for patients with cancer are under the same roof as those of us just getting started in the field. Make sure you also allow some time to explore the city and take a break, so you can get back home refreshed and even more excited about the work you do! ■

Originally published in ASCO Connection. © American Society of Clinical Oncology. “Thriving at Your First ASCO Annual Meeting.” ASCO Connection, May 2018. All rights reserved.