Recent College Grads Share Tips for Landing a Job

Mentors, networking and flexibility are the keys to finding new opportunities.

by Elicia Brown

During her final months at American University, Linda networked diligently in pursuit of a job. Her reward: offers of “great unpaid internships that you’d be perfect for,” she says.

Linda, who didn’t want her last name used, had already undertaken nine internships during her college years. As a student, Linda often forewent extracurricular activities on campus so she could focus her energies on preparing for a terrible job market. She interned for a senator, a Jewish nonprofit, a company in Belgium and a think tank. She was ready for a different title—and a real paycheck.

But to find a job after college that isn’t an internship or a fellowship, “you need the perfect package—a good GPA, an outgoing personality and connections,” observes Linda, who says she has friends from her class who are still seeking work.

Linda’s experience parallels that of many recent college graduates who are trying to get their feet wet in a job market where many opportunities have dried up. In recent years, the national media has extensively covered the plight of young workers, from Lena Dunham’s television show Girls on HBO to a comic strip by Brian McFadden in The New York Times, “The Truth in Commencement Speeches.” (“By your mid-30s you might be able to share a tiny apartment with strangers from Craigslist.”)

In the Jewish community, where upward mobility is cherished and there is often an expectation of success, the challenges faced by this generation can be deflating as well as daunting. Even a stellar academic career at a top-notch college doesn’t guarantee a smooth path to employment.

“A lot of us felt like we should be able to get jobs,” complains a woman who graduated from Yale. “We went to Yale, and we excelled there. People should want us to work for them.” The woman, who requested anonymity, applied to more than a dozen nonprofit organizations before her graduation and heard back from only one. When The Bronfman Youth Fellowships offered her an entry-level post in its New York office, she quickly accepted.

While some indicators suggest that the economic outlook has been improving, many new graduates will still have to navigate a long, bumpy road to their first jobs. The young women interviewed for this article whispered horror stories of friends parked on their parents’ living room sofas for months; parents spoke of their grown children toiling away at unpaid internships or poorly paid jobs with no prospect of supporting themselves in sight.

Shira Dicker, a publicist in Manhattan and the mother of three children, including two in their 20s, says, “This generation is hobbled. It impacts their self-esteem.” She recalls, “When I graduated college in 1982, I knew that if I needed a job in a pinch, I’d pound the pavement and get one, maybe not my dream job, but a job.”

Will there be a dramatic turnaround in the near future? Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, isn’t optimistic. “The recovery is a bit stronger in the market for college graduates than high school graduates, but it’s still pretty rough,” says Holzer, who served as the chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor during the Clinton administration.

Research indicates that this cohort’s slow start in the workforce will have an adverse impact on their earnings for at least a decade, says Holzer. He outlines three scenarios for college graduates: “Some graduates may be unemployed for a while; others will take a job for which they are overqualified. A third group will find something more or less in the field but will be reluctant to leave that job.”

Even in this rocky job market, however, some young people manage to secure rewarding jobs. In search of tips, JW magazine spoke to more than a dozen successful young Jewish women, graduates of colleges across the country. As might be expected, there’s no one blueprint for success, but several themes emerged.

Meet a Mentor

Emma Mayerson seems to have stumbled on the magic formula. At 25, she holds a leadership position in a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit umbrella group—Alliance for Girls—that she helped start. It already includes more than 50 organizations, from private schools to local YWCAs.

Mayerson, who graduated from Tufts University in 2010, credits her success to the guidance of other women.

“I had champions who helped me get my first job, guide my career course, taught me to take risks and encouraged me to take on challenges,” says Mayerson.

As a high school student, Mayerson met Judy Bloom (not to be confused with Judy Blume, the author), who at the time was working as a development officer at the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Federation. With her mother, Mayerson had approached Bloom with the idea of starting a community foundation for Jewish teens.

 Mayerson remembers, “I felt listened to. I did not feel like a teenager; I felt like a person with efficacy and talents.”

For Bloom, who has guided hundreds of young women and men during her long and varied career, the return is almost always worth the investment. She recalls how when Mayerson arrived in her office that first day, she appeared to be “an uncomfortable, awkward teen, unsure of how to act socially,” and that she’s since developed into a “a very poised, very accomplished young lady” who is doing exciting work and “gets how important it is to fill the gap between people who don’t talk to each other.”

Though Mayerson stayed in touch with supervisors and recognized their value, she didn’t intentionally set out to cultivate mentors. But young women can be proactive about the process, and projects such as the Young Women’s Leadership Network, which Jewish Women International has launched, will help. The network will promote professional and leadership development for participants.

Network Until You Drop

Of course, “networking is not new news. It’s as old as two people talking to each other,” says Andrea Dine, director of the Hiatt Career Center at Brandeis University, who has worked in the field since the 1990s. But, she says, “It’s become more critical now.”

Job seekers should bear in mind that a potential lead can surface anywhere—even the local gym.

Ilana Krakowski graduated from the double degree program at Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2011 and now works at a Baha’i-inspired women’s advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. She recalls how a friend, who was cat-sitting and babysitting to make ends meet, managed to procure a part-time job by chatting with the staff at the local JCC gym, where she frequently worked out.

Rachel Cohen, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011, found work at another unlikely venue: a Passover party with a make-your-own matzah-pizza theme.

During the spring of 2011, Cohen had sent out close to 100 resumes in search of a position in clinical medical research. “That was very discouraging,” she recalls. “I was trying to sound as interesting and as interested as possible,” but wondering all the time: “How was I ever going to get my resume looked at?”

Cohen ended up with an assortment of part-time responsibilities that first year out of school. In the spring of 2012, she began the job application process once again. But this time, in an apartment full of Pesach pizza, she was introduced to Jay, who also wanted to be a doctor. He told her, “I work in clinical research at Sloan Kettering, and I know my manager will be looking for new people,” recalls Cohen, now a research study assistant at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Turn Passion Into Paid Work

Emma Goldman graduated from Goucher College in 2010 with top honors, and for a few moments she felt as if she “was on top of the world.” She toppled quickly once she took her first steps into what she calls “the real world.”

She moved in with her parents, the publicist Shira Dicker and the journalist Ari Goldman, and eventually found a job as an administrative assistant at UJA-Federation of New York. For a few hours a week, however, Goldman volunteered for Innovation Africa, a nonprofit that brings Israeli innovation to African villages. She delighted in this work, but wondered how she might turn this passion into a paid position.

For starters, during her volunteer sessions, Goldman frequently announced: “I would love to do this all the time.”

But Goldman won even more points when she put money where her mouth was. As a child, Goldman had watched her mother deftly manage public relations events. She decided to organize a fundraiser for Innovation Africa: a beer-pong tournament. It raked in a little more than $1,000.

Goldman believes that around 500 people volunteer for Innovation Africa; but Goldman, now the outreach coordinator, is the only one she knows of who has managed to turn the volunteer role into full-time employment.

Have Pliable Plans

“One of the things that has shifted is how flexible you need to be about what you do after graduation,” says Dine. “I advise students to have a plan A, B and C,” she says.

Emily Portman, who graduated from Colorado College in 2011, was able to find meaningful work after she revised her plans, moving away from an original focus on food-related nonprofits. She also switched locations, accepting a job in a small town rather than a big city. As assistant editor of Edible Vineyard, a food magazine based in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., Portman assigns and writes stories. She doesn’t live lavishly, but she can better afford to support herself than if she were working for a big city magazine like Edible Manhattan and was burdened with exorbitant rents.

Dori Aronson, a psychotherapist based in Gaithersburg, Md., and mother of three children, has watched her two older children, both recent graduates of McGill University, switch gears as needed. Aronson’s middle daughter, who graduated in 2011, had planned to apply to law school but shifted course after hearing all the tales of underemployed law school graduates.

“She was terrified of being in debt with no job prospects,” says Aronson, noting that instead that daughter is now in a master’s program, studying the history of rare books, at University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Her older daughter also chose a graduate program abroad, lured by the cheaper tuition as well as the adventure of living overseas.

Aronson sees some upside to the challenges faced by this generation. Both daughters found graduate programs that suit their interests. Plus, there was a recent period when all three children—two of whom were adults—were living at home. The young women “took it upon themselves to pull their weight,” says Aronson. They seemed to be “grateful to have the option” of saving money while living at home, and they behaved like good guests.

Aronson remembers, “The dishwasher was emptied for me every day. That never happened before they left home” for college. “I must confess,” she says, “I loved having a full house.”

(Originally published in fall 2013)

Elicia Brown is a freelance writer who lives in Manhattan.