Navigating career fairs for PhD students and postdocs

We are about to enter the peak Career Fair season at Penn, and now is a good time to start thinking about how to make the most of these great opportunities, especially if you have never attended a career fair before. Here are six things you can do at career fairs even if you aren’t actively looking for a job (and especially if you are!)

1) Hand people your well-formatted, mistake-free, Career Services’ critiqued resume. OK, if you are not looking for a job, this is one that you might be able to skip. But…, what happens if you are chatting with employers, and someone asks about your experience, and then says, “do you have a resume I can take away with me?”. Which do you think is the best response:

  • Errr…., no, but I can write my name and email on this napkin.
  • Yes, this reflects my experience to date, and obviously I am going to be gaining more experience over the next few months/years. If I were interested in this type of opportunity, can you see any areas where additional experience might help me in this career field?
  • What’s a resume?

2) Network. People with effective networks build them continuously over time. They spend their time developing and maintaining their network so that when they need help, the network is already there for them, and the people within the network know and trust them. The best time to network from a career perspective is when you are not even looking for a job, but are exploring possible career paths that best match your skills and interests. So, take time at career fairs to ask smart questions (which means doing some prep work ahead of the fair to see who is coming and what questions you can ask), share your information with people in different career fields, and look for any opportunities to keep the conversation going after the event (a thank-you email is a good start).

3) Think about all your options. You may have your heart set on one type of job, or working at one specific organization, and it is important that you work hard to achieve what you want. However, it never hurts to explore more than one career path. If you need to switch career tracks at a future date, for personal, family, or professional reasons, it is always helpful to know about other career fields that might value your skills and knowledge. At the career fair, you can ask recruiters, and often Penn alumni, what they are looking for in resumes for the types of jobs they have available now. They might be able to help identify the kind of experiences you can gain in the present, and over the next few months/years, that might make you competitive for other types of jobs in the future.

4) Tell people about yourself. The question “tell me about yourself” (whether spoken or inferred), will come up whenever you meet new people, but can also be asked during phone and in-person interviews. You need to have an interesting, succinct, and confident answer in all these situations. You are the expert in the subject of you, and so it is the one topic that you should have no hesitation talking about, but it does require a lot of practice to get this right. Career fairs are a great place to practice talking about yourself, as you need to summarize who you are, what skills you have, where you want to be going in the future, and how the person you are talking with might find all of this particularly relevant, all within about 30-60 seconds. When you are networking, people need to know what your networking goals are so that they know if/how they can help you.

5) Talk about your research. Graduate students and postdocs always need to remember that you are more than just your research. However, when talking specifically about your research, you will need to summarize what you do in a way that makes your subject understandable to a range of different people with differing degrees of expertise in your specific area. Can you tailor a summary about your research on ancient Aramaic texts or Tribble genes to experts in the field and to HR representatives far outside of it? Can you make your research and the skills you used to do your research interesting and relevant to them? Again, career fairs are a great way to practice talking about your research to a wide audience of people to see what resonates, and what completely mystifies!

6) See how it is done. Ideally, you don’t want your first career fair to be the one where you need to find a job. You want to work out all of your career fair nerves and mistakes beforehand. Even if you don’t talk to any employers (and you really should – they won’t bite), you can still watch how your peers handle themselves at career fairs. You can see how they are dressed, and whether they are keeping their right hand free to shake hands with people they meet, without having to juggle paperwork and drinks (and that means thinking about which shoulder to hang your bag on, so it doesn’t slip off when extending your hand). Small things can sometimes count when you are trying to make a good first impression. You can listen to the types of questions they ask, and you can learn to emulate the good or avoid the bad approaches they use.

Even if you speak to just a single employer at a career fair, it can still be a great use of your time if you are able to learn something important about a career field or employer, and develop a professional contact you can keep communicating with in the future. Chat with a career advisor if you want more help navigating career fairs on campus, and enjoy the conversations you will have with employers during these fairs.

By Joseph Barber
Joseph Barber Senior Associate Director, Graduate Students & Postdocs Joseph Barber