Taking Control of Your Future: How to Organize a Successful Science and Career Fair, Part 1

W hat career opportunities are available for me? How can I get more experience presenting my research? What qualities are interviewers looking for in potential employees? What steps do I need to take to move forward along my career path? Many Ph.D. scientists ask themselves these questions but often they do not have the answers. YOU can change that. Consider initiating and planning a science and career fair that focuses on career opportunities in science.

Since 1997, trainees at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, have successfully planned and hosted three science and career fairs. These 1-day events were designed to provide an opportunity for postdoctoral trainees to present their work, to interact with local scientific colleagues, and to explore future career opportunities. The day provides information and networking opportunities for several hundred science fair attendees.

The four articles in this series will describe the steps involved in planning and organizing a successful science and career fair. Part I--today--will focus on the overall aspects of planning a science and career fair. Part II will discuss selecting and inviting panelists and speakers. Part III will focus on recruiting companies. Part IV will cover the costs associated with a fair and how to find funding. Finally, part V will discuss the logistics, such as online registration, abstract submission, creating the program booklet, and making things run as smoothly as possible. Your overall goal should be to make the day informative and useful for not only the science fair attendees, but also for yourselves as the science fair organizers.

Elements of a successful science and career fair:

  • Enthusiasm. The most important element in planning a successful science and career fair is enthusiasm. With this excitement, everything else will fall into place. The key individuals involved in organizing the event must believe in its purpose, regardless of what some faculty or others may think. Don't be surprised if you run into some resistance or hear comments, such as "Why are you planning a day focused on career opportunities? Postdocs and graduate students are not interested in that information."

  • Identify a need and target audience. Who are the individuals who would benefit from the information presented at the science and career fair? Would you like to target graduate students as well as postdocs? You'll need to do a little research to find out how career information is distributed at your institution and if there are other career fairs that are regularly held on-campus or locally. Don't try to reinvent the wheel. Consider partnering with other organizations that already sponsor career development events or working with individuals at area institutions to pool resources. For example, the most recent science and career fair at NIEHS (April 2000) was organized by trainees at the NIEHS, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Chemical Industry Institute of Technology.

  • What do you hope to accomplish? You'll need to decide the science and career fair's overall goals and use them to determine the fair's format. These format decisions will determine the speakers and companies you invite. For example, if you and your fellow postdocs would like to learn about career opportunities in industry and biotech, you'll need to invite a variety of companies focusing on areas ranging from clinical trials to biotech start-ups to big pharma.

    If you'd also like to give attendees the opportunity to practice their speaking skills, then you may consider scheduling 10-minute talks. Or, if you want to increase participation, you may wish have poster sessions.
    For the career and professional development portion of the fair, you have many options, ranging from a formal keynote speech to an informal networking reception. For example, workshops offer you the opportunity to provide your attendees with a great deal of information on a given topic, like grant writing, resume writing, or interviewing skills. For more general career exploration, panel discussions, short presentations, and informal lunches/receptions are all great ways to let your attendees learn about the variety of science careers available to them.

  • Identify support personnel/administration. These individuals are critical to the success of the science and career fair, and, with their support, your efforts to organize this event will be much easier. Consider approaching anyone who you think would support the fair, such as faculty, deans, career center staff, program directors, postdoctoral office staff, and human resources staff. These individuals may be able to help you secure funds, provide administrative help, suggest potential speakers, or provide you with contacts at companies. Another useful resource is individuals at foundations or centers. For instance, individuals at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center were instrumental in identifying panelists and establishing contacts with company representatives.

  • Form subcommittees. The formation of subcommittees aids in the division of labor, holds individuals accountable, and efficiently delegates tasks. The subcommittees do not have to be large, and you may choose to have a subcommittee of just one person. Encourage organizers to serve on subcommittees that interest them or may serve a personal need. For instance, at NIEHS, individuals who were interested in making contacts at local companies volunteered to serve on the company subcommittee. Subcommittees formed for previous science and career fairs included those focusing on: panelists, companies, registration, space, food/refreshment signs, direction maps/itinerary, and volunteers for the day. It is critical to find nongraduate student and nonpostdoc volunteers that can help with handling logistical issues on the day of the career fair, so that the organizers have an opportunity to attend the events of the day. The detailed responsibilities of the various subcommittees will be discussed in parts II, III, and IV of this series.

  • Be organized, ask for advice, and be prepared for the unexpected. Organization is key to having a successful event. Reserve conference rooms early. Don't go on assumptions, and double-check reservations/confirmations. Speakers and panelists may cancel at the last minute, so be prepared to handle such situations--don't panic.

As you plan the science and career fair, remember it is YOUR day and have fun throughout the process. Good luck and happy planning.

Arti Patel served as the chair of the NIEHS Trainees Assembly (NTA) from 1997 to 2000 and as chair of the first two science fair committees. The NTA was established in 1995 to foster the professional development of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, visiting fellows, and other nontenured, nonpermanent scientists training at NIEHS. Arti received her Ph.D. degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in spring 2000 and conducted her dissertation research at the NIEHS. She recently started a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

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