Trade fairs are great events, not only for buying or selling equipment, but also for networking and career development. Am I talking about career fairs? No, at the end of this post you´ll know why trade fairs might be better than career fairs for job starters.
I just came back from this year´s Analytica trade fair in Munich, which I am using extensively to network and expand my collaborations. I want to share my thoughts about the trade fair setting, my preparation and my strategy.
Why is a trade fair so useful for job seekers?
Going to a career fair for life scientists can be a tiring experience. A multitude of graduates overcrowds even spacious halls and leads to stress for all attendees, regardless of their role. After queuing for ages, you get to pitch to an HR manager, “Hi, I am Philipp, I graduated…” You finish with the feeling that your poor conversation partner already had to listen to similar messages many, many times that day. “Thanks a lot for your interest in our company, please submit your application via our online platform.” “Can I leave my card…?” “Not necessary, all applicants go through the same process.”
Career fairs are not pointless, they can provide lots of useful information specifically for job starters. But it´s a very difficult setting to leave a lasting impression and to gain meaningful contacts.
Trade fairs, on the other hand, are there to sell and buy goods. What are graduates doing here? Imagine the following scenario.
Salesperson A has pitched her mass spec 20 times that day. You approach her and ask about their job, how is it to work for company x? You give them the chance to talk about themselves (something many of us like) and their passion for their job. You might not be able to address your application at company x directly to that person, but you can refer to them and write about the info you got from them. Now you don´t copy-paste from the corporate marketing page (“I´d love to work for a company that values the social impact… waffle… blabla…”) but can write real info you obtained first hand, “I was fascinated by a conversation I had with Dr Sanchez at the Barcelona trade fair. While being frank about the stiff competition in the business environment of x, she caught my interest by telling me about company policy y, which made it possible for her to develop her skill set z.”
At a trade fair, you get to speak with less saturated conversation partners, who come from technical areas or sales. It´ll be easier to make a connection in many cases and it will be easier to make a credible reference to them in a cover letter.
How to prepare for a trade fair?
There is a lot you can do in order to get most out of your precious time at a fair. Although tickets for visitors are usually very affordable, you invest at least a full day, maybe even more plus travel expenses. So make most out of it!
1) Who to travel with?
Alone, plain and simple. You´ll be exposed to many more contacts and can´t hide behind your best buddy. You´ll be much faster and more efficient.
2) Last year´s protocol
Did you write a protocol of your last fair visit? If not, it´s definitely a good time to start that process this year. If you have such a protocol, see who could be a good lead to visit (again) at the fair this time. Don´t write them yet (see 5))
3) Contacts list/ Social media contacts
Who might be at the fair, with a booth or as a visitor? Does it make sense to make an appointment to meet up, or is this a good reminder to get in touch via different avenues?
4) Fair programme
Scanning all exhibitors and double-checking with your contacts list is quite time-intense, but can be worthwhile: Who do you want to meet in a targeted way? Scanning through such a long list won´t yield many chance hits of company names you haven´t encountered before, this is more likely to happen during the fair when strolling through the halls. However, you cast a dense net for potentially useful encounters.
If you stumble across relevant companies, read a bit about them, maybe that will yield further “leads” (in trade fair-speak) and will prevent you being caught unprepared, “Ah, lasers you are working on… could have guessed that from your logo…”
5) Write to your contacts
List all the interesting contacts you found in steps 2) to 4). Most likely, you won´t be able to make appointments with all of them. Don´t overdo such meetings: Bear in mind, you have to keep the time of a fixed appointment free, which will block you for much longer than the appointment itself and forces you to get to your appointment through crowded halls. Therefore, don´t plan more than 2-3 such meetings per fair day, you´ll get to speak with enough people if you leave yourself some time. However, you can still write to your contacts up front, it can act as a nice hook to get in touch after some time. People you can meet in a different setting should be contacted separately.
At the fair
During the fair, you need to strike a good balance between strolling around, in order to raise the likelihood for chance encounters, and going to interesting booths in a targeted fashion. This depends on the number of your previous contacts as well as your concrete interest in the fair.
When approaching a booth, you shouldn´t crash into the scene with expressing that you are looking for a job (you won´t get one anyway at a trade fair). So do not fall into the door with ‘I look for a job’, but rather if they ask you what made you come… ‘Well, I am actually looking to make a career transition and I thought about going to a career fair, but then decided it would be much more entertaining and informative to actually see products and meet people from similar backgrounds.”
After the fair, follow up, keep all promises you made and document for next year…
Written by Philipp Gramlich (co-founder of NaturalScience.Careers)