“But I’m Not Looking for a Job,” or 3 Reasons to Attend a Career Fair (whatever your excuse)

By Joseph Paul Hill

Why Attend a Career Fair?

Career fairs are amazing opportunities for graduate students of all levels and fields because …

All graduate students should attend a career fair.

If you were thinking about skipping an upcoming career fair, perhaps one (or more) of the following reasons came to mind:

  • But I’m not looking for a job
  • But I know I want a job in academia
  • But I don’t think any of the employers at X career fair have crossover with my field or interests

Even if you’re not (yet) looking for a job, not (yet) interested in pursuing jobs outside academia, or not (yet) sure about how your studies and interests intersect with those of attending employers, there are tangible benefits to be gained from attending a career fair. Here are some of the biggest ones:

3 Reasons to Attend a Career Fair

1. Practice interviewing (in a low-stakes environment)

Talking to potential employers can be nerve-racking. But the best way to become better at talking to potential employers is to talk to potential employers.

At a career fair, you have a room full of company representatives who have expressed interest in hiring attendees. You can talk to all of them. You can try out different conversation strategies and different answers to common interview questions with each employer. You can experiment to find the proper balance between causal and professional modes of conversation. And the more you practice talking to potential employers, the more comfortable you will become.

How do you respond to the prompt, “Tell me about yourself”? Do you have a thirty-second elevator pitch prepared? Career fairs are a great opportunity to practice your pitch with a captive audience of non-specialists. How can you relate your research and interests to a general audience? You can try out some different strategies by having conversations at a career fair.

2. Network (or practice your networking skills)

The idea of networking may sound intimidating, especially if you associate it with a “what can you do for me” type of connecting with people. But unlike interviewing, networking is not about immediate gain; it is about making interpersonal connections. By networking you can often gain information about jobs and other opportunities, as well as receive feedback and career advice.

Networking involves talking to people and finding common interests. It might be easy to do this at an organized talk or conference where the event itself serves as a common interest. But what about in a different setting? Can you start up a conversation with anyone and find something to talk about? How do you navigate a conversation towards common interests? Networking is as much about listening to others’ expertise, skills, knowledge, insights, and connections as it is about sharing your own. A career fair can be a great place to practice these interpersonal networking skills.

And there are many people with whom to network at a career fair besides company recruiters. Talk to the event organizers. Talk to the other event attendees. You really never know who you might meet or what opportunity might become available in the future even if you’re not (yet) on the job market or not (yet) interested in pursuing industry jobs.

3. Explore your career options

Whether or not you’re actively searching for a job, a career fair provides a space for you to imagine yourself into different possible career paths.

Many students at the Graduate Center have teaching experience, so it may already be apparent whether or not academia could be a fulfilling career path for you. But what about every other job sector that you haven’t tried? Academia is only one sector in which PhDs can thrive. Perhaps there is a better career fit that you haven’t explored. Career fairs can serve as exploratory experiences.

Many employers in other (non-academia) sectors—policy, business, technology, nonprofits, government, institutional research, entrepreneurship, and consulting, to name but a few—are eager to hire people with graduate degrees. You have communication, research, and analytical skills that transfer well to other career paths. And you may actually have common interests and concerns with the companies represented at a career fair.

But even if you don’t share specific interests, you can gain insight and general career advice by speaking with company representatives. You might find out about a job that perfectly fits your skillset. And, at the very least, you’ll learn more about career options that are open to you if you ever do want to pursue them.