10 ‘rules’ for a successful Careers Fair for mathematicians
So you’re organising a careers fair for mathematics students? Okay, it’s a tall order you’ve set yourself but it can be done! I have attended careers fairs that have worked for mathematics students and those which have not worked as well. I would like to share with you some thoughts about how fairs work, when they work, for mathematics students.
Mathematicians can be difficult to advise. Many, on telling people they are studying mathematics at university, get the reaction “So which do you want to do, accountancy or school teaching?” These options are fine for some but are not for everyone, while mathematics is a subject with an overwhelmingly broad range of options due to the wide ranging employability skills of its graduates. Some students, hearing this stereotype, feel detached and are turned off from seeking formal careers advice. I have had students approach me at careers fairs and say they think they have taken the wrong degree course, since they don’t want to go into teaching or finance! This is a problem as once they have decided what they want to do, the careers service can be very useful indeed: who is hiring, what they are looking for, how to write a good CV and so on. Expert careers staff can usually offer feedback on draft CVs and give mock job interviews for practice. Skills training sessions are usually available. Generally, the careers service can provide a really vital function but one that some students do not seek out. The students are going to get much more out of careers advice once they have an idea what they want to do. To do this, they must be encouraged to explore their possible options and this is where your fair will come in.
The formula for a careers fair usually contains some of the following features: stalls with employers, information on further study, where to get further careers advice and of course a stall from the IMA (my stall recently at Exeter is pictured); talks on skills topics; talks from practicing mathematicians, perhaps recent graduates; talks from employers
Rule 1: Advertise with a united front
As your students may be unexcited at the prospect of a careers fair, it is helpful to present the message that the fair is happening and worth attending from as many directions as possible. A very successful fair I attended at York was advertised jointly by the mathematics department, careers service and undergraduate maths society. Particularly, if lecturers are unenthusiastic about the fair the students will pick up on this and a negative attitude will spread. Conversely, if lecturers are encouraging, the students are likely to react well. Posters in the department are one thing, having lecturers ‘talk up’ the fair in their lectures is another level altogether.
Rule 2: Make it relevant
It is important to make sure the event is relevant to the students. I have attended fairs for multiple subjects and the mathematicians tend not to turn up to these in substantial numbers. At a maths-specific careers fair, the students perceive the advice, employers, etc. are aimed at them specifically and this can be a more attractive draw.
Rule 3: Location, location, location
Silly though it sounds, distance can be a real factor. If students have to leave the areas they normally visit you have already lost a proportion of them. Run the fair in a building they visit often, perhaps where they take lectures. Keep them in their comfort zone, in their home territory. A Careers Fair is a scary prospect, full of scary employers. If you make them comfortable and make it easy for them physically to attend they are much more likely to drop by.
Rule 4: Timing is everything
Plan the fair well in advance, schedule it when the students (at least final years) aren’t busy and if possible put it on the students’ timetable. Don’t let on that attendance is anything but compulsory. I’ve been to fairs where a whole or half day has been scheduled with no lectures to make sure everyone is able to attend, though this is a difficult decision to take.
Rule 5: A small window of opportunity is good
If the fair includes employer stalls, have this within a fairly tight period. I have been to fairs that last all day and the number of students at any one time is low. I have also been to fairs with a tight period – the Calculating Careers fair at Manchester has hundreds of students focussed in just a couple of hours – and this leads to greater numbers in the room at any time. The students are more likely to know others when they arrive – safety in numbers! – and so more likely to stay for longer. Having a busy room and limited time produces an energised environment that benefits everyone. The stallholders will appreciate a more focused time period as well.
Rule 6: Avoid sign-up sheets
It is very tempting to try to get students to put their names on a sign-up sheet for individual sessions or even the whole day. This can help in planning room sizes and I think there is a perception this makes students feel they have made a commitment to attend. In my experience students are not good at making such a formal commitment and, having not signed up, feel they can’t just drop in. Those who do sign up are far from certain to attend.
Rule 7: Get the students involved
A way to create a buzz about your fair among the students is to involve them in the planning. Ask the students what employers they want at the fair. The employers are more likely to attend if you can tell them “our students have asked that I invite you” and the students are more likely to attend if they know the employers they want to talk to are there. If there is a student rep. or a student maths society, get them involved as well. If the students feel some involvement with your fair and start talking about it to other students this is the best advertising of all – peer endorsement. Perhaps the students can plan a social event – cheese and wine, for example – to end the fair, which can help encourage attendance and allow the employers to speak to students in a less formal setting.
Rule 8: Get a good mix of employers
If you are having employers, getting a good mix is crucial. Not everyone you invite will come but try to get a mix of job sectors. Go to the IMA website and look at the Careers Advice leaflet, available via www.ima.org.uk/student. On page 3 of this is a list of job sectors: try to get employers from each sector. In the Professional Affairs section of the website is a list of employers who are Friends of Mathematics (mostly because they employ mathematicians). If you lean heavily towards one kind of employer, you will put some students off. With a good mix of employers there is something for everyone. In rule 7 I suggested asking the students which employers they would like to talk to – this can be a significant factor in encouraging attendance.
Rule 9: Start with a rousing talk
I had an interesting experience earlier this year at a very successful fair at York. I opened the fair with my careers talk. This was an exhilarating experience, the students responded really well and left my talk straight into the hall of employers, enthused and ready to learn more about their career options. I talked about careers options, taking charge and choosing your own path, employability skills, evidencing those skills in a job application and having a professional career development following graduation. Feedback given to me from employers at the fair in York was that the students were enthusiastic (in precisely the way they normally aren’t at such fairs), pragmatic and realistic about what they need to do to get a job. I think this was a good experience all round and it was well worth firing the students up with an opening talk.
Rule 10: Provide practical advice
Students like to meet early career mathematicians. They like to see people who were in their position just a few years ago and find out how they got to where they are now. Particularly if they are graduates from the same university. To be seen as a role model at their former university is good for the professional development of the speaker. The IMA can help here by trying to connect universities to IMA members who are recent graduates. Email me if you are such a recent graduate or if you are organising a fair and would like to find some (email@example.com).
Students also value practical advice which is applicable to job hunting. The careers service can likely help here in running career development workshops. A fair I attended at Portsmouth had a full programme of careers skills sessions and employer talks and the students responded very well. With an awareness that not all students are interested in all the options open to them, this used parallel sessions to make sure there was always something for everyone. If there are mathematics staff who have previously worked in industry they might be able to give good practical advice as well. I saw an excellent CV writing session at Greenwich by a lecturer whose former job included assessing CVs to hire graduate mathematicians.
If you are considering running a maths-specific careers fair and would like to talk to me about this I can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Activities Nov-Dec 2009
This period I have been busy with visits to give talks at universities. I have given my careers talk at Kent, Durham, Sheffield, Dundee, Stirling, Strathclyde, Glasgow, Brighton, Portsmouth, Exeter and Plymouth. I have given a talk on cryptography at Sheffield, Aberdeen, St. Andrews, Heriot-Watt and Southampton, a talk on puzzles at LSE, Newcastle, Northumbria and Edinburgh and my spin in ball games/Wii talk at York. In the 10 week period (Oct-Dec) of teaching in the autumn term I have given 32 talks and operated 3 careers stalls and so have spoken to over 1100 students and 80 staff at 29 universities.
Also in November 12,600 IMA leaflets were distributed to 71 university maths departments, careers services and student societies. If you work in a university mathematics department I hope you will have seen these around the department. I spoke on my activities to the 11th Younger Mathematicians Conference in Birmingham. In December I had my six monthly meeting with my steering group and annual appraisal. I am pleased to report both went well.