Taking Control of Your Future:How to Organize a Successful Science and Career Fair, Part 3

After deciding on the general outline and scope of your career fair and selecting speakers and panelists, you'll need to recruit companies to participate. In the third article in our series on organizing a career fair, Doug Sweet tells you how to begin, how to make the initial contacts and conduct the all-important phone calls, and how to finalize the details.

Getting Started

The best place to start is with an up-to-date database of senior personnel from area companies, including company addresses and telephone numbers. You can create this database by collecting information from a variety of resources, including biotechnology centers, company Web sites, industry societies, chambers of commerce, a dean's office mailing list for sponsored symposia, and area biotechnology or pharmaceutical company contacts. Remember, company personnel change frequently, even at senior levels, so even the best database is going to have inaccurate and/or out-of-date information. You also may want to "filter" your master database according to your career fair's focus. For example, if the fair will concentrate on opportunities in biotechnology, you'll need to subset your database to generate a short list of potential companies.

Initial Contact

Approximately 3 months before the career fair, you should send out an invitation letter to the company personnel on your list. Your database may list several individuals at the same company and, at this point, it is best to send them each an invitation.

Although a flier is a good way to announce your event to area university students and postdocs, the company invitation should be a business letter, addressing a specific individual. The first line should tell them immediately why you have written:

We would like to invite Drugco to participate in the Third Annual Science and Career Fair on April 28, 2010 at Research University, 1 Science Drive, Jobville.

After the first line, you'll need to include further information about the career fair. Some possible topics are:

  • Information about Research U and the research conducted there.

  • Who you are or what your organization is (e.g., trainees association, postdoc organization).

  • Who the other sponsors are (e.g., companies, Research U's dean, industry organizations).

  • Who the audience will be (e.g., Research U's postdocs, graduate students from area universities).

  • Why you are inviting their company to participate.

  • What opportunities or benefits they will gain through participation (e.g., distribute company information at tables, company mission statement included in a booklet given to attendees).

Be sure to include the name(s) of your group's contact people including all e-mail, phone, and FAX information.

A registration form provides an easy way to keep track of companies that have responded and their essential contact information (see our mock registration form for an example). The form includes spaces for the company name, address, contact person, company representatives, and to request special items/needs (electrical outlet, Internet connection). Note: A company will often designate a single individual to serve as a contact even though this person may not be attending the event. Clearly state a 'return by date' for the registration and a specific address to send it to, although many companies will wish to respond by FAX.

Along with space for basic contact information, the registration form should also contain a request for a short company description (about 200 words) including the employment opportunities that may be available for postdocs. Many companies may not send this information initially, requiring that you follow up. Additionally, some companies will choose to send a pre-prepared mission statement. Clearly it would be easiest for you and your fellow organizers if the company description is sent by e-mail (so that you have an electronic copy), sometimes you will receive a company brochure or a FAX of the statement. So, you'll need to find a good postdoc-typist to transfer the information to an electronic format that you can use in creating the career fair booklet.

Depending on the size and scope of your event, there may be hundreds of letters to send, so remember to plan ahead and solicit lots of help at this step. For each mailing, you will need to prepare the invitation letter, registration form, and mailing labels. If you are planning an accompanying science fair, you may want to include a schedule of events and participants as an additional enclosure. You'll need a small team of people to help you stuff everything into envelopes and apply postage.

Making Phone Contact

About 3 weeks after mailing the invitation letter (even if it is still before the designated 'return by date'), you need to begin calling every company that has not responded. In all likelihood this will be about 97% of the companies to which you sent a letter! This follow-up call is THE most important step in getting companies to participate. Begin your phone call with a good introduction--state who you are, your affiliation, and that you are calling to follow up on the invitation to participate in the career fair mailed out a few weeks earlier. There are three general categories the companies and their representatives will fall into:

  • Those who just aren't interested.

  • Those who received the information, set it in a "do something about this" pile, and then didn't.

  • Those who didn't understand the initial invitation, but who are interested once you have explained it to them.

Be ready to take down new contact information and to send out repeat mailings if requested (ask the contact whether they'd prefer that you e-mail or FAX the information).

An important point to consider, and perhaps address during this conversation, is that companies tend to assume that you're looking for members of their Human Resources (HR) department. Generally, however, this is not what you want. Often, these HR professionals are unable to answer specific, science-related questions about available positions. Both the company and your attendees will be better served if the corporate representatives are directly involved in the research projects (or divisions) for which they are already or soon will be recruiting.

Second Mailing and Final Details

Approximately 1 month before the event, you should mail an acknowledgment letter to the participating companies. In general, the letter should begin by thanking them for accepting your invitation to participate. Restate the date and time of the event and its purpose. Also, include information about the attendance number and/or demographics of the attendees; the company representatives will find this information helpful. The letter should note whom your records show is representing the company and ask them to contact you if this has changed (this is especially important if you have to deal with onsite security). Despite your best efforts, some companies will change their representatives the morning of the event and you won't know until they arrive. Have a plan to deal with this, including being prepared with blank nametags.

At this point, you will need to firm up many of the fair's details so that you can include this information in the acknowledgement letter packet. You'll need to provide:

  • Directions to the facility.

  • A specific arrival time for the representatives.

  • Details and maps of where they should park (and parking permits, if necessary).

  • Directions for dropping off boxes at the loading dock.

  • Information about security and how will this will be handled (if security is an issue, meet with the security staff well in advance of the event and develop a strategy for meeting their needs).

  • A final agenda.

  • Name badges.

You will also need to estimate how many companies you can accommodate in the allocated space. To do so, you'll need to consider the company and the number of representatives. For example, you may want to give each company one 2-meter-by-1-meter table. However, a company sending seven representatives, as one company did last year at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Science and Career Fair, may need two tables or a single table in an open area. And, inevitably, a few companies will attract the most interest--if you can anticipate this ahead of time, you can spread those companies out. After estimating the fair layout, you may find yourself in the enviable position of having more companies interested in participating than your space will allow. In this case, you will need to consider which companies to eliminate and how best to do this without harming future career fair participation. Before making any decisions, keep in mind that some companies will initially say yes and then back out. And, occasionally, a company may just fail to show up.

Thank You Letter

Within 2 weeks after the event, a thank you letter should be sent. Generally, it is easiest to send a single letter to the company contact and extend thanks to the individual company representatives (by name) within the body of the letter. Besides telling them what a great success the career fair was (and that you hope it was for them too!), solicit their thoughts and comments on how the day went and provide them with your contact information.

Recruiting companies to participate in your career fair is a great deal of work, especially as you and other postdocs begin to make follow-up phone calls. But, keep in mind, this is an excellent way to get to know scientists and other professionals working in the companies you are considering for future employment and develop your professional network!

Douglas H. Sweet is currently an Assistant Research Professor at the University of California, San Diego. After completing his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, Doug spent time as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and at NIEHS. Doug was Chair of the Career Fair Subcommittee for the 2000 NIEHS Science and Career Fair and was responsible for organizing the participation of over 60 company representatives.

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