Just a week before the Presidential election, with unsettling economic news continuing to dominate the headlines, Cornell students have been asking me what they should do in order to succeed professionally in turbulent times. In September, the U.S. economy lost some 159,000 jobs, representing the ninth straight month of job decline, and that seems to have gotten the attention of many people, especially students who will be completing their degrees this year.
My first observation is that, even in difficult times, a Cornell degree will stand you in good stead. Many corporations that traditionally recruit at Cornell are still coming to campus. Some may have fewer jobs to offer, but they still want to talk to Cornell students. There is no question, though, that things have changed, and there is great uncertainly about how long the current period of economic difficulty will last.
So what to do? Let me offer four suggestions.
• Know what you are looking for, but also be open to unexpected opportunities.
• Use formal, pre-existing Cornell programs and resources.
• Tap into the network of Cornell alumni by shadowing an alumnus during winter break, for example, or taking advantage of other mentoring or networking opportunities.
• Start your job search earlier than you might have done in better economic times.
My second comment is that no matter where you are in your career journey, there are things you can do right on campus to make the transition to the world of work less stressful. Cornell Career Services — with offices in Barnes Hall and in individual schools and colleges — can help you sort out your own career interests and advise you on pursuing your career goals. Whether you are a freshman, a graduating senior or a graduate student; whether you have absolutely no idea what you’d like to do professionally … or you’ve known since eighth grade that you intended to follow a certain career path … or even if you’ve suddenly — or serially — changed your mind about a career path, Cornell Career Services can provide help with career exploration, summer jobs, internship and externship opportunities, and job search strategies. It can also help you perfect your resume, cover letter, and interviewing skills, or help you prepare for graduate or professional school. In 2007, nearly half of Cornell students (48.4%) found their jobs through Cornell Career Services, not just at career fairs or on-campus interviews, but by utilizing any and all of its services. This was up from less than a third (32.3%) in 2003. The professionals at Cornell Career Services understand what a tense time this is and are redoubling their efforts to meet student needs.
At a minimum every student should update his or her profile in Cornell CareerNet to stay abreast of what’s happening. Check out Cornell Career Services calendar — online and searchable — to find out more about programs and events that may interest you. The sooner you start, the less stressful the process will be as you approach your final months and weeks as a student.
What about pursuing further education? My third observation is that graduate and professional school is an appropriate and necessary choice for students with certain career goals, but in tough economic times, many students elect to attend graduate school in the hope that the job market will be better after they complete a second degree. We saw that trend at Cornell after the dotcom bubble, and I suspect that it will happen again in the current economic environment. But unless you are really interested in continuing your education for solid professional reasons, graduate or professional school may not be the best way to get where you’d like to be five years from now. Cornell Career Services, faculty members in your major, and alumni in your chosen career can help you decide if this is a good option for you.
Fourth, I hope that you won’t feel so stressed by current economic challenges that you choose your college program solely on the basis of where you perceive the job opportunities to be. There is much to be said for the merits of a liberal education in providing skills, perspective, and an ethical framework that is applicable to any profession — and for giving you the ability to adapt to change and to prosper in uncertain times over the course of your lifetime. And I hope you’ll think widely about the job possibilities that await you, including working in education or elsewhere in the non-profit sector, where the need is always great, and where Cornell graduates have an outstanding record of participation in such endeavors as Teach for America and the Peace Corps, among other organizations. One way to learn about these options is through the Non-profit and Government Career Fair, to be held on Thursday, February 26, 2009.
Challenging times require creative thinking and flexibility, but that’s what Cornell and Cornellians do best, and I have no doubt that all of you will find satisfying and productive ways to put your skills and talents to use.
David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. Contact him at email@example.com. From David appears monthly.