Recession Grads' Survival Tips

Downturns are part of the business cycle. MBAs who graduated in past recessions say there are ways to make them work

For MBAs entering the job market in the coming months, this is an anxious time. Employers are turning cautious, and some economists are saying a recession may have already begun.

While self-focused grads may think they're the first and only people to face a challenging job market, they're not, of course. The U.S. economy went into recession from July, 1990, to March, 1991, and from March to November, 2001, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. MBAs who entered the job market during those downturns have seen the valleys and peaks, and remind fresh graduates to retain some perspective.

When Jeremy FitzGerald graduated from Columbia Business School in May, 1990, she remembers "the markets were about to fall off the cliff." Despite the recession, FitzGerald took a job on Wall Street, where she ended up doing advisory work for banks affected by the real estate downturn. "It was so acute that a month into the job, I was reporting to the board of directors," recalls FitzGerald. Another shake-up happened before the 2001 recession, and the headcount at FitzGerald's firm shrunk by 75%. Again she "was left standing, picking up a lot of the work." Nowadays, FitzGerald is a managing director at Capital Trust (CT).

FitzGerald points out that expansion and contraction are natural cycles. "It always feels uncomfortable, but you get some perspective on it once you've been through it a few times," she explains, adding that the tougher adjustment from B-school to work can turn into a good learning opportunity.

The Value of Networking

How do you do that? For one, previous recession grads say current students shouldn't rely solely on career placement services. B-school recruiting gets tougher in a downward economy because companies hire later—often on an as-needed basis. Instead, use all the networking skills you've built up over the years.

Todd Gemmer, a 2001 grad from UCLA's Anderson School of Management, says that for him it was especially tough in the tech industry where he wanted to work. "I left a good-paying job, paid a lot of money to go to school for two years, and left with debt and not a lot of great prospects," he recalls. To land a job as a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley (MS), Gemmer reconnected with an old classmate he met while completing his undergrad at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. "It really made me appreciate the value of the networks I had built," says Gemmer, who remains satisfied with his career move.

Timing Career Switches

Others recommend grads keep their career leaps small, instead of making a total career switch. Martin Doyle, a 2002 grad from Georgetown's McDonough School of Business, says he found a position by switching from R&D to the corporate side of a biotech company during the last recession. "It would have been great to move into work for a winery, but when positions are limited you have to put down some of those pipe dreams," says Doyle, who now works in business development at Applied Biosystems.

But Daniele Ghiotti, a 2001 grad from Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management, points out that not making a career 180 right out of B-school doesn't mean a career switch can't happen when the economy perks up. "A vast majority of graduates change their jobs within five or so years," says Ghiotti. "It's not the end of the world."

Small-Company Advantages

Another approach that helps land a position during a downturn is to go for a lesser-known company to acquire the desired skills. "Don't be picky about the brand name," says Ann Futch, a 2001 grad from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, who had a career in investment banking during a downturn. Recent grads will "get a free pass with the caveat that they need to be doing something to keep their skill set moving."

Others, like Ed Catto, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler School of Business in 1990 and now works in advertising, says working at a smaller company has other advantages, too. For example, recent grads are allowed to take on more responsibility and may avoid the mass layoffs that take place at larger firms. "Smaller companies are more nimble…and more hungry to make a go of it—they are able to zig and zag quicker," says Catto. "In the old days you needed big companies to get some stripes on your sleeve. Now people are more open-minded."

Blazing Your Own Path, On the Cheap

Still it's important to realize not all recession woes come to an end after one MBA class graduates. In the case of the 2001 recession, many 2002 grads say they've been impacted as well and tell current first-year MBAs they should be prepared. Besides not getting the signing bonuses or other usual perks like moving expenses, Doyle, a 2002 grad, says getting relevant internship experience during B-school was a challenge. "We didn't expect to get an offer," remembers Doyle about his 2001 internship summer. Companies "were able to cherry-pick from the grads of '01 and '02 as to who they wanted."

Ultimately, what most 2001 grads had in common was their ability to find an individual path and stay confident in their abilities, Sarita Finnie, a grad from University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, says about her class. Finnie landed in brand management after her management consulting gig fell through, "In a shaky economy, things are going to happen. You may feel confident about your job security, but things may change."

Still, Columbia's FitzGerald reminds grads that, starting out—even in a downturn—has one advantage when it comes to getting hired. "The good news about a fairly junior person is that you're cheap."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.