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.  

The 2008 science and technology job fair in Dillon Gym Oct. 10.
The 2008 science and technology job fair in Dillon Gym Oct. 10.
Frank Wojciechowski

Across town, on the morning Jolie Vanleuven is waiting for her interview, clusters of juniors make their way to the Nassau Inn. Goldman Sachs is visiting and, even though the firm cut 10 percent of its staff last fall, the powerhouse investment bank remains the big catch for job seekers. Even firms that are laying people off at one end of the pipeline seem reluctant to cut off recruiting on the other — and interns are relatively cheap and need not be kept on once school resumes.

Goldman summer interns traditionally have had an inside track to offers of full-time employment after graduation. And the weekly compensation for student interns in the financial-services industry has run up to $2,000 a week, according to the 2008 summer internship report prepared by the University’s Office of Career Services.  

Goldman has reserved about a dozen rooms on the inn’s fifth floor for interviews. A piece of paper taped to each door indicates the field to be interviewed for within — today, it is finance and investment management. Thought-fully, Goldman has placed chairs outside the rooms and just before the 9:30 interviewees leave, the 10:30s wait in their conservative suits, backpacks at their feet, fingers drumming on their binders while a chambermaid pushes her cart down the hall to make the beds and change the towels, for a lot less than $2,000 a week.

“Maybe this is foolish, but I’m not worried about it,” says one of the juniors — who is majoring in operations research and financial engineering (ORFE) but did not want to give his name — about his job search. “Maybe that’s because worrying isn’t going to help me.”  

Companies searching for top students find themselves in a buyer’s market. More than 150 students turned out to give their résumés to the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. and 46 other companies at the annual Career Services internship fair in late February. Recruiters remarked that they were receiving internship applications from a broader range of students than in previous years, including many from finance-related majors nervous about their job prospects. Internships with smaller companies outside the financial sector were in demand, even though they pay much less or may even pay nothing at all. Says Anna Peng ’10: “Employers have become more selective, and we’ve become less selective in who we apply to.”

Still, the younger students have time, and they don’t seem especially fearful that the economy will leave them behind. Carter Simpson ’10, emerging from an interview with Deutsche Bank, sounds cautiously upbeat about his summer prospects. “It is not affecting the way I am looking,” he says of the economy, “but it may affect how it turns out. A lot of people are thinking about Plan B.” Michael Weinberg ’11, an ORFE major, acknowledges that the competition for plum internships is intense, particularly since he is only a sophomore, but he betrays no sense of nervousness. “When I graduate, the economy will be better than it is now,” he says, “and with a Princeton education, I should be able to do something I want to do.”

As several juniors wait at Career Services for interviews with financial firms, including Citigroup, they discuss the merits of different internships. Justin Sirignano ’10 cuts to the heart of the problem: the rumor that Citi might join Lehman Brothers and other firms in disappearing beneath the financial waves. “The problem with interviewing with Citi,” Sirignano opines, “is that they’re insolvent.” But uncertainty reigned, and a few weeks later, Citigroup reported a better outlook.

Princeton always has sent its share of graduates to that agglomeration of banks, financial-services firms, and consulting groups that can be lumped together under the term “Wall Street,” lured by a lucrative starting salary made even better by a hefty bonus. (According to the Web site wallstreetoasis. com, an industry blog and chat board, starting salaries in the financial sector can run up to $90,000, with an expected signing bonus of between $5,000 and $15,000.)

Michael Lewis ’82 chronicled his own experiences on Wall Street in his 1989 best-seller, Liar’s Poker, a book that was as much an expression of the age as Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. “Wall Street seemed very much like the place to be at the time,” Lewis wrote of his decision to interview with investment banks. “The world didn’t need another lawyer. ... Probably the real truth of the matter was that I was frightened to miss the express bus on which everyone I knew seemed to have a reserved seat, for the fear that there would be no other. I certainly had no fixed idea of what I wanted to do when I graduated from college, and Wall Street paid top dollar for what I could do, which was nothing.”

“That economy,” he says now, “which employed a meaningful number of Princeton graduates, people who had won the mentoring game, is going to be gone for a long time.”

If there is a silver lining to the financial cloud, Lewis suggests, it might be to broaden students’ horizons. One effect of the boom, he argues, was to undermine confidence in the value of a liberal arts education. Majoring in economics or in ORFE — a department begun at the height of the dot-com boom — was pursued less for its own sake than as a step on a preprofessional path. If the rewards of that path become less lucrative, students may consider exploring other paths — to art history, perhaps, Lewis’ major — simply because they find the subject interesting. Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel and others have tried to encourage this for several years, with some success.

Warming to his role as industry Cassandra, Lewis, who chronicled the Wall Street boom at its beginning, isn’t sanguine that good times will return quickly. “There’s been this banquet, but suddenly there’s no food left,” he says. It may, however, take a few years before everyone figures that out. So what, Lewis is asked, does he see in these students’ futures?  

“To be very angry,” he answers, “that they weren’t born 20 years earlier.” 

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer. Anne Ruderman ’01 contributed to this article.