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.