Making the Right Impression at a Job Fair

26. April 2012

by Frank Kuo

This post is adapted from the CLEO BLOG by Frank Kuo.

Job fairs at technical conferences can be a great way to network and to learn about career opportunities—particularly for those who are interested in pursuing a career in industry. If you are headed to the CLEO:12 conference this year, you can try the online job fair to get a head start. Because some of the employers will not be involved in the online component, walking through the exhibit hall to network will be your next move.

Presenting yourself in the right way to employers at a conference is not always straightforward. For the past few years, I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to look at these job-hunting games from both sides—as a graduate student trying to impress future employers and as an employee actively working in the tradeshow. Here are some tips that I hope will help:

Familiarize yourself with the companies beforehand. Do your homework and learn the histories of your target companies, including their competitors and niche technologies. This is the “appetizer” topic for you to talk about with the people who work on the exhibition hall in your first encounter. If you intrigue them with the right motive, you’ll make an impression that lasts. Besides, by studying the companies, you will find that the photonics industry is an intricate web and that companies are related to each other in a very intimate way.

Set the right goal. Your goal is not to give your resume away. Instead, it should be to build connections and strengthen the existent ones within companies. You can achieve that objective by making a good impression with company representatives, staying in touch with them, and updating them with your research progress. You never know when there will be a vacancy. And believe me, when there is, the first thing hiring managers do is ask their colleagues if they know anyone who is qualified. You want to be the one who comes to mind.

Target those with tech backgrounds. Most of the time, the first person you bump into will be a sales representative, although there’s a chance you will meet technical sales support people, product managers, directors of divisions in the company, CTOs and marketing personnel. If you are a Ph.D. student, try to talk to people who have strong technical backgrounds such that they appreciate your effort. If you are a master’s candidate with a minor or major in marketing, you may find yourself more comfortable talking to product managers.

Of course you cannot tell a person’s job title by face. What happens if you pick the wrong person to talk with? Don’t’ worry; just ask politely for a technical person after a pleasant, warmed up conversation. People who work the floors are nice, and their duty is to help. They will not say no to you.

Never just hand someone your resume and walk away. Wrap your purpose in a delicate way! For example, start the conversation with your interest in the new lasers that the company just released. Ask technical details to show your knowledge. Then, slowly express your expertise in the field, and ask if there are any openings. If there are, try to learn more; if there aren’t, stay motivated and talk about the instruments in further depth.

Avoid rush hours. At almost all conferences, there is a time when no technical sessions are happening. I call it the rush hour. It is true that there will be more representatives working the floor at that time, but there will also be ten times more visitors. So do the math.

Get contact information. Trust me, when you start job hunting, you will need it. Asking for business cards should be a habit if you want a career in industry. You should also stay in touch with the people you meet. Ask them if they are visiting your area, if they plan to release new products and so on. One day, they might be your colleagues.

Job hunting can be overwhelming, but I want to share one of my mottos to encourage you: “When you started your graduate study, you already started your career.” Jobs are just another method we use to achieve our lifelong careers. You might feel desperate during this process, but this is just a short part of your life. Having an idea of your career path is the rudder of your professional life. It keeps you from being lost in the ocean of the diverse jobs. Best of luck!

Frank Kuo (paramountist@gmail.com) is a spectroscopist and optical engineer at Mettler-Toledo International Inc.

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