Skip to main content

Help Wanted

A few months ago, Emma Barnett ’11 landed a job as a consultant at Deloitte, where she tackles national security and international affairs issues for which she developed a passion as a freshman at Johns Hopkins.

But Barnett’s path to that job—which she got almost a year after graduation—was a journey through today’s American landscape of recession and uncertainty. She took on a tough Arabic language boot camp and built a network of foreign policy professionals through dozens of one-on-one interviews. Barnett also took unpaid internships and recalls many days when she went straight from her desk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies—a high-powered Washington think tank—to the evening shift as a waitress at a nearby restaurant.

“Sometimes,” Barnett says, “you think, ‘What am I doing?’”

The hard work paid off at last when a friend got Barnett’s résumé to people at Deloitte, who were hiring for a strategy and operations position. Barnett was put through rigorous interviews and background checks, her hopes rising at each step.

“I knew what I wanted badly enough that I never considered the option of not getting to where I wanted to be,” says Barnett. She got her dream job.

In many ways, the recession that shook the U.S. economy in fall 2008 has hit young people like Emma Barnett the hardest. The number of unemployed Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 is heading toward 2 million. Entry-level jobs are scarce, and the competition for internships has become fierce. Employers are much pickier, too. They don’t just want the intellectual skills honed in a great liberal arts institution; they also expect applicants to have a lot of experience under their belts.

“What do 21st-century students need from a college education? The university must provide them with intellectual depth, but we need to build on top of that foundation and be attentive to the very legitimate needs they have to prepare for real careers after they leave us. ”

—Katherine S. Newman

“The current recession has been pretty severe,” observes Robert A. Moffitt, professor and chair of the Department of Economics at Johns Hopkins. “[The] unemployment rate is declining very slowly. Slower than anyone had hoped. For some of [our recent graduates], it’s tough.”

The economy has raised anxiety levels for the last four graduating classes as well as their parents, mentors, and friends. About 60 percent of the graduating class of 2011 participated in a survey conducted by the university’s Career Center (a total of 636 graduates). It showed that 7 percent were still actively looking for a job six months later, while 9 percent were holding part-time jobs, doing paid or unpaid public service work, or pursuing volunteer and fellowship opportunities.

“There is a serious economic downturn,” says Katherine Newman, James B. Knapp Dean of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. “And you’d have to be out of your mind not to realize that this creates significant hurdles for young people today.”

Some young alumni enter graduate school in hopes they will burnish their credentials and outrun the recession. Others are taking unpaid internships, entering temporary job programs such as Teach for America, and even moving back home with their parents as they search for their postgraduate path (see “Softening the Squeeze,” page 17).

The persistent economic uncertainty also has compelled Newman and her colleagues in the Krieger School to find new ways to help recent graduates make the most of their liberal arts experience and prepare them for a market full of challenges and caprice. That soul-searching within the university already has resulted in innovative programs that weave professional experience into the liberal arts curriculum. It has also led to an expansion of the school’s strong relationships with corporations and government, and a move to consolidate and re-energize its alumni networks.

The goal is to provide ways for graduates to make tangible connections between the much-sought-after skills found in a liberal arts education—critical thinking, writing, analysis, and depth and breadth of knowledge—and the shifting expectations of employers in a difficult economic climate.

“What do 21st-century students need from a college education?” Newman asks. “The university must provide them with intellectual depth that will never leave them, that will serve them the rest of their lives no matter what they decide to do. But we need to build on top of that foundation and be attentive to the very legitimate needs they have to prepare for real careers after they leave us. What does that intersection look like?”

Talk to recent graduates about how they have coped with the blustery winds of the economic downturn, and you discover that there are many paths to survival and success. Yet most are finding they can draw in significant ways upon the resources they gathered as undergraduates of the School of Arts and Sciences.

“Where Are the Job Postings?”

At the Johns Hopkins Career Center, director Mark Presnell and his colleagues have become intimately familiar with the struggles and successes of recent alumni. The center offers services not just for current students but also university alumni for up to five years after they graduate. Last year, the center scheduled more than 600 appointments with alumni and has dedicated one staff member specifically to assist recent graduates on a full-time basis.

“I think there’s concern,” Presnell observes. “If I have a good job, do I move to another job? When do I make that jump? I also think there’s some frustration. Because the market is very relational. It’s heavily network-related after college. And as students, they’re very much still looking at it as: Where are the job postings?”

One way in which the relational job market can work to the advantage of the Krieger School graduates is the strong network of university alumni who are actively helping new graduates take their first steps into the working world. Alumni often provide internships, job listings, and tips to the career center or through their academic departments. Many of them are willing to meet with recent graduates investigating a career choice that tracks their own path.

Charles Clarvit ’78 is chair of the Student Life Committee of the university’s board of trustees. He says one of the committee’s goals is to help students get jobs “now and forever.”

“As alumni, we know the kinds of skills and assets JHU graduates can bring to the table,” says Clarvit, who is CEO of Vinci Partners-US, an asset and wealth management firm. “It’s our responsibility to build those relationships and expand those assets.” Clarvit said he is currently recruiting alumni in London, Tokyo, and Brazil to offer current students internships and hire recent graduates.

“Alumni are the key to the future of almost any career center,” says Presnell. “Companies and organizations are struggling with the amount of money they’re spending on recruiting. And they’re looking at any way they can to cut their recruiting costs. This was going on before the economic crash. They’re decreasing the number of campuses that they’re visiting. Alumni provide two things to a career search better than anyone else: information and consideration. They teach students about what they do. They understand the career fields and the different pieces. The other thing they provide is consideration: pushing candidates forward and pushing recruitment forward at their institution.”

While the rocky economy is a source of angst for graduates who use the center, Presnell adds that many students are not ready to settle into a defined career groove.

“Career development isn’t crystallized when you’re 22 and ready to graduate from Hopkins,” says Presnell. “I don’t want to say it’s a departure because it’s never completely been crystallized. But now more than ever before, students are leaving college and trying one career field—and then a second or third.”

Some students find a new potential career path very late in their journey to a degree. Jonathan Jacobs ’11 arrived at Johns Hopkins intending to plot a course to medical school. “Medicine was the goal,” he says.

Yet in the second semester of his senior year, as part of his international studies major, Jacobs took a financial economics course with Jon Faust, Louis J. Maccini Professor of Economics, who took a two-year leave of absence earlier this year to serve as a special adviser in the Federal Reserve System’s board of governors.

Jacobs felt he had found his true calling.

“I was taking an anatomy course and this finance course simultaneously,” Jacobs recalls. “And I was really drawn to this finance course. More than I had been drawn to any of my medicine courses.”

Studying with an economist who spent more than two decades at the Fed also fueled Jacobs’ interest. “Faust was a great teacher,” Jacobs says. “You just wouldn’t have that caliber of teacher anywhere else but a place like Hopkins.”

Jacobs’ decision to change course and pursue a career in finance made his job search trickier than most. He even completed a planned summer research position in the sciences that he’d accepted at Columbia University School of Public Health for the summer after graduation. But Jacobs also started to network while he was in New York, and found some initial help from Jill Paulson, senior director of development, who put him in touch with alumni in the finance sector.

“That was an important first step,” Jacobs recalls. “Hopkins alumni gave me perspective and a lot of good general information.”

Jacobs also turned to the Johns Hopkins Career Center for advice. “A lot of people looked at me like: ‘What are you doing?’ But Mark [Presnell] was realistic and reassuring,” he recalls. “Mark said: ‘Here’s the path. Here’s what you do.’”

Jacobs took a short-term position at Morgan Stanley that he obtained through a classmate’s brother. “The position afforded me the flexibility to continue to look for a permanent job,” says Jacobs. “It also gave me invaluable experience in the industry and helped me articulate my path and my story to others.”

In December 2011, Jacobs got a call from the Washington, D.C., investment firm England and Company in response to a resume he’d sent a few months before. It didn’t hurt that the company’s president, Craig W. England ’87, is a Johns Hopkins alumnus.

Now that he is working in finance, Jacobs has found that all the science classes he thought he’d need to get into medical school have come in handy after all. Health care is one of the areas of focus at his new firm, and Jacobs has been able to bring elements of his undergraduate education to bear on his new position.

“The research and analytic skills that I learned at Johns Hopkins and in labs were very transferable to this job, where I use them on a daily basis,” Jacobs says. “I even talked about it in my interview.”

Getting a Foot in the Door

It shouldn’t be any surprise that a liberal arts education with a focus on science might be a successful foundation for a career in finance.

“We have remarkably capacious students,” Newman says. “They’re roaming across extraordinary expanses of intellectual life. Double majors and minors are common in the Krieger School and in remarkable combinations such as neuroscience and theater, and mathematics and the Writing Seminars. They are fearless, and that is to their credit.”

Presnell is also bullish about prospects for liberal arts majors, even those in disciplines that don’t have defined career paths. In his observation of how students find career successes after graduation, the specific major doesn’t matter as much as making connections and garnering practical experience.

“Students should major in whatever they want. I don’t have jobs for philosophers,” Presnell quips. “But all of our philosophy majors do just fine when they leave here.”

“Alumni provide two things to a career search better than anyone else: information and consideration.”

—Mark Presnell
Director, Career Center

Picking up some work experience is a key step in making the leap from school to the workplace. Presnell observes that graduates who haven’t supplemented their studies with forays into the job market via internships, shadowing, and networking often find themselves rowing against a strong tide. While employers are impressed by the institution from which students graduate, they’re also seeking new hires with experience and skills that are a direct match with their particular business or agency.

The Career Center is the main clearinghouse for internships at the university, with hundreds of opportunities on offer. Presnell says the center makes a push to highlight the opportunities for students in sophomore and junior year, when undergraduates have a year or two of classes under their belts and can begin to think about how they might synchronize their present studies with their future plans.

Work experience also plays another important function—crafting a narrative for your career path. “Employers expect you to be able to articulate a goal,” Presnell says.

For some recent graduates, an internship has shaped their career path in a permanent way. Emma Barnett points to an internship at Colorado’s Aspen Institute, suggested to her by a sorority sister, as a foundation for her success.

Aspen gave Barnett the chance to meet national security luminaries, including Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state and national security adviser. And Barnett’s diligence at helping to make institute events like the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Aspen Security Forum a success brought her to the attention of the organization’s leaders. “All of them sat down with me one on one,” Barnett says.

For other JHU grads navigating uncertain times, pursuing unpaid or temporary opportunities has eventually paid off.

Christine LiCalzi ’10 works in New York City as a policy associate at (RED)—an organization founded by U2 lead singer Bono and Bobby Shriver that works to eliminate HIV/AIDS by harnessing the power of corporations and consumers.

LiCalzi took a double major in international studies and Italian, with a minor in entrepreneurship and management. “The skills I gained in the entrepreneurship and management minor and the knowledge and the reading and writing skills I was getting in my majors definitely complemented each other,” she says.

Internships helped LiCalzi narrow her career focus. After an internship at MTV/Viacom, she says, “I knew the entertainment industry wasn’t really for me.” Another internship obtained through the Career Center with Parter International—a consulting firm founded by Johns Hopkins alumnus Alan S. Parter ’66—solidified her growing interest in global affairs.

Yet as LiCalzi approached graduation, she fretted about a lack of immediate job prospects. “It was, and still is, a pretty tough job market, and it definitely made me nervous,” she recalls. So LiCalzi decided to take a leap and accept an internship (with support from the Foundation for Sustainable Development) halfway across the world, in India, working in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention.

LiCalzi says that her time working with the Jodhpur Network of Positive People (JNP+) “really opened my eyes to the issue of public health.” The internship also gave her valuable field experience in international development, and led to a series of temporary jobs with UNICEF, GBC Health, and Human Rights Watch, which expanded her global public health experience.

In July 2011, when LiCalzi took an unpaid position at (RED), she recalls feeling more uncertainty. “There are definitely moments when you feel discouraged in this whole process,” she says.

Yet the gamble paid off when LiCalzi found that she fit in well at (RED)—so well, in fact, that when UNICEF offered her a one-year paid position, LiCalzi ended up getting a counteroffer from (RED) that advanced her to a full-time position and an increased set of responsibilities as executive assistant to the CEO and a policy associate at the organization.

LiCalzi advised her fellow graduates to persist in taking positions in their chosen field, even if they are unpaid or temporary. “You’re at a huge advantage when you get that foot in the door and become an asset to the organization,” she says.

“Hiring Happens Through Networks”

The challenges faced by recent graduates have academic leaders and faculty at Johns Hopkins moving to better prepare students for the shifting winds of today’s job market.

Katherine Newman points to a number of initiatives across disciplines—and even extending to other schools in the university—that have been created to do so. Many of these initiatives have come from faculty and alumni with an ear to what students need to compete in a sour economy.

“I’ve been inspired by what students and faculty have been bubbling up by themselves,” she says.

For instance, the university boasts an undergraduate major in public health that merges the liberal arts curriculum with requirements that include applied experience and a semester’s worth of graduate studies at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. The Krieger School, in collaboration with the Whiting School of Engineering, is also offering a new undergraduate minor in space science and engineering that prepares students for possible careers in aerospace and affiliated industries. And there is a similar program in the works with a social policy track, where students will major in economics, political science, or sociology on campus, and then shift to Washington, D.C., or Baltimore City for more policy-related course work and internship experience.

“What I see,” Newman observes, “is a healthy desire to remain glued to the foundational disciplines that create a sense of intellectual heritage, a deeply rigorous analytic approach, and a sense of intellectual community over time. But to then turn around and marry that to a more targeted and labor-market-friendly series of courses, coupled with real-world experience.”

Robert Moffitt, chair of the economics department, concurs. With the help of alumni, the department offers a minor in financial economics through its Center for Financial Economics. The minor offers not only course work that prepares students for a career in the finance sector but also opportunities to meet alumni and others actively working in the industry.

“The network of alumni has been important in this,” Moffitt says. “It gives Hopkins students a bit of an edge. … We’re hoping to get alumni in other fields of economics involved as well.”

Another intensive combination of study and work in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences is the Aitchison Public Service Fellowship in Government, where Elizabeth DeMeo ’11 found her path to a job.

DeMeo, who majored in international studies and political science, was focused on finding a career path from early in her time at Johns Hopkins. “Midway through sophomore year, I was hearing all these horror stories,” she says. “I was thinking, What can I do to make sure I have a job after graduation?”

DeMeo pursued the Aitchison fellowship after attending an information session. It is a 15-credit program combining academic classes, internships, lectures, and symposiums that encourages students to mine the numerous resources available to study American government firsthand in nearby Washington, D.C.

“I really liked the fact that [the Aitchison fellowship] was connected to real people, working in D.C., and working in many different areas,” DeMeo says.

Though she had a number of work experiences as part of the fellowship program (including an internship with New Hampshire Rep. Paul Hodes), DeMeo says she gravitated to the program’s academic core, forging close relationships with Steven Teles, director of the program and a professor of political science, and Johns Hopkins adjunct professor Michael S. Greve, who is also a professor at the George Mason University School of Law and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

“I had read Professor Teles’ book, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law, and Professor Greve was a big part of it,” DeMeo recalls. “And I was able to see where he fit in; it was valuable to be in a classroom with people who are actually working.”

Teles says DeMeo’s focus on developing faculty relationships is especially helpful in Washington. “In the world of policy and political jobs, the process of hiring is less formal than it is for government, finance, and management consulting,” he says. “In many cases, there isn’t even a formal job listed, and if there is, sometimes the listing is just pro forma after they’ve already found someone they want. Hiring happens through networks, rather than formal processes. I’ve gotten a number of [jobs for] students because I was talking to someone about something else, and said, ‘By the way, are you hiring?’”

After graduation, DeMeo found a job at AEI doing research for Greve and for two other AEI scholars: Roger Scruton and Ken Green. “It’s a fantastic place to work,” she says. DeMeo also hopes to use her work as a researcher at the institute as a springboard to write independently on policy issues.

“Faculty mentorship makes a big difference in helping students expand their horizons,” says Teles. “We help clarify who they are and what it is they want out of a career. That’s where conversations outside the classroom can make the difference between students ending up in satisfying careers, and just taking whatever they can.”

Looking for Every Opportunity

The impulse to rethink and reshape curriculum in the School of Arts and Sciences doesn’t signal an abandonment of the core principles of a liberal arts education. Newman believes passionately that the results of the liberal arts education offered to undergraduates are clear and tangible.

“You look at the data and you look at the numbers and there’s no question that the kind of education that we provide at a place like Johns Hopkins is an extremely worthy investment,” she says. “It pays off over the lifetime—and there is virtually no other pathway to the kind of prosperous and meaningful career that most of our students seek than studying at a university like this one. The deep engagement with ideas, with scholarly traditions, and the frontiers of knowledge—these experiences mature the mind and prepare students to think critically, to analyze, to operate in the midst of ambiguity.”

“I’ve gotten a number of [jobs for] students because I was talking to someone about something else, and said, ‘By the way, are you hiring?’”

—Steven M. Teles
Associate Professor, Political Science

And while there may be anxieties, there are also opportunities for a recent graduate like Alexandra Byer ’11, who just wants to make her own kind of movies.

Byer didn’t even take a week off after graduating from Johns Hopkins before moving to New York to work in film. “It wasn’t even producing,” recalls Byer. “But it opened up the whole New York film industry for me.”

In a little over a year, Byer has already become a sought-after freelance film producer who’s now moving into increasingly commercial work, including fashion films.

Freelancing “is a job with no hours,” Byer observes. “Sometimes I feel totally overworked and nutty. But you have to take every opportunity given to you.”

Byer’s frantic freelancing activity has another goal as well: She’s growing The Spirit Farm—a film collective she started with other graduates of the Johns Hopkins Film and Media Studies Program. The Spirit Farm exists, Byer says, “to make the films that aren’t being made. We hope eventually to become a production company.” The collective convened in New York City this summer, coming from various points around the United States to shoot a new short film together.

“I’m able to use everything that I learn from other people’s projects,” Byer says.

Byer arrived at the Krieger School knowing that she wanted to work in film, and she says that the Film and Media Studies Program was a warm and supportive place. As with many other recent graduates who are successfully navigating the rocky and uncertain economy, she also received an entry into the job market through a faculty connection, when highly acclaimed Baltimore filmmaker (and lecturer in film and media studies) Matthew Porterfield hired Byer to work on his third film, I Used to Be Darker. Byer also worked on Porterfield’s second highly acclaimed feature, Putty Hill.

“His connections and willingness to help me opened arms, doors, and Rolodexes to help me find my way in New York,” says Byer.

Working with Porterfield was only a first step, however. Juggling multiple projects and searching out freelance work have been—and remain—a constant challenge. “It was scary there for a while,” she says. “I was calling lots of producers and production companies. But it’s all starting to come together. You just have to take every opportunity that’s given to you.… I am hoping that all this motion will keep propelling me forward.”

Her successes so far are keeping Byer optimistic. She thinks they also contain a lesson for the students coming behind her.

“I don’t think students should be scared, even though it is scary,” Byer concludes. “Don’t be afraid to take those risks.”

Softening the Squeeze

Recent graduates from Johns Hopkins University and other institutions of higher education across the country are adopting a number of strategies to cope with finding their way after graduating in a difficult economy and having, perhaps, a sizable student debt.

One strategy? Move back home with Mom and Dad.

This trend of the “accordion family”—a family unit that contracts as children leave for college or for jobs, and expands again if economic exigencies come to bear on parents and their offspring—has been growing for a few decades now. And in a rough economy, it is exploding. In the United States in 2009, 3.4 million parents shared their home with an adult child—a substantial increase from 2.1 million reported in the 2000 U.S. Census.

In her latest book, The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents and the Private Toll of Global Competition (Beacon Press), Katherine Newman, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, examines how globalization and other economic and cultural pressures have forced families all over the world to take in their adult children.

Culture and tradition play a big role in how different nations view the increase in the number of accordion families. In some countries, like Italy, the trend has been largely harmonious, though politicians decry the falling birth rates it has caused. Spanish families have mixed feelings, and point the finger explicitly at government policies that damaged their children’s prospects.

In a nation like Japan, however, the accordion family has produced considerable discord and even cacophony within the nation’s culture. “What I found there was an extreme moralism,” says Newman, “and a very strong sense of responsibility for having created what they view as a ‘defective’ generation. They give virtually no weight to this enormous economic collapse.”

Newman points out that in the United States, the recent increase in accordion families has been located in a middle class squeezed by recession and stagnating wages. “In a society as highly unequal as this one,” she says, “these economic pressures land with great force on those at the bottom. They have always been in accordion families because they’ve never had an alternative.”

Yet the anxiety felt by many families who are saving and taking out loans to send their children to a top-notch liberal arts university like Johns Hopkins—and then seeing them return to their former bedroom with a college degree and a rockier path to a career—is real.

The Accordion Family sketches out the necessary negotiations over autonomy, finances, and communal responsibility that are playing out in an increasing number of homes.

“What a social scientist can contribute here, as noted American sociologist C. Wright Mills said so famously, is the intersection between biography and history,” observes Newman. “It is how you try to explain to yourself and to your readers that there are good reasons for the feelings they have about what they are experiencing in their private world—the private anxieties, nervousness, and uncertainties.”

Every culture amplifies its own foundational preoccupations when a dramatic change unfolds. Italians focus on family, on the bonds between generations. Americans dwell on mobility and connect personal worth to the labor market. These cultural “obsessions” influence whether accordion families are defined as natural or problematic, a development to be embraced or a social problem to worry about.

“As long as young people are moving forward with a plan that leads somewhere, or promises to lead somewhere,” Newman says, “the intergenerational bargain makes it natural for the parents to take them back. They are investing in the trajectory of the next generation. And they see that as necessary.… There is a moral and psychological commitment to the well-being of the next generation.”

And it’s not just families in the United States—and all over the world—that are adapting by expanding and contracting as their needs and wishes dictate. Policymakers are pushing and occasionally succeeding in influencing legislators to write some of these adaptations into law.

One of the signal features of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, for instance, is the provision that allows parents to keep children on their health insurance policies until age 26.

“That’s a huge landmark,” Newman says. “We’d love to see more. We have seen some improvements in the tax code that have helped college affordability. And the earned income tax credit has also helped low-income families pursue more education.”

Newman doesn’t minimize the difficulties involved in negotiating new boundaries between parents and their adult children who return home, but she also points out that the accordion family in the United States in our present era has some things going for it as well. In cultural terms, the “generation gap” is as narrow now as at any time in history. (Saturday Night Live, for instance, is a shared experience for baby boomers and millennials—and everyone in between.) And Newman also notes that the accordion family has great potential to renew and deepen ties across the generations that will matter when baby boomer parents are elderly.

We are lucky that the family is so flexible, Newman concludes. “Institutions and families are doing everything they can to adapt to some big problems.”