How to Prepare for the Master's/ Phd Career Fair

Hi, my name is Moira Johnson. I’m a graduate student in the Sociology department at UNC Chapel Hill. Today, I’m going to go over some recommendations for how to prepare for the upcoming Master’s and PhD Career Fair.

This year’s Master’s and PhD Career Fair will take place on Tuesday, November 14th from 12pm to 4pm at the UNC Friday Conference Center.

There are currently 42 employers scheduled to attend the career fair. Each employer will have a table with signage, information, handouts, job descriptions, and some giveaways such as pens or cups.

Expect to spend around 3-5 minutes speaking to each recruiter; ideally, 1-2 hours is a good amount of time to budget for the entire event, depending on your priorities.

As many as 600-700 advanced degree candidates and postdocs across a diverse array of disciplines have attended the annual fair in recent years. The fair is open to anyone with a Master’s or PhD, with the exception of MBA and MAC students, unless they also hold a PhD.

Today I’m going to go through a few different topics to help you prepare for the fair.

First, I’ll briefly discuss the benefits and purpose of career fairs

Then, I’ll discuss what to wear for the fair, what to bring, and how to interact effectively with recruiters.

So, why should you attend a career fair? The answer to this question may vary depending on how far along you are in your graduate education, and whether you’re actively seeking full-time employment, or you’re still exploring career options.

A career fair is a great way to meet face to face with multiple employers in your industry of interest. You’ll be able to find out more about the employers and industries that may be of interest to you, and of course, it is a great way to make a first contact at a company that is currently hiring for a position that fits your background and interests.

The employers attending the fair represent a wide range of industries and sectors, including government agencies, non-profits, and corporations. Employers who will be at the fair include Proctor and Gamble, The Southern Teacher’s Agency, Aetion, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, The Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Wells Fargo, among others. Be sure to check the link provided for the full list of organizations that will be represented at the fair. On the website, you will also find information about additional programming associated with the fair, including employer information sessions.

In order to get the most out of your experience at the career fair, you should ask yourself why you want to attend the fair and what it is you want to get out of the event. Are you still in school, but looking to get more information on what it’s like to work in a particular industry sector? Or are you a recent graduate who wants to find out about current job openings? The answer to these questions will determine the types of conversations you’ll want to have with potential employers, and how your present yourself to those employers.

Now that we’ve covered some of the basics about what the career fair will entail, who will be attending the fair, and the general purpose of the fair, we’re going to delve more specifically into recommendations about how to dress for the career fair.

If you are a graduate student or recent graduate who is actively searching for a full-time job, then you should dress in professional business attire. If you’re not actively on the job market and you’re still exploring your career options, you may wear business casual attire instead.

Over the next few slides, I’m going to describe some of the differences between these two clothing styles, and provide recommendations for how to make a strong first impression by ‘dressing to impress’ in an appropriate and professional manner. 

The key is to dress in a way that signals your professional identity. You’ll also want to dress in a way that won’t be distracting to yourself or others. Employers should remember you for your accomplishments and skills, not for your outfit!

If you plan to dress in professional business attire, your first outfit option would be a formal suit and tie. You should choose between either a traditional 2-button, or 3-button suit.

First, make sure that your hair is neatly combed and pulled back away from your face, and that any facial hair is styled in an appropriate length for your industry. You may want to do some research to determine whether or not facial hair is appropriate for your industry of interest.

Next, select either a white or blue collared shirt. When choosing a tie and suit color, it is best to choose a conservative or dark color and a simple design. Appropriate colors include gray, dark brown, or navy. A suit with small pinstripes may be appropriate.

Additionally, the bottom of your tie should reach your belt buckle.  For your belt, choose a leather belt with an understated buckle.

Your belt should be color-coordinated with your suit and shoes. Wear over the calf-dress socks so that no skin shoes when you sit down. For your shoes, choose between wing tips, loafers, or lace-up dress shoes.

You can carry a small briefcase or pad folio to hold copies of your resume or CV, rather than a large laptop bag or book bag, which can be bulky and distracting. In terms of jewelry, it is best not to wear more than one ring, and avoid oversize earrings or gauges.

Another option of outfit for the professional business attire style would be to wear a skirt-suit. Similar rules apply here. Be sure to pull back hair if it is distracting to you or others. If you choose to wear make-up, keep it to a minimum and use subtle, neutral tones. If you choose to have your nails painted, select a conservative or clear colored nail polish.

Gray, navy, and black suits are appropriate. For your top, select a collared shirt or basic shell in understated colors. If you wear a skirt, be sure that it rests no more than two inches above the knee when sitting.  Wear neutral colored hose without rips or tears, and carry an extra pair with you in case of emergencies!

High heels are not recommended. Instead, low pumps or flats are preferable. Your bag or purse should be small and simple, and ideally match the color of your brief case, pad folio, and shoes.

Keep the level of jewelry and accessories to a minimum. Avoid dangle bracelets and choose simple earrings such as diamond, gold, silver, or pearl studs that do not move after nodding your head.

If you are still exploring your career options and are not actively seeking full-time employment, you may opt for business casual attire instead of full business professional attire.

Choose tailored shirts, blouses, or sweater sets. For business casual attire, a blazer can replace a suit jacket. Be sure the fit of tops is not tight or low-cut.

For skirts or pants, again make sure neither is too tight or too short. You should be able to move around comfortably and easily.

Again, choose dark or neutral colors for bottoms such as black, navy, brown, or tan.

Don’t wear sandals, platforms, or chunky heels.

-Avoid wearing a casual canvas or straw bag. Instead choose a small and structured purse or bag that coordinates with the color of your shoes.

Slide 11: Business Casual Attire Style 2

You could also opt to wear a business casual button-down top with khakis or dark pants. Choose a white or light blue solid button-down or polo shirt. A blazer or sport-coat can replace a suit jacket, and you don’t have to wear a tie.

-Wear khaki or dark pants that are neatly pressed, and choose dark socks that go to mid-calf length. Once again, opt for leather shoes and avoid sandals, athletic shoes, or hiking boots. Also, choose a leather belt that matches the color of your shoes. In terms of accessories, again- minimalism is the goal.

If you have any questions about your attire, be sure to ask a career counselor.

Plan to bring copies of resumes or CVs and carry them in a leather portfolio or folder to the career fair. The choice of whether to use a CV or resume will vary depending on your academic background and industry of interest. Other more detailed information such as cover letters, work samples, or references are not needed for a career fair.

You should develop multiple versions of your resume based on your job objective. You can research typical job titles and types of responsibilities in your industry or subject area of interest and create several different versions accordingly.

You should also prepare a general resume without a specific objective. That way, you can be prepared for any situation at a job fair by keeping your options open and having multiple resume versions ready to go.

On the day of the career fair, aim to arrive early in the day. The fair opens its doors to students at noon.  The lines at the booths will be shorter, and recruiters will feel more fresh and energized compared to later on in the day.

When you first arrive at the fair, be strategic and make a plan of attack. First, review the map for the event so you know the general layout of the building. Next, identify where target companies are located.  Before you approach these companies, get acclimated to the environment first. Giving yourself time to assess the situation will help you feel calm, comfortable and confident when you do approach these employers.

Once you feel ready, go over and introduce yourself to target employees. Make your conversation brief—the goal is to spend no more than 3-5 minutes with each recruiter.

It is important to approach the recruiter with confidence and poise.  To make the best first impression possible, be the first to offer your hand and introduce yourself.  Be sure to smile, make eye contact, and offer a firm handshake.

Rather than just handing the recruiter your resume, engage them in a brief conversation about why you’re interested in their organization. To make the most of your brief time with each employer, it will be useful to prepare a 30 second to one-minute introduction about yourself.

Be sure to thank the recruiter for their time.  If time permits and the lines are short, stop by your targeted organizations one more time before leaving and say thank you again before you leave. You should also follow up with an email or voicemail the next day to thank the recruiter for coming and to reiterate your interest in the employer.

 In your 30 second pitch to the recruiter you should state your name and education, provide a summary of your education and previous experience, list your accomplishments, connect your past experience and your current graduate work to the future, and end by asking the recruiter an open-ended question about their organization, the position, or the hiring process.

Be sure to research target employers before arriving at the fair! You should already know some key information about the employer in order to conduct a successful conversation with the interviewer.

When asking the recruiter about their organization, avoid uninformed questions such as “What does your organization do?” or “What jobs do you have?” These basic questions signal to the employer that you have not done your research about their organization.  Instead, you should ask questions about the next step in the hiring process.

Example questions to ask include,

“Are they coming back to campus for interviews or information sessions?

“With whom should you follow up?”

“What is their hiring process like?”

“Is there an online application that needs to be completed?”

Here is an example introduction to an employer from a student who will be graduating in the next few months with a PhD in chemistry, who is actively searching for fulltime employment. They could say something like –

 “Hi, I’m Mary.  Thanks for coming to the fair today.  I am graduating in May from UNC Chapel Hill with a PhD in Chemistry, and I am interested in the chemical engineering position I saw posted on the university career webpage. I think it fits well with the research positions I’ve held in the past. Can you tell me more about it?”

The next example introduction represents a graduate student who is at an earlier, more exploratory stage of the career search process. They might say something along the lines of –

“Hi, I’m Joe.  I’m a second year History PhD student, and right now I am just trying to learn more about the types of opportunities available when I graduate.  I am interested in working in the area of historic preservation, so when I saw that you have a internship in that area, I thought I would come by and introduce myself.  Can you tell me more about the position?”

Finally, I would like to end with some additional tips for interacting with employers.

1) First, you’ll want to avoid visiting tables with friends or in a group. This will ensure that you and the recruiter can have a one on one conversation about how your unique background and skills can contribute to their organization.

2) Second, as mentioned before, ask informed and intelligent questions. Very basic questions such as, “what does your organization do?”  will signal to the employer that you have not done your research.

3) Third, be sure not to target only the larger, more prestigious employers. Be sure to research and talk with multiple employers, including smaller organizations.

Next, don’t eliminate companies just because they’re recruiting for positions outside your field. Follow-up with the recruiter to see if they can put you in touch with another hiring manager at the organization whose area better fits your background and skill set.

And finally, remember that almost every organization attending is open to multiple disciplines. Be ready to talk to a wide variety of organizations by asking informed questions about the organization’s structure, and matching their needs to your skills.

The collaborating universities will have representatives available from their respective career offices if you have questions on the day of the fair.

Thank you for your time, and best of luck at the fair!