Coping With The Downturn

Class enters during an economic boom and leaves in a bust

Jessica E. Schumer

Students browse employment options during the annual OCS Career Fair last October. The fewer freebies at the fair went hand-in-hand with the decline in high-flying jobs that students snatched up when the class entered.

The opportunity to cash in on a Harvard College degree never looked better than when the Class of 2003 arrived in Cambridge.

The economy was running at full steam and phrases such as venture capital and dot-com were on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

“It was a really exciting time,” says Adams House Co-Master Sean Palfrey ’67. “You could go out of college and become a VP in two days.”

Students entering in September 1999 only had to look at the example of the just-graduated class to see the significant success Harvard students enjoyed in the job market securing lucrative positions, or even starting their own companies.

“We were cashing it in,” says Eliot House pre-med tutor Suzanne M. Miller ’99. “People expected to get multiple job offers and to be making $90,000 right out of college.”

But as the Class of 2003 prepares to leave Cambridge today, the economy is mired in recession and the giddiness of students has disappeared.

“The question today is not ‘which wave do I jump’ but ‘how do I manage,’” says Bill Wright-Swadel, director of the Office of Career Services (OCS).

From Harvard’s career service officials to the College’s masters and tutors, and from job recruiters to the members of the Class of 2003 themselves, nobody dares to suggest that the newest batch of Harvard College alums will be entering anything but a tough job market.

Yet beneath this troubling surface, many of those with a longer-term perspective on Harvard see hopeful trends in the way students today are considering post-graduate plans compared to their counterparts at the peak of the economic boom.

Masters note keen interest in jobs related to public service this year, only a few years after the perception on campus that taking such positions was a sign of failure. And OCS officials note that students are more critically thinking about their career goals instead of merely jumping at the highest-paying opportunity.

“I suspect we’ll get fewer phone calls from the Class of 2003 saying ‘I made the wrong [career] decision’ than we did for those classes who graduated in the years prior to your arrival,” Wright-Swadel says.

The Old Days Are Gone

As the Class of 2003 graduates today, many leave Cambridge without definite plans for next year.

While every year some graduates leave without firm plans, several of the masters and tutors who have a longer-term perspective on the students who go through the College note an increased number of students with no plans, or plans that are still extremely indefinite.

“In 1997, everybody by this point had plans and had settled on ones they were excited with,” says Dunster House pre-law tutor Mark R. Freeman ’97.

Among the newly unemployed is Matthew M. Pereira ’03. Despite aspirations of working in the entertainment or marketing and advertising industries, numerous job applications and attempts to network with those presently in the fields have not produced any job offers.

“I’ve attributed it to the economy because I don’t want to blame myself,” he quips.

Pereira notes that many of his friends also lack jobs or have taken positions in fields in which they have no interest.

Particularly hurt in this economic downturn have been the same high-flying sectors that employed so many Harvard students in the boom years.

From the decreased number of companies giving out freebies at the College’s annual job fair to a substantial reduction in the amount of recruiting advertisements in The Crimson, signs were everywhere this year that the supply of jobs in consulting, investment banking and technology were well below the levels seen when the Class of 2003 entered Harvard.

Wright-Swadel notes that firms’ participation in the official OCS recruiting process was down 40 percent this year from the level three years ago. And some of the firms—particularly in the high-tech and dot-com sector—that were staples in the recruiting process several years ago no longer exist.

And with tightened corporate budgets, some bellwether firms have dropped Harvard from their recruiting efforts, realizing the inefficiency of hiring students who often spend only a few years in the workforce before heading back to school.

For instance, Wright-Swadel notes Procter & Gamble no longer recruits at Harvard for its management program after realizing that its past recruits from the College all left the company within three years.

Such decreases in job availability did not go unnoticed by the seniors who went through the recruiting process this year.

“I definitely think recruiting was a lot more challenging this year than previously,” says Christopher J. Yip ’03, who managed to land a position with the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. He notes that those wanting jobs in the field often had to show much more flexibility than was required in previous years, such as being willing to take jobs wherever they were offered.

And while students like Yip, who have been planning on entering the consulting or investment banking industries since early in their time at Harvard, still managed to find some jobs through the recruiting process, those who were less committed to those career paths were often out of luck.

“The casual student has a great deal of difficulty in a pool with a dozen or two dozen applicants gunning from the start,” Wright-Swadel says. “The job pathways that were well oiled are not so slippery. The people who wanted to slide along are not able to anymore.”

Yip noted that investment banking recruiters this year almost universally expected competitive applicants to have had previous summer internships in the industry, making it nearly impossible for any newcomer to break into the field.

But even with the general economic malaise and private sector hesitancy to hire, some bright spots still existed. For instance Wright-Swadel notes Microsoft ramped up its recruiting efforts this year, hoping to take advantage of the decline in demand for the most talented students.

“I hope students with [career] dreams didn’t alter them without checking to see if they were possible,” Wright-Swadel says. “The reality is that [the current economic downturn] isn’t going to have a dramatic effect on long-term career options.”

Depart To Serve Better Thy Country

While job opportunities in the private sector were more scarce for the Class of 2003 relative to previous classes, opportunities in the public sector became more available.

According to Kim Ainsworth, executive director of the Greater Boston Federal Executive Board, nearly 40 percent of the federal workforce will become eligible for retirement over the next five years, creating a “huge push” to bring new blood into the bureaucracy.

Harvard has been front-and-center in this push, as 21 government agencies attended OCS’ Career Forum in October—accounting for nearly a quarter of all firms present.

And this increase in public sector and public service jobs was matched by an increased demand from this year’s graduates.

“The economic downturn means that students are being more creative in job prospects,” says Adams House pre-law and public interest tutor Rebecca D. Onie ’97-’98. “Students feel liberated because they can think outside the box, because the traditional boxes are smaller.”

Teach for America, a national program in which graduates commit to two years of teaching in low-income public schools, is one program that has been particularly popular among seniors.

According to Crystal D. Brakke, New England recruitment director for Teach for America, 66 Harvard seniors applied for the program this year, up from only 30 members of the Class of 2001.

The program accepted 32 Harvard graduates into its ranks this year and Brakke expects roughly 25 to take the position.

Fulfilling an interest in education policy, Brittny-Jade E. Saunders ’03 will be spending the next two years teaching in the South Bronx through Teach for America.

While Saunders says that she has been interested in applying for the program for several years, particularly after spending her summer three years ago working in a public-service job in East Harlem, she notes that the weak economy made her friends more understanding of the decision to forgo a more traditional career path.

Brakke notes that fewer employment opportunities has dramatically widened interest in the program, as many of those she speaks to at job fairs indicate they are considering both Teach for America and private sector jobs.

During the boom years, the draw of lucrative job options had a powerful ability to overcome the altruistic desires of Harvard students, according to Pforzheimer House Co-Master James J. McCarthy.

“The interest in public service was there [in past classes], but it might have come out later,” he says.

Adams House Co-Master Judith Palfrey ’67 adds that this increased interest in public service cannot be disconnected from the “profound effects” Sept. 11 had on the members of the Class of 2003.

“Students’ worldview is a little more anxious and serious about how the hell do I fit into this,” adds her husband.

But even with these factors encouraging public service, public sector jobs have some drawbacks.

Ainsworth notes unlike her private sector counterparts at job fairs, civil service hiring procedures make her unable to immediately offer positions, or even interviews.

And while Ainsworth says she has seen an increased interest particularly in jobs with the foreign service or the CIA among Harvard students, the application process for such jobs can be quite time-consuming.

Greg T. Delawie ’80, director of policy coordination for the Bureau of Human Resources at the State Department, says those interested in foreign service positions must wait to take the Foreign Service Examination, which is given only once a year.

And even after taking the test, necessary background checks and interviews mean that attractive candidates likely will have to wait another 10 months for a job offer—although this is down from the 27-month wait that existed in the late 1990s.

Staying in the Academy

While this year applications to graduate and professional schools increased nationwide, with a record-setting number of people taking the LSAT, this trend has been less pronounced at Harvard.

Twenty-five percent of Harvard College graduates traditionally head straight for graduate or professional school after Commencement. Wright-Swadel says this year’s statistics seem to be within a few percent of that average.

Although attendance at initial interest meetings saw a “dramatic increase” over the past two years, pre-med tutor Miller says medical school applications by seniors in Eliot House are running at an average pace. She notes that applications to medical school tend to vary little with the economy, given the numerous course requirements pre-meds must complete.

Instead of more seniors immediately continuing with school, Wright-Swadel suggests that the decline in the economy is causing students to spend less time out in the workforce after graduation—maybe only one or two years today instead of two or three years in the past—before continuing their studies.

The trends in applications to law school from Dunster House fit this pattern. While pre-law tutor Freeman says the number of seniors in the House applying to law school has remained around 20 for the past several years, in the past three years the number of alums of the House applying has surged from three to almost 30.

Yet the trend was not reflected in all Houses.

Kirkland House pre-law tutor Jim O. Friedman says his House had few alums applying to law school this year. Adams House saw a substantial increase in all applicants this year, according to Onie.

Even if the numbers of Harvard seniors applying to graduate schools remained fairly constant, the national surge in applications did affect the chances of getting into choice programs.

“There were a number of disappointed students this year,” Onie says. “There were quite a few students who really expected to get into Harvard Law School but didn’t.”

Perhaps even more maddening for seniors applying to schools was the length of time schools have taken to reply this year.

Freeman says while students in past years have typically heard back from law schools by March or April, a significant number of students will graduate today still without hearing one way or another on their applications.

“It puts students in a terrible position,” Freeman says.

While tutors may have experienced differing patterns in applications, they agree on the reasons why law schools are seen as an attractive option in a slow economy.

“People have the sense that law school is ultimate security,” Onie says. “It’s the ultimate option for risk-averse Harvard students.”

And if seniors are not convinced of the security provided by law schools, parents are often quick to remind them.

Jobless senior Pereira says that even though he has little desire to go to law school—“on a list of 10 options, it would be after number seven”—his parents insisted that he apply in order to ensure a backup plan.

Now that he has been accepted to a law school but yet to find a job, he says his parents are becoming even more insistent that he enroll in the fall.

But tutors say such a tendency to see law school as a safety net can mean that students are going for the wrong reasons.

“The more people that apply, the more people that aren’t interested in being a practicing lawyer,” Friedman says. “As a general rule, I think that’s a really bad idea. If you don’t love [the law]...you’re going to be miserable in law school.”

Looking on the Bright Side

While the economic downturn has closed some doors to graduates this year, the change had positive aspects.

Several masters note the existence of unfortunate pressure for seniors to enter a small set of high-flying jobs during the boom of the 1990s.

“The default was that Harvard grads did consulting, I-banking, or dot-coms and if you didn’t do those things, you had failed,” Judith Palfrey says. “I don’t see that anymore—that’s good.”

The single-track focus on such careers led Houses to create public service tutors and other initiatives to ensure their seniors considered more non-traditional career paths.

“I recall discussion among the masters concerned about fascination with business and going out to make a lot of money,” McCarthy says.

Despite these concerns, Saunders, bound for Teach for America, says the attitude still exists both inside and outside the College that many public service jobs—such as teaching—are “the kind of jobs Harvard students shouldn’t be doing.”

But she says she did find the tutors in Quincy House supportive of her efforts to obtain a public service job and believes the resources at Harvard are improving for students interested in service.

The decreased pressure to go into a certain set of high-paying jobs has also led OCS to see an increase in the number of seniors thinking critically about their plans instead of just following what Wright-Swadel calls “the lemming effect” into consulting or I-banking.

While this kind of reflection may not make the job hunt easy, students often get rewarded in the end for their efforts.

“The process has been more stressful for students, but students who have been persistent have found quite fulfilling jobs,” Onie says.

And ultimately the Class of 2003 seems to be taking the economic problems in stride.

“Harvard students know that they’re always employable,” says Cabot House Co-Master James H. Ware. “There’s a certain amount of anxiety, but I don’t sense it’s out of control.”

Even those entering the real world tomorrow without plans are able to look on the bright side.

“I remain hopeful,” Pereira says. “It’s an issue of perseverance.”

—Jenifer L. Steinhardt contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Daniel P. Mosteller can be reached at mosteller@post.harvard.edu.