Finance Students Keep Their Job Prospects Alive

For students who set their sights on Wall Street during the boom years, the end has come just as they are getting ready to join the party.

Wall Street recruiters have canceled or postponed visits to elite universities like Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, citing the turmoil in the markets.

“Jobs are being taken down by the day on our career services Web site,” said Kenton Murray, 20, a senior at Princeton, where J. P. Morgan Chase, Lehman Brothers, Deutsche Bank and others canceled recruitment sessions since the start of the semester.

But even as the markets spiraled downward, business and finance students at top universities said they were not panicked about their futures and were confident that the financial markets would recover. For the young achievers drawn to finance, expectations die hard.

Mr. Murray described the mood at Princeton as cautiously optimistic.

“No one I’ve talked to is worried about moving back home yet,” he said. “But everyone I know is studying for the LSATs right now, people who a month ago had no intention of ever going to law school.”

Financial companies shed 150,000 jobs last year and more than 100,000 so far this year, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a national job placement company. Yet amid the downturn, applications to graduate business schools rose this year, as they have in other periods of uncertainty.

Adam Hallowell, 20, an economics major at Harvard, said his classmates were not overly upset by the market because they were prepared to change direction. “Mine is a generation that’s been told from high school onward, ‘You’re going to change careers five or six times throughout the course of your life,’ ” he said. Even as the Dow plunged day after day, Mr. Hallowell said the mood on campus had not changed, adding that “most students don’t personally have stock portfolios and 401(k) plans yet, which is probably why they aren’t very concerned.”

This resilience has surprised Charissa Asbury, who runs a program at Columbia University’s School of Continuing Education for graduates who want to go to business school. Ms. Asbury said she expected to see a panic among her students. Many were working on Wall Street; some had lost their jobs.

“I wondered if they would say, ‘Maybe this isn’t the time; I don’t want to spend the money if the salary is not going to be there,’ ” she said. “But instead they’re even more interested in finding exactly what they need to get into a top business school. Everyone’s worried about their prospects, but it’s translated into, ‘How do we get better credentials?’ ”

She added, “Now they feel, if they want to go to business school, they need to be from one of the top ones.”

Even at Harvard, students were more attentive at sessions and résumé round tables, said Robin Mount, interim director of career services. In previous years, they often spent these sessions sending text messages; this year, the sessions have been purposeful and heavily attended. Ms. Mount said she could have heard a pin drop.

Beverly Principal, assistant director of employment services at Stanford, said she had already seen a reduction in campus recruitment by banks, though a spokeswoman at J. P. Morgan Chase said it would continue recruiting at target universities throughout the semester.

When students do receive offers, they come under more scrutiny, before and after hiring, said Ronald Storch, a partner at Marcum and Kliegman, a large accounting firm. “A couple years ago there was too much work and not enough bodies,” Mr. Storch said. “We were hiring just to get bodies, and people could bounce from firm to firm. Now they’re not getting the same opportunities.”

Jian Yang, 25, who is in his second year at the University of Chicago’s graduate business school, recently considered his prospects in this new climate. Mr. Yang said he had friends who had lost jobs or taken internships at Lehman and Bear Stearns expecting to land full-time jobs, only to watch the companies fail. He expects to graduate with $200,000 in student debt.

“It’s definitely impacting the mood of the student body,” Mr. Yang said. “We’re all watching the news every day.” Where students in past years set their course on a single field, like investment banking, now they are looking in several areas to improve their chances, he said.

But Mr. Yang said he was not reconsidering his career path because he felt there would still be good jobs available to people like him, who come from top schools and are willing to work abroad. He said he and his friends had not changed their lifestyles, either. “Life kind of goes on,” he said.

“It’s almost a blessing to be in school while the economy is down; it’s a shelter,” Mr. Yang added. “So in one way I feel unlucky, because I missed the boom, but in another way I’m lucky. It’s a good way to spend three years of downturn.”

In a June poll by the Rockefeller Foundation, people ages 18 to 29 were more pessimistic about the economy than any other age group, with half saying that America was a better place in the 1990s and would continue to decline. But they did not apply this pessimism to themselves; they were most likely to say that if they work hard and play by the rules, they will be able to achieve the American Dream.

John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said that even as investment banking suffered, opportunities remained in health care, energy, international business and consulting. “It’ll be interesting to see if the top graduates flow to other industries,” Mr. Challenger said. “It remains to be seen whether we’ll see an increase in idealism or public service like we did after 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina.”

For Tina Phoolka, 28, a graduate business student at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., the new reality means staying in school, even after she earns her M.B.A.

“I thought I was going to get a $100,000-plus job and everything would be great, with lots of opportunities,” Ms. Phoolka said. “Now I’m wondering if I should extend my graduation date, enroll in a Ph.D. program or get a dual degree. I’ll probably study more or look for a job in another country.”

For those who are out of school, the changes in the horizon have been more immediate.

When Jon Cifuentes, 28, landed a job at Smith Barney out of college, he believed that within three years, he would be making more than $100,000 a year, reaping ever larger bonuses.

Then this May, after two job changes, Mr. Cifuentes lost his job in a large layoff at Nomura, an investment bank based in Asia, leaving him with a $3,000 mortgage payment and a case of disillusionment.

After a summer of working part time in his father’s contracting business, Mr. Cifuentes now has a temporary job at Macquarie Capital Partners and is finishing his master’s degree in economics. He and his wife moved into an apartment owned by his sister; they can rent theirs out.

“Compared to some friends I used to work with, I’m doing well,” Mr. Cifuentes said. “Some guys are in their mid-40s, with a wife, kids, mortgage and a lot of bills. They’re in a much worse spot.”

Jonathan Miller, 24, who joined a midmarket investment bank in July 2007, just before the market started to fall, has also tasted the new reality. Mr. Miller had majored in philosophy and English but was drawn to banking in his senior year by the prospect of a high salary and “something with sparkle and shine” for his résumé, he said.

“When I got the job,” Mr. Miller said, “the recruiter told me, just don’t screw up and you’ll do well.” But he and his team were laid off last month — all now scrambling for work, along with thousands of others.

Mr. Miller said he thought his skills and contacts would pull him through the downturn. Asked what he was doing with the 12 to 14 hours a day he previously spent at his job, he said: “Looking for work. I spend nine hours a day on the phone, writing e-mails, talking to headhunters. You need to be aggressive and focused. My prospects aren’t terrible.”

He said if he did not find a job in the next few months, he would consider graduate school or a new field of work.

“I don’t feel cheated,” Mr. Miller said. “But it’s unfortunate that by lack of timing I missed it by a year or two.”