As many touchpoints along the career advancement trajectory, from in-person interviews to networking events, fell victim to COVID-19 restrictions, new platforms have emerged to enable, in virtual format, the show to go on.
But for Boston College students pursuing graduate degrees in applied economics, a weeklong online career fair shook up all the usual formats—combining the networking aspects of a "reverse" career fair with elements of a research poster presentation.
Instead of a venue filled with tables representing organizations and companies, the reverse career fair flips the model: attending recruiters and hiring managers navigate among stations assigned to each participating student. At the BC event, the virtual platform took it a step further, allowing each student to showcase not only their credentials but also their recent research in the field.
The pilot expo, which took place in the spring 2021 semester, was customized specifically for the M.S. in Applied Economics program at BC's Woods College of Advancing Studies by Open Data Science Conference, organizer of some of the largest global events in the data science and artificial intelligence realms, in cooperation with MSAE director Aleksandar Tomic, who is also the school's associate dean for strategy, innovation, and technology. The event was so successful that Tomic has incorporated it into the program's ongoing portfolio of career services.
Like all of the graduate programs of the Woods College, the MSAE attracts both traditional and nontraditional students, including working professionals, from across the U.S. and abroad. The program is accustomed to offering flexible scheduling to accommodate them, Tomic said, so it was a natural extension to consider the time constraints faced by recruiters and hiring managers as well. The career event's format enabled them to explore the fair and speak with participants at their own convenience--and without having to travel to campus.
At any time during the weeklong expo, visitors could enter a password-protected virtual auditorium and choose among an array of stations each representing a participant. There, current students and recent graduates of the MSAE program made available video statements of their achievements and career goals, presentations of their research findings, and downloadable resumes. Visitors could interact with each student directly through a chat function or LinkedIn connection, or by scheduling an appointment to talk live.
The genesis of the event stems back to 2018, when the MSAE program participated in Open Date Science Conference's annual AI conference in Boston. "We hosted an event for recruiters at which our students presented their work and had very good results," Tomic said. "When COVID hit, ODSC had to move their conference to a virtual platform. I liked what I saw and proposed that we build our event on that platform, as it provided for a very rich experience even when the students were not present to connect directly."
In addition to the customized ODSC platform, student preparation was key to the event's success, Tomic said. Before the event, MSAE faculty member Robert Bradley ran a five-week seminar for participants that covered presentations, videos, job search strategies, and mock interviews.
An important aspect of the process was to help each participant prepare to speak with both recruiters and research managers—two very different audiences, Bradley said. "Each person needed to have quality research and a compelling story to tell about it—to showcase their skill sets and also their ability to communicate ideas. My approach was to work with each person one-on-one as much as possible, while also encouraging them to take advantage of their classmates to get as much constructive feedback as possible."
Each participant would have a short window to make a meaningful connection that would ideally lead to a potential interview, whether as a direct result of that brief interaction or down the road based on the connection, Bradley said.
While many MSAE students are intensively searching for jobs close to graduation, others are already in various stages of career planning at any point during the program.
"I have worked in different capacities at a number of universities and I honestly have never seen students so prepared to do the work necessary to succeed," said Bradley. "They are not just looking for help landing a job, they are looking for us to prepare them to succeed in their work."
Arvind Sharma MSAE '16, found the expo to be professionally and personally valuable, as well as eye-opening: learning about the breadth of industry options available after a degree in economics boosted both his optimism about the job market, he said.
As a result of the expo, Sharma, who is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in applied economics at Northeastern University, was invited to participate an eight-week summer internship at Geico, and also has applied and been accepted to two upcoming conferences in his field.
"It was also fun to interact with other presenters about their work," said Sharma, whose research project focused on the effect of occupational licensing on interstate migration, “to learn about new settings where regression methodologies are being applied, discuss project strengths and limitations with the primary researchers, and also have some real-time socialization with fresh graduates of the MSAE during COVID times."
Junhui (Michelle) Lei MSAE '21, whose research explored the interaction between income and marital status on workplace attrition, welcomed the opportunity to present her project to a larger audience and receive feedback to improve her work, she said, as well as to connect with others and exchange thoughts on behavioral economics.
Lei, who is now pursuing a master's degree in behavioral finance at Cornell University, also cited appreciation for the one-on-one preparation sessions offered by both Bradley and Tomic, as well as for the research guidance provided by MSAE faculty member Lawrence DeGeest.
Tomic gives the event, which drew 120 recruiters and hiring managers, MSAE partners, and interested others—an emphatic thumbs up. All who participated were contacted in the chat function embedded in the platform and reported connecting with several recruiters regarding potential career opportunities.
Some students even received job offers during the prep seminar, he said: One had taken the opportunity to do a mock interview with a faculty member who works at the Boston Federal Reserve and was hired as a research associate there; another landed a new job in Germany.
"We look at every opportunity to help our students in their careers and to introduce them to recruiters and potential employers," Tomic said. "We pride ourselves on finding new and creative ways to engage employers so that our students are presented with opportunities to build a network they can leverage during their time in the program and post-graduation."
Though the MSAE, like all academic programs, had to pivot in order to adjust to challenges presented by COVID-19, Tomic stresses that this career event was not a pandemic-driven initiative. "Our program draws students all over the world," he said, noting that some 20 international students were enrolled during the last academic year. "So in addition to other efforts—including retaining a career coach in Asia for students completing their degree there—we already were exploring ways to engage in virtual career support. Of course, the fact that the rest of the world now had to figure out online engagement helped us in the sense that platforms were built a bit faster and more people are now accustomed to virtual interaction."
Moving forward, the program will retain the ODSC venue as continuing feature of its career services, with the site remaining online as a continuing showcase of students to potential employers as well as a platform for periodic live events.
To those interested in planning something similar, Tomic's advice borrows from Nike: "Just do it. These initiatives take time, but they are well worth it."
To explore the event platform, visit bcappliedecon.odsc.com. Free registration is required.
Patricia Delaney | University Communications | October 2021