Careers in Physics Part XI: Career Fairs

Kevin Pitts

Early in the academic year, there are two major career fairs on campus. The first is sponsored by Engineering Career Services and the second is sponsored by the Engineering Council. Both events bring in lots of recruiters from lots of high tech companies in information technology, consulting, engineering, government service and research.   The recruiters are looking for potential employees, but in many cases they are also looking for summer interns. I recommend that students looking for internships go to the career fairs in their sophomore or junior year.

Recruiters list Illinois as one of the top schools to go to because of our combination of quality and quantity.
I went over to the Engineering Career Services Career fair a few weeks ago (sorry to be slow to post) to talk to some of the recruiters.   The recruiters are all listed in the bulletin and it shows students what fields they are interested in. For example, Boeing was on campus looking for students in ME and EE.
I walked around and talked to some of the recruiters. Some of them listed physics and some of them didn’t. In this post, I’ll talk about the ones who didn’t list physics.
For the high tech companies that didn’t list physics, I asked them, “Would you be interested in a physics major?” In many cases, the answer was, “Yes, if they had some entry level skills in addition to their physics knowledge.” I’ve heard this response from recruiter before, so it didn’t surprise me.    Recruiters like physicists for several reasons:
  • They are smart.
  • They learn new things quickly.
  • They know how to analyze information and think critically.
  • They are used to working in teams.
The problem that recruiters have with physics majors is that they don’t know how to classify them or where to put them in their organizational structure. Most companies need someone who can write software or work with electronics, so it is much easier for the recruiters to say, “We need computer science majors and electrical engineers.”    But if you dig a bit deeper, you realize that they don’t need somebody who has taken 8 courses in computer science, they need somebody who knows one computing language and possesses the skills I listed above.   So the challenge for a physics major is to bring show some skills to the recruiter.  Students who do this do very well.
And yes, some of this is about salesmanship.  You have to be able to explain to prospective employers why you would be a good employee.  Telling them, "I got an A in my Electricity and Magnetism course"  probably doesn't do too much to get you a job with Schlumberger (who, by the way, hires lots of physicists).  But telling them that you have hands on experience with data acquisition systems and advanced modeling algorithms that you were exposed to in physics courses (like PHYS 403 and 466) or in undergraduate research will be the kind of information that supplements the skills I listed above.  
So before you go to the Career Fair, work on your resume, think about the skills you have to market and practice your elevator pitch.*  Engineering Career Services can help with all of these, and I'll write more about them in a later post.
*What's an elevator pitch?  Imagine that you get on the elevator with Bill Gates and you have between now and the 7th floor to sell yourself to him.   Your elevator pitch is the 60 second, concise summary of your skills, abilities and interests, and it hopefully includes a bit about what you can do for their company!
By the way, career fairs are about getting internships as much as they are post graduate employment.   That's why you should start going to career fairs when you are a freshman, not a senior.
Lots of recruiters at the Career Fair.
Lots of recruiters at the Career Fair.