A Day at the Fair

Writer: 
January 31, 2004

 

etworkers: a gathering of go-getters

The Duke Career Fair, held in the Bryan Center earlier in the semester, was noticeably lacking in the smells that make fairs fun: the popcorn, the cotton candy, the livestock. But there were costumes (students dressed as investment bankers in power ties and dark suits) and prizes (key chains and refrigerator magnets). And were it not for the looming reality that the fair represented, nothing would have been much different.

After all, fairs are about games, and nowhere is gamesmanship in greater abundance than at an elite university's career fair, where four years of scholarly pursuit end in a contest of smiles and suits, the culminating moment when all of life's endeavors and achievements are to be compressed into a word, a handshake, and a single sheet of paper. The rÈsumÈ, the corporate world's material indicator of all that one is and aspires to be, was the unit of currency; students carried them in leather cases and presented them delicately, as though the ink were still drying.

Sheila Curran, director of the Career Center, was there welcoming company representatives and observing the scene: "The thing about career fairs is that after you have the five-minute conversation with the employer--and that would be a long one--the rÈsumÈ is all that represents you," she said. "They don't want cover letters here, so the rÈsumÈ has to say everything you'd want the employer to know about yourself. It has to stand alone."

For students, too, standing alone or, rather, standing out was a recommended strategy, the idea being to distinguish oneself from the pack. "In the little time you have, you want to tell the employer why you are unique, what makes you any different, in a good way, from everyone else," said Curran. "For instance, everyone is 'a hard worker,' everyone is 'enthusiastic.' Forget those. Tell me why you're right for this particular job." In pre-fair strategizing, Curran had advised students to "make sure you have a targeted approach. If the employer sees you weighed down by the freebies of dozens of other companies, they may not take you seriously. Spend time only at organizations in which you're really interested."

Only at career fairs do the CIA and the Gap have the same targets in their sights: "leaders," "self-starters," "students with initiative" and a G.P.A. above 3.0, the cutoff point for most employers. Stationed near the south entrance in navy-blue shirts bearing the CIA logo were two men and one woman (although who could say with any certainty how many were really around?). A man, identified by his nametag only as "Donnie," gathered intelligence on prospective intelligence gatherers, while, across the room, Colleen Daily '99, a marketing employee at the Gap, passed out cans of Gap peppermints and described the sort of fabric a Gap employee should be cut from: "You need a head for management and an eye for trends. It's a business, but it doesn't hurt to have some fashion sense, too."

According to Donnie, first-year employees would find the CIA to be nothing like the movies: no spying, no aliases, no sneaking around. "You would probably be doing background investigations on people," he said. Still, the mini-flashlights he was handing out suggested a life of intrigue and covert operations, and, all day, curious students crowded around the table. Next door, Lending Tree, Inc., the leading online lending exchange ("When Banks Compete, You Win"), offered scant challenge to the romance of espionage, its yo-yos a sobering reminder of the ups and downs inherent in any career.

Of the sixty-nine organizations spread across seven industries represented at the fair, one organization seemed not to belong at all. "What are we doing here? People have been asking us that all morning," said Rebecca Gaier, a University of North Carolina Employment Services employee. "We're trying to get some Duke grads. But I think they're scared of us. Maybe it's the logo," she said, pointing to her baby-blue display board. Among the many odd couplings, the Marines stood opposite the Peace Corps, the Navy was just one investment banking firm down from the Army, and Youth Villages, a not-for-profit organization for emotionally troubled families, stuck out in a sea of entirely-for-profit consulting firms for financially troubled companies.

Still, many students complained that variety was at a minimum. Where, they wondered, were the publishing houses? The museums? The record labels? "What if you actually don't want to work in finance?" said senior Julia Albu. "What if you're creative?" Also concerned by what she perceived as a dearth of diversity, Rachel Prescott, a senior, said, "It's either finance or the armed forces. I think the best thing I came across was Boston Consulting, just because they have offices all over the place and you can work abroad."

Others, whatever their unspoken reservations, were playing the game as best they could, smiling and making eye-contact and asking questions. Eddie Serrill '02, who was recruiting for UBS Warburg, a New York-based financial firm, recalled being on the other side of the table. "I felt like a high-school kid at a college party. I wanted to disappear into the background for fear of making a bad impression, but I also wanted to play the driven young college student. I didn't really know who the firms were, let alone what interested me. All I knew was, I didn't want to fall behind. I'm very competitive. I wanted to play the game and win."

Having seen both worlds, Serrill said he was glad to be back and, this time, in a position to help. "I know most students don't know what to ask, that they're just trying to figure it all out. So I level with them. I try to make it easy and steer them to the information that's important."

Also at UBS was Amanda Smith '02, who said she had chosen her career path as early as her sophomore year, when she decided on an economics major. "I wanted to know exactly how to say to somebody, 'This company is worth x dollars and this is why.' And if I'm given a balance sheet and an income statement, I can do that. Want some mints?"