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Resume-itis and the Summer Job Crisis

By Timothy P. Yu

Why did I come to Harvard? It's a question, I suppose, whose answer I should know by now. And there are many possibilities: the resources, the students, the enrichment of the education I could receive. But last month I realized that there was another, and probably more appropriate answer.

I could make a lot of money.

This epiphany came to me courtesy of the Office of Career Services, which hosted its annual Career Forum a few weeks ago.

Granted, I am only a sophomore. Some might argue that it's far too early to worry about what I'm going to do after college; after all, a number of the seniors I saw at the forum had no idea what they were doing after Commencement Day. Certainly I have plenty of time to ponder my fate.

So what was I doing there? Unfortunately, there can be no doubt that a year of being here has taken a certain toll on my attitude. All these months of exposure have infected me with an acute case of resume-itis: the knowledge that absolutely everyone has done more and better things than I have. Example: if I had an internship last summer with a member of congress in Washington, I can rest assured that I will meet at least two classmates who worked for a senator while commuting to New York to learn investment banking, working for the Peace Corps in Zimbabwe, and learning Japanese in their sleep.

From this, all Harvard students should glean a valuable lesson in humility. Having come mostly from environments where they were solitary shining stars, they should learn from their experiences here the dangers of arrogance--no matter how talented you are, someone is always more so. The knowledge should make them more mature, more aware of their place in the scheme of things.

Right.

Face it: we're all competitors at heart, or we would never have come here in the first place. We respond not by finding serenity, but by turning things up a notch. Even the lingo reflects it: we don't join an organization, we "comp" it.

The summer internship game may be one of the greatest examples of this comp-culture mentality. I seem to recall that summer once had the word "vacation" attached to it; these days, rather than "summer break," it should probably be called "intersession career enhancement opportunity." Whereas in our days of innocence we went off to summer camp to learn songs and games or even just stayed home to relax, now we hustle for the privilege of making photo-copies for important people.

As an unenlightened first-year, I let the months roll by without even a thought of what I was going to do with my summer. Before I knew it, it was March and my friends were saying to me incredulously, "What? You don't know what you're doing this summer? It's getting late..." I realized that most of them had been pondering this even in the darkest days of winter, with printers churning out cover letters when I was wondering if summer was even going to come.

But perhaps most disconcerting of all was that most of them were failing. My roommmate applied to at least six or seven different organizations before landing his job at the Boston Heart Foundation, presumably because other wild-eyed pre-meds had beaten him to the punch everywhere else. And he was one of the lucky ones. Others, unable to find any gainful employment, were forced to go home, heads hanging in defeat, to work at McDonald's.

Luckily, I was saved by a kindly astronomy professor who taught my Core class and took me in. I certainly have no plans to be an astrophysicist, but when I took the job I told myself that it was to explore a field that had always interested me. But wasn't the real reason so that when people asked, "What did you do with your summer?" I could reply, "I worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics"? I even bought a T-shirt to prove it.

This was the frame of mind that I was in when the Career Forum newsletter arrived at my door last month. It languished there unnoticed until I picked up a crumpled sheet of paper from my floor that screamed, "SUMMER INTERNSHIPS!"

I began to panic. Here it was, the middle of October of my sophomore year, and what had I done to enhance my career prospects? I plucked the Career Forum newsletter from my basket and read it cover to cover. Sure, it was supposed to be for job-hunting seniors. But maybe some of those hot-shot companies would have a place or two for a summer intern. "Collect company literature and explore career possibilities before it is too late," the introduction warned. I intended to do so.

So between classes that morning, I trudged over to Memorial Hall, took a deep breath--wondering if I should have worn a tie--and plunged into the corporate jungle.

I felt completely lost. I was at home in obscure rooms discussing the words of unknown poets, comfortable as an impractical idealist. Here, suddenly, I was surrounded by the representatives of the Real World, flashing the smiles and the golden baubles that it had to offer. One man cheerfully called: "Hey, are you interested in investment banking?"

Investment banking. The phrase conjured up images of the roaring `80s, "Bonfire of the Vanities," Michael Douglas with his hair slicked back in "Wall Street." All I knew was that investment bankers bought and sold things and made obscene amounts of money doing it. Who could ask for anything more?

In the end, my endeavor was less than a success. The representatives I talked to rolled their eyes and told me I was the millionth sophomore to ask about summer jobs. Comp culture had struck again: we all wanted to be the first ones into the boardroom, even if it was only to sweep the floor. In any case, most of the companies had no formal programs (translation: come back in two years, kid). If I really tried--tracked down recruiters, wrote a hundred resumes, grovelled and begged--I might be able to find something. Is it really worth it to kill myself so that I can make photocopies for the Disney Vacation Club? Well, if I don't, I'll come back in the fall to find out that someone I know was personal assistant to Mickey Mouse.

I tell myself I haven't changed; I just think more realistically. You can be different and be successful, I say. Then I realize that I picked that phrase up from the Procter & Gamble flyer.

The Career Forum wasn't all bad, I suppose. I did get a great pencil from the Disney table, one whose end was shaped like Mickey's head. If I can enjoy that, maybe there's some hope for the kid in me after all.

But I think the guy before me got two.

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