How to Navigate Career Fairs and Talk to Employers about Your PhD

Written by
Stacy Hartman and Michelle Lanchart

Jun 5, 2019

Jun 5, 2019 • by Stacy Hartman and Michelle Lanchart

Career fairs, like the MLA’s annual Possible Futures Career Fair, are a great way to learn more about different fields and connect with potential employers. But to make them a success, you need to be speaking the same language as the employers.   One question that job seekers commonly asked at the first Possible Futures Career Fair suggested that they weren’t: How would a PhD fit in at your organization?

When employers didn’t know how to answer this question, job seekers were left feeling as though there was no place for them in the employers’ organizations. Meanwhile, the employers were confused about what the question really meant. What does it mean to be a PhD?

To make a career fair work for you, it is up to you, the PhD, to answer this question for yourself so that you can communicate to employers the skills you have spent years developing—expertise that is both broad and deep, significant teaching and research chops, unusual intellectual stamina and self-discipline.

Answering this question requires serious thought and self-reflection, as does packaging the answer in terms that an employer will understand. Writing a résumé should––like all writing—be a process of discovery and clarification. Think about jobs you have had on and off campus that you can include. If you don’t know where to start, look at job ads, LinkedIn profiles, and sample résumés in fields of interest to you and brainstorm how best to translate your skills. PhD encompasses many possible experiences and skill sets. Some of these experiences and skill sets might be better described through labels such as teacher, researcher, linguist, administrator, adviser, writer, archivist, historian, and editor.

Whether or not you give out your résumé at the career fair, the process of creating a résumé will help you verbalize what it means to be a PhD. Before attending a career fair, develop a thirty-second pitch to convey to employers what you can bring to their organization. Yes, this exercise is likely to feel reductionist, but bear in mind that you are preparing for a career fair, where you’ll have a limited amount of time to catch and hold the attention of an employer.

Another approach centers the conversation on the immediate needs of the organization. A job opening is really an expression of organizational need. A great way to find out where you might fit in is by asking the employer, “What challenges are facing your organization right now? What problems do you need to solve?” From there, you can discuss how you might help the organization meet those challenges and solve those problems (because, of course, as a PhD, you are a quick learner, a nimble thinker, and an experienced problem solver).

This post was originally published in the Winter 2018 MLA Newsletter.