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According to a National Association of Colleges and Employers 2002 Job Outlook survey, employers identified job fairs as the third most preferred method of college recruiting (after internships and employee referrals). The number of discipline-specific job fairs, both on and off campus, is increasing. A staffing colleague of mine recently observed that in previous years there were usually one or two job fairs in major metropolitan areas, but this year there are no less than four life sciences job fairs scheduled in each of five major metropolitan areas.

No doubt about it, job fairs are popular and very well attended. In February 2001, while the economy was still strong, I directed a company-sponsored life sciences job fair. We anticipated nearly 1000 attendees, three times our usual attendance of 300 to 400, and were overwhelmed when over 3000 people attended. Fewer than 10% of those attending received job offers.

Regardless of the raw numbers, during my 16 years in human resources running and attending job fairs, that pattern has held constant: Fewer than 10% of those scientists attending a job fair receive job offers. What, you might ask, sets the successful attendees apart from the masses? In this column, I offer a few creative approaches--insider tips--that should help you get the most out of your job fair experience.

Getting Your Share of Interviews and Offers

I have often heard job fairs referred to as "meat markets." To some extent, that's an accurate description: Recruiters do see a large number of candidates at job fairs, and scientists often highlight similar experiences and skills. Under these circumstances, how do you distinguish yourself? Here are some tips on how to become one of the 10% who get a job offer.

Insider's Tip #1: Help the company and yourself get an edge at the job fair. Invite a company representative to campus prior to the job fair. When you learn that a company in which you are seriously interested is scheduled to attend a local job fair, call the company and ask to speak to the person scheduled to represent the company. Offer to assist with local arrangements: Organize a meeting with a student group or an informal social event targeting scientists. This will provide you an opportunity to build rapport with the recruiter. Too many assume they need to wait until the job fair to try to establish their first impression. 'By approaching the recruiter first, you will be building a relationship by offering to help, rather than asking for help.

Insider's Tip #2: Offer onsite assistance. Recruiters and company representatives must keep many balls in the air at job fairs. Knowing someone who is familiar with the facility and general area can be of great value. Prior to a job fair at a major Big 10 university, a student called me and offered to assist me while I was at the site. He ensured that our recruiting material got to the right booth, met me at my hotel, and showed me around the facility. Back at the office while working through the résumés of the 50 or 60 scientists I had spoken with at the job fair, the one who provided the assistance was most familiar to me. That edge can help to distinguish you from the masses!

Insider's Tip #3: Organize lunch away from the job fair. It may seem strange, but company representatives are often left to eat lunch alone or with other representatives. Often representatives and recruiters appreciate this down time, but most appreciate it more when someone arranges a relaxed lunch for them with interesting people. This isn't a situation where the recruiter is in the spotlight; rather, it is an opportunity for interesting conversation. I always enjoyed it when I had an opportunity to spend some relaxed time with several faculty members in disciplines related to the work of our company. Taking the initiative to make these arrangements is viewed positively, and more importantly, it helps the organizer stand out in the recruiter's memory.

Insider's Tip #4: Get a personal referral. As noted at the beginning of this article, referrals are the second most preferred college recruiting method by recruiters. Why? Because referrals provide recruiters with information from a credible source. This insider information may distinguish you from other candidates. It is my experience that presenting a personal referral from one familiar with the company will usually result in an interview.

The best referral is an employee referral. But how do you go about getting one? Well, do some homework. Ask the sponsors of the job fair, or the company, for information on the attending representative. Contact your alumni association to find out if that individual is an alum. Ask if others at the company are alumni of your school. In either case, introduce yourself, tell them of your interest (and common background), offer to share a résumé, and by all means ask to visit with them during the job fair.

Another source of referrals is students who have had internships at the company. Again, do some homework. Often companies with internship programs will tell you if someone from your university has had an internship with the company; university career services and some departments can also provide this information. The former intern can offer you a great deal of background on the company and may be able to introduce you to others at the company that may have credibility with the company representative. The company representative often assumes that those working for the company, including former interns, know what the company values in new employees and would therefore refer only those who meet the criteria.

Job Fairs: A Means to an End

Above, I've provided some tips designed to help you stand out from the many other scientists attending a job fair. In the following section I will provide insider tips on how to use the job fair as a means to an end and not an end in itself. Think of the job fair as a step toward getting interviews rather than immediate job offers. Seeing job fairs in this way will increase the value of your attendance and provide you some useful tools for your job search. Job fairs are a great place to look for introductions and professional connections--networking activities that will serve you for a lifetime beyond that first job interview and offer. Here are some tips on how to gain additional benefits from attending a job fair.

Insider's Tip #5: Network with those around you. Job fairs are ideal networking events. Most people have résumés and personal business cards that they will freely share. Each person carries a treasure of information, contacts, and connections. Use the opportunity to ask questions, listen for ideas, and explore opportunities. I hired a Ph.D. scientist who had talked to a fellow student at a job fair. That student's father worked at our company and referred the Ph.D.'s résumé to me. At job fairs there will be many attendees working for or leaving positions that might interest you, but you have to network vigorously if you're going to find these people. The take-home message here is that not every opportunity will be made available at the table of a recruiter: Some are walking the aisles with you.

Insider's Tip #6: Don't just look for a job, create opportunities. Company representatives at job fairs assume that all the attending scientists are job hunting. One way to stand out is to approach the representative with ideas about how you might collaborate with the company. For example, ask them if they can help you arrange an externship (i.e., spending a day or two job shadowing) with the company or arrange a speaker for a class or group. You still provide your résumé, but you put the focus on something other than your desire for a job. Build a relationship that will serve you in the future.

Insider's Tip #7: Facilitate technology transfer. You can build on Tip #6 by helping companies looking for commercial opportunities. When a company's scientists represent them at a job fair, you have a fantastic opportunity to talk technology transfer. Learn about the company's projects and explore potential shared interests. Create openings to highlight your technical knowledge and show a business orientation. These are attributes companies are looking for. If the company decides to investigate further, you may find yourself being asked to join the project.

In Conclusion

Job fairs will remain one of the preferred college recruiting methods of companies for some time. Your colleagues who attend job fairs and get job offers are often using one of the tips suggested in this column. They know that they need to find a way to stand out in the sea of scientists or use the event to gain future exposure to the company with the idea of leading to a future job offer. What scientists need to learn when looking for a job is how to gain the most benefit from a job fair. Job fairs are not fair, but you can improve your odds at the next one you attend because now you have ... the Insider's Edge.