Continuous personal development is an important part of most chartered professions - Doctors, Dentists, Architects, Engineers, etc., and I can't help thinking it's a good thing - the state of knowledge within most areas is constantly expanding and the more knowledge your Doctor has, the better treatment you can get. It's a good thing that Architects can learn new things - it means that we get better buildings.
The rate that the IT field is changing is also rapid. This means that we have to continuously improve our knowledge in order simply to stand still. It's something that some employers will help with, particularly if the topic is relevant to upcoming work, but if your employer doesn't feel able to pick up all of the cost, there are lots of ways to help persuade them that it's cheaper than they think - and your showing an interest will probably tip the balance; it could also help them perceive you as a more enthusiastic and valuable employee.
However, not all conferences need cost you lots of money, if you can get yourself there and make the time.
As you may know, I am a regular attendee at the SQL South West User Group, and the group organisers, FatherJack and Mrs_Fatherjack are putting on the latest SQL Saturday event in Exeter (UK) on the 8th and 9th of March. The Friday is a paid day of deep-dive sessions (with a discount of 19% if you register by 31st January) and Saturday the 9th is a day of 1 hour long sessions on a variety of topics. These are usually long enough to cover a subject, without being too detailed. That means they're suitable for a variety of levels of knowledge.
The SQL Bits team are again putting on a conference on the first weekend in May (a bank holiday weekend), this time in Nottingham. I've written about my experiences attending an earlier SQL Bits conference and I'd highly recommend it.
If you can't free up the weekend of a conference, your local user group can be a gentler introduction, and you will find a list of UK SQL learning opportunities here.You can also see recordings of past sessions from most conferences online at your convenience, but of course that does mean you miss the networking opportunities that attendance at the event brings.
If you've been to conferences in the past, why not contribute back to the community, and submit a session for a conference, or speak at a user group? SQL Saturday 194 is accepting sessions until Monday 8th January 2013, and SQL Bits session submission is also open. Both events welcome submissions from new speakers.
Wherever you are in your career, I hope that you embrace the challenge of learning something new this year.