In October 2002, 1 year after I started my PhD in mathematics, a poster hanging on a wall of the Faculty of Science at the University of Zaragoza in Spain attracted my attention. It read something like, "Do you want to find a job? Then help us organise a job fair. ..."
The person behind this initiative was María José Villacampa, the vice-chancellor of the Faculty of Science, who invited us, science students of the University of Zaragoza, to take our future in our hands and organise the fair ourselves. I already knew of two fairs organised in Zaragoza, one by the students of the engineering department and the other by the department of economics. However, none had been organised specifically for the science students in Zaragoza, and as it turned out, in the whole of Spain. To start with I wasn't even convinced myself that companies would be interested in a job fair exclusively addressed to scientists.
"They lack confidence and self-esteem ?"
The misconception that if you are a scientist it will be difficult for you to have a career other than teaching or research is particularly rife in Spain. Worse, careers advisors often try to discourage high school pupils from studying any of the scientific disciplines, arguing that it will be very hard for them to find a job after graduation. "A job interview with a science graduate is usually a sad experience," we were later told by one of the representatives of the companies who attended our first fair in May 2003. "They lack confidence and self-esteem and are not aware of their capabilities."
So, when I read that poster, I thought it would be worth giving myself a chance. After all, sooner or later I had to face a question that had been present in my mind for the past few years: What are my alternatives if I do not want to teach nor research? What else are scientists good at in the "real world"?
Villacampa and another lecturer, Pedro J. Miana, encouraged the 20 students who attended the first meeting to set up a students' association and start considering the organisation of the first (and up to this day, the only) scientific job fair in Spain: Empleo-Facultad (or Job-Faculty). The faculty was to give us an office, with phones and computers, and offered to share their expertise and put forward the cash we needed to start going. But more important than all of this, they were giving us their interest. After all, we were all volunteers and newcomers. If they did not believe in us, who would?
There was one thing all of us in the organisation had in common: We'd never been involved in anything like that before. After discussing the different ideas that arose during our first meetings, we decided to split into several working groups, each being responsible for different tasks such as finding the equipment we would need for the fair, looking for sponsors and taking care of the finances, talking to companies, designing a Web page, and even putting together a CD with the CVs of all the students who submitted one to us, to then be sent to the companies.
So in between classes and during our free time we started looking for companies we thought it would be appropriate to invite, we designed information brochures and created a Web page, learning along the way how to use databases and publishing software, design Web pages, and much more. ... This was the beginning and there was a feeling that, with enough work, organising the fair would not be that hard.
That feeling changed when we started to contact the companies. We sent our information leaflets to 300 of them and waited for their response. But 2 months later, only three companies had shown any interest. ... There was obviously something we were doing wrong. Certainly, getting the companies to buy into our vision of a job fair organised by students was more difficult than we had initially thought.
Think about our own capabilities as scientists
We were told by the Faculty Council that they would simply stop our activities if, before Christmas, 3 months after the inception of our organisation and 5 months before the fair was due, we had not found at least 12 participant companies. So we had to learn how to talk to the representatives of the companies and the people in charge of recruitment, that is, how to sell our project. We made hundreds of telephone calls and in the process we got used to answering questions such as: 'Why would a company be interested in our fair?' 'What do the companies expect from us?' and 'What can we offer to them?'
That made us think about our own capabilities as scientists. We realised that a technological background, the ability to think in a scientific way, and our adaptability were all very attractive to employers. And what's more, our involvement in carrying this project through was providing more and more compelling evidence that we had a lot to offer as potential employees. We all started to gain confidence in the fair, our careers, and even ourselves.
As time went on, new issues about the infrastructure of the fair started to come up on a daily basis. We learnt to tackle each of the problems, act upon our own initiative, and work as a team. Some of the issues were related to financing. Although it was expected at first that the Faculty of Sciences would cover most of the cost, its resources were scarce. We had to come up with alternative sources of funding, and we managed to convince some public institutions to subsidise stands for small companies so that they only had to pay 70% of the fair fee, and not only large companies would be able to attend.
While trying to convince companies and institutions to support our event, we got to think about its importance to all of us and it made us believe in our fair all the more. We realised that the main reason for being interested in our fair was different for each company, so we had to use different arguments when talking to them. To some of the sponsors we stressed the fact that it was a JOB fair, to others that it was a SCIENTIFIC job fair or a fair organised by a YOUNG STUDENT ASSOCIATION, and to the remainder that it would simply have a LARGE attendance. ... This made us see each aspect of the fair as valuable, given that each sponsorship we got recognised it as important and rewarded it.
2500 students and 43 companies attended
Empleo-Facultad took place in May 2003, with the number of attending companies rising from 12 to 43 in the last 2 months. From the many formal compliments we received from company representatives, various authorities, and the approximate 2500 students who attended, it was a success. It provided a meeting point between students and companies and offered us a great insight into the different positions available to graduates.
It helped the student attendees realise an important fact: Our scientific background is extremely useful in many areas and makes us more able to adapt to very different career profiles. As a whole the fair helped young scientists learn more about themselves, their capabilities, and what they wanted out of a career. They also got a better idea of where to look for jobs, what to expect during a job interview or on the job and gained confidence--and I think we can go further.
For the members of the association the achievements of the fair were even greater. What we thought at first was a handicap, us students having to organise a fair ourselves, turned out to be to our advantage. We had proved to everybody that we could work as a team and see a project through by taking our own initiative and facing any problem that was thrown at us. The companies realised how much work we put in and valued it. They gave us valuable feedback on our CVs and those who finished their studies that year were all offered jobs.
For all these reasons we are currently preparing Empleo-Facultad 2004 with a renewed association. Empleo-Facultad 2004 will take place at the Faculty of Science, University of Zaragoza on 29 April, and this time our fair is also open to European companies. We want to tell student communities all over Europe that being involved in organising such a fair is an exciting and rewarding experience where you learn things that are not taught in class but that are really appreciated by companies.