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One suggestion I hear repeatedly from Ph.D.s and postdocs is that our university should offer more opportunities to meet local employers who hire Ph.D.s. Many institutions address such student needs through targeted career fairs, which bring together representatives and recruiters from employers who hire graduates with advanced degrees. If high-quality career fairs are available, graduate students should take advantage of those opportunities to learn about the area’s major employers, to expand their networks and to explore career paths and organizations that they might not otherwise consider.

Career fairs pose some special challenges for doctoral students and postdocs. Some of the people I advise describe feeling discouraged that the organizations they encounter at local career fairs are misaligned with their specific career interests. One reason is that the diversity of Ph.D. programs in some institutions makes it impractical to bring together employers who appeal to a large portion of attendees.

My own institution, for example, offers 30 distinct Ph.D. programs in a variety of areas, including engineering, natural sciences, arts and technology, humanities, behavioral sciences, and management. For a career office to identify and bring employers that would appeal to all of the students in such diverse fields to a career fair on the same day would be a challenge. (See the Graduate Career Consortium’s Virtual Career Fair for a successful response to this challenge.) At colleges and universities with large numbers of Ph.D.s and postdocs concentrated in one or two areas, targeted career fairs are much more practical. Indeed, such institutions often stage successful fairs for advanced graduate students and postdocs.

Another reason Ph.D.s and postdocs describe feeling unsatisfied at their local career fairs is because information about the positions that doctoral-level individuals hold can be difficult for them to obtain. Most organizations hire relatively smaller numbers of Ph.D.s than master’s or bachelor’s graduates, and therefore representatives at career fairs may not always be prepared to describe the opportunities in their organizations that are available to individuals with Ph.D.s. They may even assume that no Ph.D.s work at the organization. Again, at colleges and universities with large numbers of Ph.D.s and postdocs in a few narrow areas, this experience will be very different.

Still, in light of graduate career counselors’ often-repeated argument that Ph.D.s and postdocs have valuable transferrable skills that are applicable in many industries, career fairs (even those outside your direct area of expertise) are valuable places to explore career paths, to network with local employers and to practice communication skills. Ph.D.s and postdocs should always be proactive in articulating how their skills might add value to organizations that lie outside their traditional disciplinary areas.

That said, Ph.D.s and postdocs don’t need to wait for a career fair to prepare for the job market. What if they approached their job search as if they were building their own personalized career fair? This dream career fair would not be a real-time event but a carefully vetted collection of information about employers and their values, contact people and their insights, and current/past job openings. Job seekers could compile this information into a portfolio and add to it as they acquire new information.

Here are some tips for Ph.D.s and postdocs who wish to approach their job search using the build-your-own-career-fair strategy.

Create an exhaustive list of employers that interest you. One reason career fairs are so valuable is because they provide attendees with an opportunity to learn about local employers. You can recreate this experience on your own by compiling a list of potential employers and developing a profile for each of them. At this stage, cast a wide net; try to include smaller or newer organizations even if they do not seem to intersect in an obvious way with your area of expertise. Search for employers any way you can, including basic internet searches, scouring LinkedIn and asking colleagues and mentors for input. The Yellow Pages are also an excellent resource at this stage. Like the old book version, the Yellow Pages website catalogs organizations by subject matter and often provides basic information, including a link to the organization’s website.

Narrow your list to employers that seem like a good fit for you. Once you have established an exhaustive list of organizations that you want to learn more about, narrow that list to those that align closely with your personal values and interests. To help you identify them, you may want to engage in a process of self-assessment. Browse their websites and try to identify features of each employer that are important to you. What is its mission? How many employees work there? Is it localized or spread across many locations? How do customers describe their experiences with this employer? Has the organization posted any jobs that you might be interested in applying for? How would you characterize their public image? A concise profile of potential employers accompanied by a record of relevant job postings will help you prioritize which organizations you wish to consider.

Make contacts with individuals on your short list. Career fairs offer a chance to meet a handful of people who work inside an organization. You can recreate this experience on your own by networking with individuals who work for companies on your short list. Ideally, you should be in contact with people who are an extension of your existing network -- friends of friends, second-degree connections on LinkedIn, alumni from your institution or, if all else fails, a carefully worded cold email. Hold informational interviews, and use your brief conversations to further refine your knowledge about their organization. Why did your interviewee choose to work for this company? What kinds of roles do people with doctorate-level training hold? What kinds of skills might you still need to build in order to improve your alignment with those roles? Personalized conversations can offer valuable insight that will help you if you decide to apply for a position at that organization in the future.

Keep a record of each organization, interaction and job posting. Whether you attend an in-person career fair or build your own, you will want to refer back to what you have learned. One easy way to keep track of this information is on a spreadsheet with columns that remind you of the kind of information you are trying to accumulate: Organization, Mission/Values, Contacts, Contact Notes and Job Postings/Titles.

If you get into the habit of adding new information regularly, you will have a sophisticated understanding of the hiring landscape in your industry in no time.

Although career fairs pose special challenges for Ph.D.s and postdocs, they can still offer valuable experience and insight. And if you don’t have access to high-quality career fairs or have left such events feeling discouraged, you should consider thinking about the job search as a process of building your own fair. A systematic and strategic approach to learning about and networking with employers will give you a sense of control over your own career and enable you to make decisions about it with more confidence.

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