Quick guide to career fairs

You are unlikely to land a job at a career fair, but what you might find is that inside connection to a company or even a new career path to explore

Selected upcoming career fairs and resources events (2014 – 2015)*

Aug. 11 – 12: American Chemical Society Career Fair (Virtual and San Francisco)
Sept. 19: STEM Diversity Career Expo (New York City)
Sept. 23: National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers Annual Conference (New Orleans)

Oct. 15 – 18:
Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists Symposium (San Diego)
Oct. 16 – 18: Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers National Conference (Philadelphia)
Oct. 16 – 18: Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science National Conference (Los Angeles)
Oct. 18 – 22: American Society of Human Genetics Annual Meeting (San Diego)
Nov. 2 – 6: American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists Annual Meeting (San Diego)
Nov. 13 – 15: American Indian Science and Engineering Society National Conference (Orlando, Fla.)
Nov. 15 – 19: Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting (Washington, D.C.)
March 28 – April 1, 2015: Experimental Biology (Boston)
March 28 – 31, 2015: Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities Annual Conference (St. Louis, Mo.)
April 18 – 22, 2015: American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting (Philadelphia)
May 15, 2015: National Institutes of Health Career Symposium (Bethesda, Md.)
*This list is not all-inclusive, and information is subject to change.

You may be hesitant to attend a career fair if you are not formally in the job market, but I would encourage you to reconsider the value of these events for your personal career development. A career fair is an interactive way to assess the job market and build connections with future employers.
A few summers ago, I attended a small career fair hosted by the national lab where I worked that was attended by numerous employers. I went armed with copies of my résumé and a mindset that was different from that of most attendees: I used the event as a career-exploration exercise to evaluate how my skills and qualifications might fit into the future employment needs of research institutions.
By chance, a senior scientist from another national lab was in attendance because the lab recruiter had a travel conflict at the last minute. The scientist took the time to listen to me explain how I like to manage technical projects and then suggested that project management would be an ideal career path. (He also stared at me like a weird specimen under a dissecting microscope, because most scientists are not known for their love of staying organized!) In the end, I left the career fair with a renewed sense of purpose and the realization that I could take control of my career.
Career fairs are just networking events. My best advice is to avoid even asking about jobs and instead to focus on building rapport with the exhibitor by asking engaging questions: How do you like the company? What is the future direction of the company? Who is your ideal employee?
Varieties of organizations run career fairs and advertise these events on their websites, including the following entities:

  1. 1) career centers at universities, postgraduate offices, community colleges and state governments;
  2. 2) local chambers of commerce and newspaper groups;
  3. 3) professional science conferences and societies; and
  4. 4) private recruiting companies (e.g., BioSpace.com).

Also, online career fairs are becoming more common. The virtual format is a more affordable and convenient option for both employers and job seekers. These online events provide an extra opportunity to network and job hunt on a geographically limitless basis and allow job seekers to maintain privacy if desired.
Both in-person and virtual career fairs require preparation. I have compiled a few general tips, based on my own experiences, along with advice specific to a virtual environment. If you’re not sold on attending a career fair any time soon, then I definitely encourage you to at least stop by a virtual career fair for an hour or two to experience it for yourself.
Lastly, remember that any professional venue can serve as an informal career fair. Once when I volunteered as a poster judge during a national research conference, I inquired about whether any institutions had research programs starting up that would need managers. I was surprised at the level of positive feedback I received, including invitations to apply for future positions.

Career-Fair Preparation Guide

What to do Virtual tip
Résumé: Design a one- or two-page résumé for a broad audience and include a clearly defined objective statement. Check deadlines for submitting your résumé to employers before the fair. Also, consider making a detailed LinkedIn profile with a custom URL and bringing along a business card that includes that link with a corresponding quick reference code. As soon as you create your account on the virtual fair website, upload a résumé, add URLs for your public LinkedIn profile or personal website, and complete your profile.
Elevator pitch: Craft a three-sentence statement that includes one sentence each on your background, skills and career objectives. Remember to use complete sentences, proper grammar and professional language! Cut and paste this statement into a chat box or recite the words during a video chat. Pay attention to character limits in the chat box.
Time off: Schedule time away from work to participate in the career fair and consider making up the hours in the evening or using vacation time. Find an area clear of distractions (not your desk at work).
Appearance: Wear business or business-casual dress. Wear comfortable shoes in case the lines are long. Use a blank wall as a backdrop, turn on adequate lighting, use a headset and test equipment with the help-desk tech.
Navigation: View the agenda for the event and map out an itinerary for your activities. Know where each event will be held, arrive early if possible and take advantage of the information desk if you need accommodations. Orient yourself with each virtual room, take advantage of tutorials and ask questions at the help desk.
Research: Look through the list of employers, research their open positions and company profiles, and narrow down the list of ones in which you’re interested. Sign up for an appointment with each targeted employer as early as possible. If you don’t hear from the recruiter at your scheduled time, send a polite message to the booth to confirm.
Network: Introduce yourself to other job seekers so that you can share notes and strategies for the job search. Peers can be a great source of support and encouragement. Search profiles of attendees, find people with related interests and introduce yourself through private chats.
Resources: Take advantage of free career-development services offered during the fair (e.g., seminars, résumé reviews and one-on-one counseling). Save links and files for download.
Follow-up: Thank each recruiter after the fair in a short email or handwritten note via snail mail. Reiterate why you are interested in the company and remind him or her of your skills and qualifications. Plus, send e-mails or LinkedIn connect requests to other contacts that you met.
Donna KridelbaughDonna Kridelbaugh (@science_mentor) is a communications consultant and founder of ScienceMentor.Me. Her mission is to create an online field guide to self-mentoring in science careers. She offers writing, editing and marketing services for early-career professionals who are ready to advance their career to the next level.