Conferences Over Career Fair

That’s all I could see when I showed up to volunteer at the Medical Device & Investor Forum, or MDIF, hosted by OCTANe, an organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship in Orange County. Even with my own suit on, being surrounded by businessmen made me self-conscious given the usual T-shirts and jeans combo I’m used to seeing at UC Irvine. I felt alone, a soon-to-be graduate surrounded by professionals with years of experience in the field. An idea struck me: why not make the most out of this event?

Photo Credit: OCTANe

I began talking to people and came to the realization that career fairs aren’t the only way to get a job post-graduation; conferences such as MDIF are a great alternative. Using conferences to network is one way to avoid the typical “email my resume all over the internet” approach some graduates use in their quest for full time employment.

1) As a student or recent graduate, you stand out amongst working professionals, investors and other attendees.
At a career fair, you are amongst tens if not hundreds of other students pushing their resumes onto the same person. Sometimes, you may have to wait in line just to discuss your resume with an HR representative or random engineer.

At MDIF, there weren’t any other students for me to compete with. However, there weren’t as many, if any, companies there that were advertising themselves as looking to hire new graduates. I had to take the initiative to sell myself by approaching booths and strangers to see if there was anything useful I could offer them. Because most attendees were free roaming, I learned to observe body language that indicated when people aren’t interested in what I had to say. For example, someone who keeps looking over your shoulders may be busy scanning for his own opportunities. I learned to accept the fact that I was not as important to them as they were to me. This acceptation of rejection was useful as I gradually learned how to cut off a conversation. As a college graduate, it’s understandable that we have more time and less money than people with work experience. Nonetheless, respect your own time and learn to leave conversations instead of lingering around for the hopes of something useful arising.

Most companies attending weren’t looking to hire but as somebody with a lack of work experience, I learned a lot about the different roles companies play in the vast biomedical field. Before I attended MFID, I had only thought of biomedical engineering companies as the ones that actually made the devices, such as Masimo or Applied Medical. I came away realizing that there were companies that helped set up clinical trials, such as Aptiv Solutions, or companies that helped design the products, like Device Labs.

As strange as it sounds, having to go up to complete strangers to sell myself and finding out if I could be of value to them made me more willing to accept rejection. I didn’t get rehearsed replies like “sorry, you’re not what we’re looking for”. I got silence as people tried to figure out what I could do for them as a non-professional. That silence made it unnerving to continue approaching strangers but I remained persistent and discovered that nothing was personal.

2) You get to observe different roles of people and companies in the industry. At a career fair, the job descriptions on the papers they hand out can be the only way you find out about certain positions. Most of the people boothing will also be from HR or a specific department, such as engineering or marketing.

At MDIF, I got to meet industry executives in departments ranging from engineering to R&D to marketing. This may seem relevant to getting a job, but by getting to know what other members besides HR or engineering do, you can get an idea of how the company works as a whole. These individuals may be vice presidents of research and development or general managers who do not have the time to go to a career fair. Face to face time with people of higher company rank is typically difficult to get so make this time count at a conference.
Companies ranging from corporations like Masimo to smaller start ups like Jordan Neuroscience were present and they all offered different services. Learning that the biomedical device field consists of more than just companies that make the devices was surprising to me. In an academic environment, we are rarely exposed to the different sectors of the field we end up working in.

I was astonished to see non-device companies that offered services such as clinical trials, marketing campaigns and design contracts. The plethora of companies present made me realize how vast the biomedical device field is and how each student should think about the roles they are interested once they have a few years of work experience.

3) You get to listen to informative speeches from executives with years of experience that reveal their input on industry trends
I got to listen to the founder of Masimo present his perspective on the medical device landscape today. That’s not information you can get from talking to a recruiter, who will usually tell you what jobs they are looking to fill.

By grasping the larger picture of where the industry is heading towards, you can distinguish yourself from other applicants when applying for a job in the field. Simply talking about your own abilities is not enough to make you a truly great candidate for a position; companies are looking for graduates who can grasp the bigger picture. What better sources of industry trends are there than from the executives of the leading companies in that field? I learned that having the support of certain societies such as the American Medical Association is needed to get biomedical startups approval in conducting certain clinical studies. This may seem trivial to an electrical engineer but it could be useful in the future should said engineer end up working for a startup.

4) There are more opportunities to connect with company representatives on a personal level. The events after MDIF helped attendees get to know each other on a more personal level than simply chatting at the event. Cocktail receptions helped ease the atmosphere to encourage casual conversation that helps connect individuals on a deeper level. Simply getting a business card and shooting an email afterwards won’t result in the same memory as a casual conversation over drinks or food about one’s personal life. One reason why networking is so useful is that it doesn’t involve an immediate sell. Rather, you try to grow the relationship over time. One way to start is by asking for a business card after meeting individuals and then sending a thank you email after. These are basic steps that most students need to employ.

However, the time to use that connection is one that some students miss. When you find out a job has opened in their company, either through online job sites or their own, don’t be afraid to drop them a line and ask if they’d be willing to recommend you for an interview. HR is swamped with resumes and an internal recommendation, especially one from an employee of a higher-ranking position, holds significant influence.

Being alone as a student can be intimidating and you may want to hold back on approaching strangers who aren’t looking to hire. However, it is helpful for the real world to able to give elevator pitches about yourself at any moment. Let’s not forget that relying more on your ability to communicate and less on your resume is how an actual interview works. It’s safe to say that I learned a lot from my mistakes at MDIF and that these mistakes only make me more determined to go to future conferences to broaden my knowledge of the industry.

If you are a recent college graduate, whether in engineering or not, don’t forget that there are many events besides career fairs at which to sell yourself. You just have to keep an eye out and keep learning from your mistakes. Someday, you could be one of the business suits whom students approach.