What I learned from my first career fair

I do not regret my 13 years being a university student —I actually enjoyed it so much— but I am happy this period of my life is finally over. I am very excited about the unknown phase coming and I am accepting it with open arms.

Go to the profile of Alejandra Ortega
Oct 28, 2019
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  I started my first undergrad, History, in the Universidad del Valle in Colombia when I was 16 years old. Although I was almost done, during my eight semester I started my second undergrad, Biology, and I delayed my graduation in History. The main reason was a panic attack: I was not ready to become an adult, assuming adulthood will come with a degree. Biology provided me five more years of extended “teen-life” in my alma mater, until my next panic attack. Then, I still had another escape route: joining a graduate program!

In the left picture baby-biologist Alejandra is marking a track for the coming night survey. I was so unprepared: denim shorts and bared legs and arms to feed mosquitos! Later, I implemented a hat, fanny bag and crocs into my biologist outfit; I was entertained looking at fish larvae in the right picture. 

  After finishing my undergrads, I dedicated a whole year to improve my cv getting international and professional experience under the “volunteering” label. It took me a while to accept that those volunteering roles were merely low-paid jobs. When I made it into my master program in Marine Science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Saudi Arabia, I promised myself I would become a professional student and get consecutive doctorates for my two careers. That did not happen, one Ph.D. is enough and adulthood came along during the past years.

  This month, I completed my doctoral studies in biological sciences at KAUST and the word “job” does not scare me anymore. So, I went all the way from Saudi Arabia to England to do a formal job search attending my fist career fair at the Nature Careers Live in London.

Some memories from my volunteering. Above, in the Galapagos Islands, I am proudly showing the first empanada I ever made. The improvised kitchen and the tents in the mangrove were my house for two months. At night I monitored turtles. Later, I moved from the Ecuadorian Pacific islands to the Peruvian Andes. This job taught me survival skills, such as dealing with cows eating your tent, or learning that taking a picture while being the safety line of your buddy is not a good idea. I was monitoring Polylepis forests at elevations higher than 4,000 m.

Advantages of attending a career fair

  The first thing one could ask is why travel that far instead of going to the jobs websites and save money and time?  Although the fair’s exhibitors post their jobs in websites, attending a career fair provides significant insider experience. I interacted with recruiters and people working at those companies. The information they provided me is not available in any website.

  For instance, a scientist exhibiting at EMBL encouraged me to constantly look for jobs in their official website, as they are constantly renewing their personnel due to their 9-years rule. She also encouraged me to ask directly to the research leaders responsible for each job, as many posts not necessary describe my profile even if I am what they are looking for. That way, I can get more information instead of leaving the website thinking that no job is suitable for me.

  Similarly, there were booths from institutions I never heard or thought about. Examples are Helmholtz HIRI and dozens of small institutions from Germany, all collected in the website www.academics.com. HIRI is a new institute focusing on RNA-based research and they are expecting to double their size within a few years. Also, many universities and hospitals need staff scientists and support specialists in my area. I would have ignored these options by only looking at the general job websites.

That's me now, delivering talks about my research while wearing a formal outfit. In the left, I was presenting at the Falling Walls Lab; in the right picture I am posing with my thesis committee after becoming a doctor.  

The recruiter’s point of view 

  The most important insights I got were the tips from recruiters. One of them advised me to get in touch with the person responsible for the job post before and after applying; that couple of emails will boost my application by making me a known candidate that shows real interest in what they are looking for.

  Recruiters highlighted the importance of supporting my application with a letter. Thus, I can include more information than requested in the application forms. For instance, I can discuss the skills I do not have and show how I can acquire them. I can explain that although I am not experienced in a certain technique (e.g. protein sequencing), the knowledge I have in a related technique (e.g. DNA sequencing) facilitates my understanding of the new one, thus I can learn it by myself. In fact, that was the way I learned most of the techniques I know; the time expended in the lab as an independent researcher allowed me to face and overcome many laboratory issues that were not taught during the few-hours training courses.

Brochures gathered at the Careers Live venue. I even printed business cards — I may need another card format in the future.

  The greatest advice I got came from a lady that encouraged me to apply for jobs even when my profile does not fulfill all the requirements. This recruiter explained that men apply for a job when they fit just a few requirements, while women do so only when we fit most of the requirements. We women usually seek the perfect fit and when we apply, we can even be over-prepared for the role. I have been in that situation: I already discarded some nice job openings because I did not have one or two of the skills listed!

  Meeting the exhibitors, participating in the workshops, and listening to the talks in the Careers Live provided me some useful knowledge for the job’s interviews. The networking at the event make me feel more confident about the transition I will be facing soon. Before, I thought that looking for jobs was to look for a place that can fill my needs; it is actually looking for a place where I can help them with their needs. From that change of perspective, I see myself as an added value to my future employer, rather than someone pleading for a job.

  I knew my education could take me somewhere but after attending my first career fair, I am encouraged to open doors myself. The investment I did traveling to another continent to attend this event was totally worth it.

Go to the profile of Alejandra Ortega

Alejandra Ortega

Biologist, Universidad del Valle; KAUST

1 Comments

Go to the profile of Ruth Milne
Ruth Milne 14 days ago

I really enjoyed reading this - I'm so pleased to hear the event was a useful experience for you. You must let us know what you decide to do next. And congrats on getting your PhD!