Last week, Arti Patel began the Career Fair series, discussing some general principles to keep in mind as you get started. This week, Heather Cross discusses selecting and inviting your speakers.

In selecting speakers and panelists, you and your fellow postdocs will need to consider a number of factors. First and foremost, you will need to decide what careers you would like represented. These and other considerations, such as financial limitations and participant's speaking ability, are outlined below.

Careers of Interest

What careers do you and your attendees want to learn about? This is the key element in deciding on panelists and speakers for your career fair. As a member of an organizing committee, this is your golden opportunity to invite representatives from a range of companies to help you and others make informed decisions about which careers to pursue. Your committee should try to have a diverse panel, showcasing a variety of careers. In thinking about your panel, keep in mind the composition of panels from previous career fairs at your institution and from other local career fairs, so as not to duplicate effort. Also consider the background of your institution. For example, if you are at an academic institution, you may decide not to invite academic speakers because your own mentors and supervisors represent the academic background.

What if you and your committee don't know about available career options? You'll have to do a little research. In addition to the Next Wave, check out the undergraduate career services at local universities for suggestions. Additionally, popular books such as Guide to Nontraditional Careers in the Sciences by Karen Young Kreeger (Taylor and Francis) and Jump Start Your Career in Bioscience by Chandra B. Louise (Peer Productions) are good resources for information on the diversity of scientific careers. And don't forget your local biotechnology centers and young scientist chapters of national science organizations (e.g., the Association for Woman in Science and the American Chemical Society). These groups can be great sources of general career information (and potential speakers!). And if that's not enough to help you get started, a short list of science careers is given in the box below.

Jobs in Science: Some of Your Options

The Panelists' Abilities

By the time you are a postdoc, you have sat through enough lectures and seminars to know that the speaker's presentation style is a crucial factor in your enjoyment of the talk. What you may not realize, however, is that the presentation style of the panelists at a career fair is equally important. A panelist's ability to communicate can have a major impact on the flow and interest of a panel discussion. Poll the faculty, postdocs, and other members of your institution for recommendations of particularly interesting speakers. Consult your career services contacts for suggestions, and don't forget the local chapters of professional organizations and the local technology centers mentioned above. At the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in North Carolina, a key resource for the career fairs are the associates at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. These professionals have extensive first-hand knowledge of the presentation style of many scientists from local companies, and they're willing to share their thoughts!

Position in the Company

Often, panelists and speakers are CEOs and presidents of companies; however, don't overlook the value of more junior representatives. Junior scientists will be able to offer more recent knowledge of the job market. And because they have recently made the switch from postdoctoral training to a "real" job, the audience will better relate to the panelists' interview experiences and the key factors involved in their career selection.

Financial Considerations

Have little or no money available to sponsor speakers? In a few weeks, the Postdoc Network will include an article on just how to attract companies and their sponsorship money! But if you can't wait (or if the advice in that article turns out not to lead to your fundraising success), seek local speakers who will not require travel and hotel accommodation. Many scientists enjoy speaking to postdocs about their careers and may be willing to participate without receiving an honorarium. (Treating speakers to lunch, though, is always a nice gesture!) Remember that it is difficult for state or government employees to accept honoraria above and beyond travel and hotel expenses, therefore representatives from these institutions often require less financing. Lastly, keep in mind that companies that are hiring may be willing to pay for an existing employee's participation in your event if they know potential new employees are in the audience!

Inviting Your Speakers and Panelists

Once you have your list of potential speakers and panelists, it is time to invite them. The main benefits of organizing a career fair are project management experience and networking. Inviting a speaker, especially if they are the president or CEO of a company you are interested in, is a rare and valuable networking opportunity. Follow the guidelines below!

  • Step 1: Informal

    Although it may seem appropriate to send a letter of invitation at this stage, these rarely work. Letters (like resumes!) are too easily ignored. A personal appointment is almost impossible to obtain, so you are left with the good old telephone! Try to speak with the person directly, but if this cannot be achieved, do not despair. Many personal assistants will efficiently relay your request, resulting in a successful booking. Unlike letters, e-mail often works. When inviting a potential speaker (especially a company president or CEO), introductions from other members of the company can be effective, so ask around your institution to see if anyone has corporate contacts. If you get discouraged, keep in mind that people are generally very willing to participate in these events. In fact, it is rare to get turned down by anyone who is available on the day of your career fair.

  • Step 2: Formal

    Be professional, follow up your phone conversation with a formal letter of invitation using your institution's letterhead. Include details and the aim of the event, a proposed agenda, backgrounds of the attendees (i.e., from your institution only or also from outside; graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, or both), and some information about the format of the talk or panel discussion. Be polite. Don't include discussion of honoraria at this stage!

  • Step 3: Further correspondence

    Honoraria, parking permits, and other logistical considerations will be discussed in a later article in this series. It is courteous to provide a host for the speaker who will meet them or collect them from the airport or hotel, escort them during the day, and answer any questions or concerns leading up to the career fair. For panelists, it is also effective to provide predetermined questions to allow them to prepare more detailed responses where necessary.

  • Step 4: Thank you

    Always send a thank you letter after the event!

By selecting diverse panelists and speakers with good presentation skills and treating them in a respectful, professional manner, you and your fellow postdocs will gain a wealth of information on career options, and your career fair will be a great success. Good luck!

Heather R. Cross is currently an Assistant Research Professor at Duke University Medical Center. After completing a Ph.D. at Oxford University, Heather spent several years as a postdoctoral fellow at NIEHS, where she joined the NIEHS Trainees Assembly Steering Committee. Heather was chair of the 2000 NIEHS Science and Career Fair, an event involving over 300 attendees from several local institutions, 11 panelists--including presidents and CEOs of companies nationwide--and over 60 company representatives.