I attended my first career fair unintentionally. I was at a conference, and as I walked past one of the meeting rooms on my return from lunch I saw tons of people standing in long lines in front of small tables. I was willing--maybe eager--to skip the next series of talks, so I decided to investigate. I walked up to one of the few tables with no line and asked the woman behind it what was happening. "It's a career fair," she replied. "Are you looking for a job?"

What a lucky break! Without even trying, I was about to start my job search. So I spent the afternoon answering questions about what kind of research I did and what type of jobs I might want, but my answers weren't well thought-out. I knew nothing about the companies attending and I had no strategy. But I collected a wealth of useless items like refrigerator magnets, key-chain flashlights, and business cards, and when the afternoon ended I felt great: The recruiters knew me now, so it was only a matter of time until one of them called me up and offered me a great job. Or so I thought.

Back at the lab it was business as usual. No phone calls. I didn't follow up because I couldn't remember the names of any of the recruiters--I had lost or thrown out those business cards--or, worse yet, the companies they worked for. Not remembering the recruiters' names wasn't such a big deal, however. What really mattered, I realized, was that the recruiters didn't remember me. I had not given them a reason to. On the recruiters' radar screens I had been a tiny, temporary blip.

Career fairs, I concluded, were a waste of time, and indeed they are if you approach them the way I did. But I knew people then--and I know more now--who have gotten leads and even jobs via career fairs. I began to wonder: Why had my experience been so different?

The Most Common Mistake

"The most common mistake," says Marc Mascolo, a recruiter for Johnson & Johnson, "is being unprepared." Mascolo has spent hundreds of hours talking with young scientists at career fairs around the country. He has seen many qualified and talented scientists come and go without making an impression or finding a job.

So what does it mean to be prepared in a career-fair context? It means knowing yourself and your prospective employers. Introspection and self-assessment can be painful, but they cannot be avoided. You have to invest time, energy, and possibly some anguish in figuring out what--precisely--you want to do with your life. Working out effective answers to several key questions, like these, is the first step:

  • What type of job are you looking for right now?
  • What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
  • What skills and abilities can you offer an employer?
  • What evidence can you provide for the quality of your work?

Once you've answered these questions--a process that should take a decade or two at most--you're ready to progress to step two: finding out what companies will be attending the career fair and what jobs they have open. Most career-fair organizers create a list of the companies scheduled to attend and post it on a Web site. Find that list, study it, and find out what jobs are available at the companies you're most interested in; often there's a link on the Web site for each company. Then figure out what kind of people they're looking for and what jobs you think you might like to fill.

What if you find an interesting company but it doesn't have jobs right now that match with your abilities and interests? You might be tempted to apply for jobs you're not interested in on the theory that it might give you a foot in the door. Don't. Employers hire scientists who know what they want. Interviewers can sense your lukewarm interest or-- worse yet--they might not sense it and you might get a job you don't especially want--not a promising strategy for a rewarding career. Instead, study the company, then meet with their representatives at the career fair. Be prepared with personal, sincere answers to questions the interviewers are likely to ask you. Let them know what kind of job you're looking for, and impress them with your seriousness, focus, and strong credentials.

So what are those likely questions? Here are a few you should be prepared for. Most are easy, but the last two--especially the last one--may require some introspection.

  • What kind of research have you carried out?
  • What experimental techniques have you mastered?
  • Are you willing to relocate, and if so, where?
  • When can you start?
  • Why are you interested in our company?
  • The dreaded TMAY: "Tell me about yourself."

TMAY isn't really a question; it's a request, or a command. What it really is, is an opportunity to present your immaculately and meticulously prepared self-marketing pitch in a spontaneous and engaging way. (Dave Jensen has addressed the TMAY statement in a Tooling-Up column; check it out, and create your TMAY right away).

As you prepare your TMAY response--and your answers to the other standard questions--be concise and avoid technical jargon. "Rambling is a big no-no," says Lisa Anderson, a recruiter from Transform Pharmaceuticals. Rambling is often caused by not having thought enough about the answer to your question, or by failing to deliver that well-rehearsed pitch. If you find yourself rambling, take a second to remember what you practiced and quickly get back on track. "Also recognize that not all recruiters are scientists," Anderson continues, adding that communicating technical information to non-technical people is a core career skill in the corporate world, and something recruiters will be looking for.

Be Presentable

Sometimes we scientists get so carried away doing our best work, or presenting that work in the best possible light, that we forget to bathe (or maybe that is just me?). One of the keys to getting any job is to present yourself with the same meticulous care that you present your work. Companies need scientists with great technical skill and training, and employees with great social and group skills. The career fair is a recruiter's first opportunity to judge you not just as a scientist, but also as a potential colleague. And no one wants to work with someone who… well, smells bad, or can't comb their hair or button their shirt up straight. To make a good first impression you must:

  • Dress professionally--business casual is typical, no jeans or t-shirts. For men, a tie never hurts. Women (and men!) should dress well but not provocatively: Save the sexy outfits for the dance floor.
  • Ask the recruiter's name and then remember it. If you have a hard time remembering names, buy a mnemonics book and practice.
  • As you approach the front of the line, remove your hand from your pocket and unclench it to let it dry out; no one wants to shake a sweaty hand. Then give the recruiter's hand a firm, solid shake; there's no need to inflict injury.
  • Look the recruiter in the eye, not at your feet, or their's.
  • Be polite: Say please, thank you, you're welcome, and so on.
  • Be enthusiastic about your work, but don't fake it. Keep it on a low boil, but don't pretend you don't care.

Your time with a recruiter is more conversation than interview. What you say is important, but what you hear--and retain--is at least as important. Show the recruiter that you've been listening. Paraphrase what you've been told and integrate what you've learned into new, insightful questions. Think of it as ad-libbing a short summary at the end of one of your experiments, but with more spontaneity and color. Remember: conversations are not planned, they evolve.

Be Active

When you leave the career fair at the end of the day, you're not done: The execution of your self-marketing plan is just beginning. So what is the next step? The follow up. I developed a method where I immediately went to a quiet place with all the business cards and fact sheets I had gathered and mentally retraced my steps through the fair. I jotted down notes about the conversations I had with each recruiter, and figured out the best way to follow up with each: sending a resume, calling a hiring manager, or sending a short thank-you note. This is where my follow up plan took shape. It never took more than 20 minutes, and once I had a plan, the rest was easy.

Be Practiced

Every company wants to hire confident, accomplished new employees. Hopefully you've got "confident" and "accomplished" covered, but to become a new employee you have to make a good impression, and no matter how spontaneous and intuitive you are, the best way to do that is to practice. I wasted my first career fair, but over time my performance improved. So now you're in a position to learn from my mistakes and make the most of your first--or perhaps your next--career fair.

Garth Fowler is the North American outreach program manager for Science's Next Wave and ScienceCareers.org.