Current Issue

Apr. 1, 2009

Vol. 109, No. 11


Young, smart, and job hunting

Prospects for the Class of 2009

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Published in the April 1, 2009, issue

Illustration by Steven Veach; based on a photo of the Class of 2009 at opening exercises in 2005 by Denise Applewhite/Office of Communications

The Career Services office is not the place to be in the late winter of senior year. Usually at this time of year, most banks and financial and consulting firms have made their job offers, while graduate school and fellowship acceptances are trickling in. With spring break approaching and a thesis deadline bearing down, most seniors would prefer to have one foot outside FitzRandolph Gate, taking a first step toward careers that promise financial independence and personal fulfillment.

Yet one morning in late February, Jolee Vanleuven ’09 sits nervously in the waiting room of the new Career Services office in the former U-Store building, awaiting an interview with a law firm that is looking for a paralegal. She’s a strong student — a history major who was awarded a grant from the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies to support her thesis research — and an all-American athlete and co-captain of the cross country team to boot. Still, interviews with large consulting firms and other applications have not resulted in a job. “Honestly,” she says, “I haven’t been too picky.”

As Vanleuven, a distance runner, must know, the search for a job has been compared to a marathon. This year, a cross country race might be an even better metaphor — it’s a long slog over rough and hilly terrain.

What does it feel like to be a senior — even a good one at an Ivy League school — looking for that first real job during the worst financial crisis in 80 years? “It’s a culture of anxiety,” says Andy Chen ’09, who shared the Pyne Honor Prize this year. Accepting the prize at Alumni Day in February, Chen began his remarks by noting that “in this economic climate, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed by fear,” with seniors facing both a bad job market and increased competition to graduate schools because students view additional education as a way to sit out the recession. Chen’s classmates are, for the most part, finding jobs, but they are working harder to get them. At the same time, they are listening to stories about offer-less classmates and about friends, just a few years ahead, who are being laid off. Economic anxiety, he says, is “persistent, permeating every part of our lives.”

In March, the National Association of Colleges and Employers estimated that the number of jobs available to graduating seniors will be down a whopping 22 percent from last year. The decline applies across almost all sectors of the economy except for the federal government, which is hiring robustly, says Edwin Koc, the association’s director of strategic and foundation research. As for those who find jobs, according to another NACE study, students with sharp quantitative skills are faring better — the average salary offer to mechanical engineering majors is up 3.9 percent from last year — while offers to liberal arts majors are flat. Students are competing not just against each other, but against newly unemployed graduates who possess the advantage of a few years of real-world experience, notes Matthew Novak, who was at Princeton in February, interviewing seven seniors for three openings at California-based Risk Management Solutions. Cary Grill, the head recruiter for Trillium Trading in New Jersey, also was interviewing. “We don’t want to be people’s second or third choice,” Grill says. “We don’t want desperate people.”  

It’s hardly The Grapes of Wrath material, and many students are lucky. Peter Capkovic ’09 interned as a trader for JPMorgan last summer, received an offer on his last day of work, and accepted it on the spot. He starts at the company’s interest-rate swaps trading desk in July. Olivia Hamilton ’09 interned with Goldman Sachs for two summers but decided that she did not want to pursue a career in banking. After interviewing with a few consulting firms, she landed a job in November with McKinsey & Co. in San Francisco. But even she feels uneasy: Some of her friends from the internship program recently learned that they would not be offered positions with Goldman Sachs. And the true effects of the recession on Princeton students may not be felt until the Class of 2010 starts to interview next fall, because so much hiring is now done after the junior year and many seniors had job offers before the economy really began to deteriorate last September. (It’s possible, of course, that some offers will be rescinded.)

Beverly Hamilton-Chandler, director of Princeton’s Office of Career Services, says the number of employers who either have interviewed on campus or have posted job openings online (with interviews conducted at company offices) actually has increased by almost 20 percent; while bigger firms appear to be cutting back and holding fewer fancy recruiting events, smaller ones are recruiting at Princeton for the first time. Until statistics are tabulated at the end of the year, Hamilton-Chandler says, she won’t know if the number of on-campus interviews has declined or how many visiting firms are extending offers to Princeton students. Career Services has intensified its efforts to bring recruiters to campus, and companies will be interviewing later this year than they have previously. But even in relatively prosperous years, many seniors graduate without knowing what they will do next. Nearly 20 percent of members of the Class of 2008 who filled out the annual Career Services exit survey reported that they were still “seeking employment” shortly before they graduated. For now, Hamilton-Chandler’s advice has a familiar ring: Hone your writing skills, keep your résumé up to date, network, and — most important — cast your net as widely as possible.  

The decreasing number of financial-services jobs (388,000 lost since December 2006, according to the Labor Depart-ment) has increased the competition for consulting jobs, which in turn has made it harder to get even low-paying nonprofit jobs and unpaid internships. Altruism may be an unanticipated beneficiary if the great shakeout continues, as more students begin to think about working in government or community service. But here, too, a numbers crunch has begun. Princeton Project 55 has seen a 24 percent increase in the number of applications compared with last year, while the number of public-interest organizations able to fund a Project 55 fellow has fallen 47 percent, according to executive director Kathleen Reilly. That makes “for an incredibly competitive applicant pool,” she says. It’s a similar story at Princeton Internships in Civic Service, a joint effort by the Classes of 1969, 1970, and 1977. There, too, the number of positions available has declined as nonprofits saw their own sources of funding dry up.

At Teach for America, the national public-service organization founded by Wendy Kopp ’89 — the group places top college graduates in disadvantaged schools — applications from Princeton students are up more than 40 percent from a year ago. And there has been an increase in the number of applications from those already in the job market, many of them refugees from the financial sector who suddenly have discovered an interest in teaching inner-city children. The number of teaching slots available also has increased, says Caroline Van Zile, TFA’s recruitment coordinator for Princeton. Still, TFA remains a tough job to get.

Law school often is the last refuge for those who can’t figure out what to do with themselves, but Lyon Zabsky, an assistant director of Career Services who oversees pre-law advising, says she has not seen an increase in Princeton applicants. There is, however, an inevitable lag in graduate school applications, given that interested students must plan ahead to take the LSATs or GREs before applying. So Zabsky anticipates an uptick in applications next year, not only from undergraduates but from recent graduates who may have found themselves unemployed or are eager to switch fields. Meanwhile, she notes ominously, law firms are laying people off.

Todd Jones ’09 took the GREs last fall, and in February was waiting to hear from the four graduate programs in operations research to which he applied. Jones already revised his career path as he followed economic developments. He considered a banking internship last summer, but turned it down to work for a management-consulting company because the winds had begun to turn for banks and “I thought I would be taking a chance to go with a bank in New York if it was no longer going to be there.” The consulting internship led to a job offer, but Jones, who had contemplated pursuing a doctorate a few years down the road, decided to accelerate his schedule and spend the immediate future in graduate school.  

Around Cleveland Tower, where soon-to-be holders of advanced degrees are preparing to march into the real world, the mood seems to be optimistic but anxious. In the sciences, Princeton’s graduate students are finding enough postdoctoral positions “for now,” says David Redman, the associate dean for academic affairs. The physics department hopes that the recently passed stimulus package, which includes approximately $3 billion in new spending for the National Science Foundation, will increase the number of grants available to postdocs. In the humanities, Redman says, some departments, such as German, seem to be having a good year placing students into teaching positions while others, in fields such as history, are having a harder time. But, Redman cautions, it’s still early — and he speculates that graduate students completing one postdoctorate might pursue a second, if only to postpone having to face an unpromising job market. (For more on job-hunting graduate students, read On the Campus on page 14.)  

Overall, teaching positions are becoming harder to find, as public and private universities deal with budget cuts and shrinking endowments, writes David Spergel ’82, chairman of Princeton’s astrophysics department, in Science News. Further gumming up the hiring process, professors whose investments have tanked may decide to postpone retirement, which would keep new teaching posts from opening up. Even after the economy recovers, Spergel suggests, the lack of tenure-track jobs could force many foreign-born but U.S.-trained scientists and engineers to seek jobs overseas, further dampening American competitiveness.

It’s no surprise, then, that Princeton graduate students are visiting Career Services to polish their résumés, and the office expects a large turnout for a workshop this month on how to make the transition into the nonacademic world.  

Post Comments
1 Response to Young, smart, and job hunting

Patricia Alberts, grandparent Says:

2009-04-14 10:54:00

I grew up during the Great Depression and I can honestly say 'You ain't seen nothin yet' to young people today. My granddaughter is fortunate. Thanks to me and her grandfather, she graduates from Princeton without one penny of student loan debt. The article is a good one.
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