I know… you hear about career fairs and your mind flies right back to undergrad and seas of nervous (or super ambitious) kids clad in black and navy suits. When I was an undergrad at the University of Virginia, career fairs were serious business where go-getter finance, business, and government students came out in droves to impress recruiters from top consulting firms, banks, and government agencies.

Yikes! I hope you don't get a crazy career fair like this one.

Yikes! I hope you don’t get a crazy career fair like this one.

Career fairs are not just for undergrads,  and they can produce tremendous  leads for graduate students who want to  know more about their career options  beyond the professoriate. At your  career stage, you would have the most  luck attending fairs organized by your campus career services office, university alumni association, and professional associations. There are also fairs for particular demographic groups and industries such as Boston Career Forum for Japanese-English bilinguals or American Chemical Society Career Fair. (Tweet This Virtual career fairs help you meet employers while saving time and money on travel and a nice suit. http://ctt.ec/78e84+

Now that I work in a university career services office, I understand career fairs a bit better and recommend these tips to help grad students navigate this space.

1. Career fairs are not just for undergrads.
Some employers will indicate if they are particularly seeking graduate students in their recruitment efforts. If this indication is not clear from the employer descriptions, ask the organizers if they have any information about which employers may be more likely to be interested in speaking with advanced students.
**Keep in mind that you can still apply for jobs and make a good case for being the best hire, even if an employer is not specifically looking for a graduate student.

2. Be selective about who you meet.
Review the list of employers prior to attending the fair, and do some background research on them. Make a plan to talk to those employers whose work aligns with your skills and interests.

3. Break up the day.
Career fairs can be draining and intimidating for even the savviest extrovert. I probably shouldn’t say this, and anyone who’s seen me at a networking event probably wouldn’t believe me anyway, but there’s something about career fairs that make my heart rate double and my palms sweat. Usually it’s around midday when the room gets crowded, the noise level is at peak, and lots of people are lined up at tables nervously waiting for 5 minutes with their dream employer.

If career fairs feel like a lot to handle, try going to the fair in the morning hours as soon as it begins. Or break up the day by going for an hour then leaving for fresh air and a break prior to returning for one more hour. Just check with event organizers about their entrance and exit policies.

You do not have to take on a career fair all at once. Break it up into manageable portions that will help you get the most out of the day.

4. Practice your pitch.
Take time prior to the fair to think about what you want to include in a 30 second (or three sentence) introduction to employers. What core elements of your background and job search goals do you want to highlight when speaking with employers? Knowing these before hand will help you feel more confident when breaking the ice and presenting yourself in a potentially high pressure environment.

5. Attend the fair before you need the job.
Don’t wait until the semester you graduate to attend your first career fair. Attend one the year before just to get your feet wet in the career fair and recruitment culture. You’ll know what to expect next year so you can be well prepared. (Tweet This Attending career fairs early is a way to network with employers before you are actively job seeking. http://ctt.ec/WP7v0+ ‎

Make a plan for the day, including what you’d like to get out of your participation in the career fair. This prep work will help you focus your activities for the day, and help you know when you’ve reached your goal for the career fair.

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