Not getting a job, Kim Nguyen ’21 tells herself, doesn’t make you a bad person.
By the time we speak in late October, recruiting season is coming to a close. The leaves in Cambridge have shifted from green to red, but most members of the class of 2021 haven’t witnessed their last Harvard autumn firsthand. They’re at home in their childhood bedrooms, or renting an apartment with friends. Meanwhile, marathons of interviews have passed, and job offers have been made.
“When I get rejected from things, sometimes I let that affect how I view myself,” Nguyen says. “Because if you don’t have a job, and you have no idea what you’re doing after college, that’s sad.”
When Nguyen began the recruiting process, she thought she had a good sense of what to expect: emailing in some resumes, answering “Stat 110”-esque questions, and mostly “winging the interviews.”
Nguyen plans to eventually attend graduate school to study math, because above all, she appreciates when “people engage in a problem-solving process, and find a cool solution cool.” But right now, she’s looking to work for a few years in quantitative finance. She’s interested in “slightly tech-y, nerdy, math-y places” — companies that care more about problem-solving, than just “[changing a] parameter, and suddenly, [making] a ton more money.”
“And I kind of just want to have something that’s enough for me to pay rent and eat food,” she says. “And also enjoy my job enough.”
Among her friends who’d done recruiting in previous years, she has witnessed an arduous — yet “kind of fun” — process. At Harvard, the recruiting process is dominated by the finance, consulting, and tech industries, and the main thrust of the hiring process takes place in August, September, and October.
The first aspect of Nguyen’s recruiting process that differed from expectation was her summer internship.
“My internship last summer was completely virtual. I’m a person who, if someone’s not watching me, people would think I just disappear,” she says. “I had to make it a point of telling my manager how much I work every day, and that was just really weird.”
Nguyen didn’t end up getting a return offer from the company she interned for. This news was frustrating: She now had to enter into a shaky job market without an option to fall back on. She says that while she doesn’t know if she would have gotten the internship in a “normal” year, the “factor of [it being a] virtual internship was a lot weirder than a not-virtual internship.”
And so, Nguyen — alongside many of her classmates — embarked on a journey in virtual recruiting.
At Harvard College, a majority of students participate in the recruiting process for the finance, technology, and consulting industries; in 2020, 63 percent of the graduating class reported entering one of these three fields in The Crimson’s Exit Survey.
The vast majority of college students in the United States graduate without a clear plan; it takes the average college student three to six months to find a job after graduation. At Harvard, by contrast, it isn’t uncommon to know your future place of employment months in advance.
“No matter who you are, if you come to Harvard, you’re privileged. You have these opportunities to talk to firms that will only talk to Harvard students or Yale students, such as BCG,” Joshua H. Berry ’21 says. Berry, a former Crimson business associate, says that the major consulting firms simply don’t visit the campuses of his friends who attend state schools in New York. “We’re very lucky in that even during COVID-19, these consulting companies are still coming to campus,” he adds.
Berry believes Harvard makes its students an implicit “promise”: “If you come to our school, we promise you that you’ll have a great education, and that with this education, you’ll be able to get almost any job you want,” he says.
Put differently, he feels that Harvard promotes the idea that by attending the school, students will be able to sidestep the uncertainty and discomfort that many other students face once they graduate college and enter the job market.
This promise was never accessible to all students: Even with the efforts of the Office of Career Services (OCS) and the Center for Public Service and Engaged Scholarship to level the playing field, the Harvard employment landscape inevitably privileges certain students over others. And the pandemic has further circumscribed the University’s ability to uphold its end of the bargain. When the tech, finance, and consulting industries are put under pressure, the playing field becomes even less equitable, hurting those without family connections, social privilege, and advanced pre-professional experience.
The Harvard “promise” was never available to everyone, but the pandemic in many ways has shattered that notion.
Akanksha D. Sah ’21, the president of Harvard Student Agencies, always wanted to work in the public sector.
“I actually knew that I wanted to go into child advocacy since I was, well, a child,” she says, motivated by an interest in resolving “some of the inefficiencies” of the foster care system. While she believes she could make a much higher salary by entering a more lucrative industry — as many of her peers at HSA elect to do — the lower pay is worth it to her.
The pandemic has made the choice harder, though.
“We went from having room and board paid for and covered by Harvard through financial aid to, all of a sudden, I’m paying my own rent, I buy my own groceries, at a time when I had been planning on saving all of my income,” she says.
Students are “trying to figure out whether it’s even financially possible to go into the public sector,” she continues. “But if you can’t afford to do it, you just can’t afford to do it.”
While Sah herself has not been discouraged from pursuing a career in public service, her situation illuminates how finances can pressure students to pursue certain careers over others.
One Harvard office that is attempting to open students up to public service careers, in spite of those financial pressures, is the Center for Public Service and Engaged Scholarship.
The Center seeks to foster student interest in public service careers — but often finding opportunities that are “financially competitive for students” poses a major challenge, says Travis A. Lovett, the Assistant Dean of Civic Engagement and Service at the Center. The steep salaries offered by private sector industries that recruit on campus heighten that challenge.
Lovett says that the Center actively works to level the financial playing field, however, by helping to fund public service internships. It also organizes the “Public Interested Conference” each February where “students can ask alumni directly how they were able to survive in New York City on a $40,000 salary.”
But to pose a viable alternative to the finance, consulting, and tech industries, the Center has to compete with and accommodate the schedules of their recruiting processes. The majority of public service jobs do not participate in seasonal recruiting, instead hiring “with a just-in-time recruiting mindset,” as Lovett calls it, meaning that they fill positions as they become available or they receive more funds.
“We try to be as proactive as we can, but we know that it is a much different hiring timeline than McKinsey, or Goldman Sachs, [who come] to campus in September,” Lovett says. He cites this schedule as one reason the Center created Public Service Recruiting Day, an October event where seniors can interview one-on-one with what the Center’s website describes as “high-performing public sector organizations.”
“I think that folks have a very clear understanding of what it means to be a doctor or a lawyer or engineer,” says Alysha J. Williams ’14, a Program Director at the Center. “But when you think you want to go into public service, it can be hard for students to visualize what that looks like.”
Last year, Joshua A. Berry ’21 was sitting in the Mather dining hall preparing for an onslaught of consulting interviews. He wasn’t alone: he and his friends were learning the tips and tricks of the trade, and soothing nerves.
This kind of interview preparation is a must, especially with consulting, according to Katie C. Cao ’21. Students call it “casing,” a skill Cao claims is much easier to develop on campus.
Casing is a test of business acumen and reasoning — it measures your ability to think critically about common questions consulting firms may tackle. Cao says that it’s not unusual to run through more than 35 practice case interviews before the first official interview.
On campus, Cao could knock out some of that preparation by going to a dining hall and running through cases with a friend over dinner or asking an upperclassmen already hired at a desired company for help.
But Berry laments, “[There’s] no longer club meetings where you can gather together and be like, ‘Let's meet in the D-Hall and do case interviewing together now.’ It's [now] like, ‘Here are these resources online.’”
The virtual format has extinguished the social aspect of interview preparation — the part that makes such arduous work bearable, enjoyable, and accessible. “And that's really tough,” Berry notes. “You need this coaching for these interviews. Consulting and finance interviews require a lot of mock interviews you do with friends before you're successful and get the job.”
At home, it’s not as easy to ask a tutor for advice or seek mentorship from older students. It’s far more difficult to prepare, especially “if your parents [aren’t] familiar with or [don’t] speak the language and [can’t] prepare you, or you just [don’t] know a lot of people in the field to do case interviews with,” Cao notes.
“It can be a little bit chaotic to make that time for yourself and commit that many hours to just interview prep when a lot of people have other pressing, immediate responsibilities,” she says.
Dhruv Gupta ’20 warns of the added disadvantage for students who don’t have secure home environments or even a neutral video call background.
“Folks who don’t understand it get peeved by it. When you’re on a Zoom call and there’s someone with background noise because they can’t help it, it reflects poorly on them,” he says. “I’ve seen that happen in real time where people have bad conversations or bad outcomes because of the situations that they’re in.”
He adds that the privilege of technological and home life reliability holds a particular level of importance in several job sectors. “In this world of startups, impressions matter,” he emphasizes. A high-quality webcam and good lighting take utmost importance in startup culture “where the only thing you’re selling is impressions,” Gupta says.
Caleb A. Ren ’21 also notes that some groups of people have had an easier time adapting to virtual recruiting than others.
“Those who have barriers to being able to do work, either because of their home situation, or because it’s fucking hard to just sit down, do work at your computer for hours on end without friends around, or to live with your parents,” Ren says. “That’s hard.”
Jadyn K. Bryden ’21 — the current chief strategy officer of Harvard Student Agencies — says she feels lucky that she secured a job before the pandemic, especially in light of the COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. “As a Black woman, I see a lot of people in the Black community from home being negatively affected by COVID,” she says. “I had to witness my family members have to put their lives at risk [at in-person jobs] in ways that other people didn’t have to.”
“If you’re a student of color, how can you expect to do recruiting with a clear head, when this past summer exposed the systematic racism in this country?” Berry asks. “How do you expect that student to be able to put in the time to study for consulting case interviews? How would you expect them to study technicals for a coding interview?”
Ren comments that the expectation that students continue with school and the job process as if all is normal, coupled with the boundary of accessibility at these companies,“is just a subtle way of reinforcing, systemic barriers that are very much tied with factors such as socioeconomic class, race, gender.”
“It’s just not equitable,” he says.
In September, the Harvard Office of Career Services hosted a career fair unlike any before it. Instead of the typical setting — the SOCH buzzing with frenetic energy, brochures and resumes scattered across tables — each company held separate information sessions using a variety of video conferencing platforms.
In the Facebook Q&A session, a single recruiter’s face spanned the whole screen as a slew of anonymous questions appeared in the chat box. In most other information sessions, few students turned on their cameras, and the ones who did were dressed more casual than business. The chimes of Zoom exits sounded louder than usual.
“We were really good at pivoting,” says Robin E. Mount, OCS’s director, of her office’s transition to remote services. “We didn’t drop the ball on anything.”
From its experience hosting events during winter break and summer vacation and providing services for Harvard Extension School students, OCS felt well-equipped to hold offerings remotely. But a career fair was “a very different product,” Mount says.
During the first OCS career fair of the year, Ren attended multiple information sessions at once, since many companies had signed up for the same time slot. “At one point, I had Zoom open in my browser, Zoom open on my desktop, Google Hangouts on my phone. And they’re all going at once,” he says. “Oh, and Teams — Teams going on in the browser,” Ren adds after a moment of recollection. Then, his computer crashed.
Ren, who is pursuing a job in tech, had many different employers’ information sessions to attend. For students interested in industries beyond tech, consulting, or finance, this isn’t always the case.
On OCS’s website, on a page explaining their “recruiting program,” the Office answers a question that some ask about Harvard’s post-grad employment landscape: “Why is there so much Finance and Consulting?”
Associate Director of OCS Deb Carroll explains that such companies are simply most interested in actively recruiting “Harvard talent” — these employers seek out Harvard students and students from other elite schools. There are jobs elsewhere, she explains, but Harvard students have to actively look for them.
Usually, when employers invest in new recruits, they hope that they will commit to the company. Harvard students don’t tend to do this — “after they get trained, [students] up and move to a different city and quit [their] job,” Mount explains.
Within the finance, consulting, and techn industries, firms “have figured out how they can use entry-level talent and replenish it every year,” she continues. “Harvard students and these industries have figured out a mutually beneficial relationship — Harvard students get lucrative jobs right after graduation, and companies get a consistent stream of ‘Harvard talent.’”
Mount recalls how a Harvard alumnus at Boeing told her why she didn’t recruit from Harvard: “‘We’re not going to come recruit at Harvard because Harvard students don’t have the patience,’” Mount remembers her saying. “‘It takes ten years to build an airplane, and after a couple of years, they just want to go and do something else.’”
Students notice the resulting skew toward the finance, tech, and consulting industries. Justin J. Hancock ’21, who hopes to join the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and eventually become a math teacher, says that he’s “not a huge fan of OCS.” Justin recognizes that while “they try to provide a lot of resources,” he also gets the impression that they show preferential treatment towards students interested in the three industries.
“One thing that I’ve noticed is they tend to schedule education things in the middle of the day, when I have class,” Hancock says. “While they have a decent number of education events every year, I usually can’t make it to any of them. And then I look at consulting events, and they’re in the evening.”
Christina Yee ’21 has found similar issues as she pursues a career in design or creative consulting. Like Hancock, Yee says that while the September influx of OCS emails don’t go unnoticed. “I don’t really see companies that I’m interested in recruiting for on that list,” Yee says.
Harvard students have also created their own avenues for professional development and employment opportunities outside of OCS, in the form of the college’s many pre-professional organizations. They often hold their own events independent from OCS to help their members secure jobs or opportunities, and train their members in soft and hard skills to build their resumes.
Bryden says she secured her current and post-graduation job as the Vice President of the venture capitalism firm Xfund with the help of HSA board member Patrick S. Chung ’96.
This isn’t to say that Bryden exclusively credits her career trajectory to HSA. “OCS [was] a vital source in helping me to be the professional I am today,” she says. “I remember when I was younger in my career at Harvard, I went to OCS to get my resume reviewed, I learned about interviewing techniques, and all that stuff stays with you. I figured out what I should wear to an interview. That’s not obvious stuff.”
Mount says that OCS tries to ensure that all Harvard students are given the chance to graduate having learned the ins and outs of the recruiting process — regardless of socioeconomic background. From hosting lunches for Fall Clean-Up participants to working with “identity-based student groups,” OCS tries to reach freshmen as early as possible to “lower the barriers of entry to our office.”
“We’ve run in this very fine dilemma where we don’t want to [look] like we’re pushing people into certain areas,” she says, referencing OCS’s abundant resources for finance, tech, and consulting. “But we also don’t want people not to know about them and miss the opportunity to choose to do that.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Londoner Nicolas Weninger ’20 had all but secured his position at a startup in Boston. “I classified it as an anticipated understanding, at least from my end, that I’d join them full time,” he says.
When the pandemic hit, Weninger was told that the startup was “on a hiring freeze and [wasn’t] taking anyone new, including former interns,” he recounts. “It was late March, and I was unemployed.”
Losing your post-graduation job is never ideal. But for Weninger — and other international students in his position — losing his job started a countdown timer until he lost his right to work and reside in the U.S.
Most international students study in the U.S. with an F-1 visa. An F-1 visa provides a 60-day unemployment grace period following graduation. During these 60 days, students can apply for what is called the post-completion Optional Practical Training — which extends the grace period to 90 days.
If students fail to find employment during this time, they can continue to work in the U.S. only by either obtaining a green card or by securing an H-1B visa — what Weninger calls a “crapshoot.”
Dragos Bugai ’20, a recent graduate from Moldova, laments how difficult it is to secure an H-1B visa. “You’d have to get a company to sponsor you for an H-1B visa,” he says. “Why is this hard? Well, the company has to put a huge amount of money on the line, we’re talking like five figures — like a hundred thousand dollars, sometimes even more — to sponsor you for a visa.”
“When the company has to choose between you and some American guy or girl where the company doesn’t need to suffer an expense, who are they going to choose?” he asks.
This past summer, Bugai found out that his OPT application had been rejected for a clerical reason just two days before the deadline to reapply.
“You can only reapply [...] 60 days after you graduate,” he explains. “If you don’t have an application on their desk within those 60 days, then you can’t apply for it. And you have to leave the U.S. immediately. And that’s it with your work status.”
At the time, Bugai was living in Nantucket with a Harvard friend. He had two days to get a printed application onto the right desk in Arizona. He recalls that it took a concerted effort of friends across the country for him to get his application in on time.
“We all made this big effort. And I managed to send it in,” he says. Bugai’s application was approved last week.
But as Bugai mentions, even with approval to stay, an international student must compete for positions at companies that are generally more inclined to give the spot to their American peers.
Recently, South African Paula A. Chappel ’20 recalls, she was helping edit a friend’s cover letter and noticed that the friend wrote that she was from an international city. Chappel commented: “Please don’t put that in your cover letter. You want to act like you have no ties to your home country. You can stay [in the United States]. You don’t want them to be like, ‘International? Out!’”
“Being an international [student] definitely changes companies’ perceptions of you and whether they want to employ you, because they know that even if it’s three years down the line, there’s complications coming,” Chappel explains. “Some jobs are more fussy about that; some jobs just say, ‘If you’re international, don’t apply.’”
When asked about how OCS has been supporting international students, Mount sighs.
“Oh, it’s just a very sad story,” she says. “It’s never easy to get a job as an international student, but when the economy is strong, Harvard students tend to be okay. And then a couple of years ago, way before the pandemic, we started to see this tightening up — a lot of it coming from the Trump administration.”
Chappel, who has secured jobs at a private equity firm and a consulting firm, cannot help but feel grateful for how things worked out for her in the long run.
Weninger also considers himself fortunate to have eventually received a job offer in San Francisco as an embedded systems engineer. He got the job after meeting a Harvard alum at a talk sponsored by the Harvard University Aeronautical Society.
Bugai, however, was more apprehensive about sharing his story. He is still in Nantucket, Mass., working remotely on data cleaning jobs among other short term data science projects. He’s also doing some tutoring on the side.
“I was thinking whether [or not] I should interview because I felt shame that I failed as a Harvard student by not securing something right [after graduation],” he says. He feels that he failed to “fulfill this mandate that I was given of being successful right out of college.”
“But then I realized that, hey, you know, times are what they are.”
Berry worries for a certain kind of Harvard student from the class of 2021.
He’s worried for students who said to themselves upon arriving at college: “Harvard is four years where I can really explore and find all my interests. And I don’t even have to worry about finding a job because by the time I’m a senior, the jobs are going to come to me, because I’m a Harvard student.”
The pandemic has disadvantaged those types of students, Berry fears, the students who “took Harvard as a sort of liberal arts education where [they decided] ‘I don’t join professional clubs, but I join a cappella, I joined The Crimson.’”
“Companies are less willing to take risks on those students,” Berry suggests. “There’s less jobs overall. When companies do make hires, they probably don’t want the student who did a cappella — [they’re] probably looking for those hyper pre-professional students who knew from day one that they wanted to do consulting or finance.”
Eli W. Russell ’20 is one of those students. He hopes to go into television writing, and before the pandemic, he had imagined moving out to Los Angeles and working as an assistant. Now he lives at home, working for the Michigan Democratic Caucus, because “politics is one of the few industries that’s actually hiring.”
While Russell did not pursue a job in one of the so-called “recruiting sectors,” he did embrace the liberal arts promise — and ultimately graduated jobless. For a few months following graduation, he was unemployed and lived at home, working on his writing portfolio. While he did not expect to return home after graduation, he says he “feels very lucky his parents will house [him] and feed [him].”
Jasper D. C. Johnston ’20, however, knew from day one that he wanted to do consulting.
“My father does negotiation consulting,” he says. “In high school, I got interested and involved in his work — I helped advise a number of his clients, and having that opportunity, obviously, is very helpful,” he adds. “From a young age, [it] just started to appeal to me.”
Johnston credits his involvement with Harvard Undergraduate Consulting on Business and the Environment, a pre-professional “consulting strategy group,” with helping him secure a job at McKinsey & Company. “A really tough decision” amid the pandemic, he says, was choosing between accepting his job offer or beginning a Master’s program at Oxford. (He has also been accepted at Harvard Law School via the Junior Deferral Program.) Johnston recognizes that he “was in a very privileged position of actually having these options and having them not fall through.” He sighs. “But it was still tough.”
That Johnston and Russell’s experiences could so starkly diverge calls into question the validity of the University’s oft-touted “liberal arts education” — at least in the realm of post-graduate employment. Though the pandemic may have widened the gap between the students who pursue pre-professional clubs and those who join a cappella groups or The Crimson, it didn’t create it. But many students, Berry suggests, had assumed that Harvard’s implicit “promise” had insulated them from its vicissitudes.
“The majority of Americans, the majority of people in this world, go to college to get a degree [and then] to get a job,” Berry suggests. Harvard, he says, offers something more: the opportunity to receive the fullness of a liberal arts education — one where you can study the humanities or join an a capella group — and still get a good job after graduation.
Now, just like everyone else, Harvard students may have to choose.
— Staff writer Kevin Lin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @kevinlin0903.
— Staff writer Olivia G. Oldham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @allpalaver.