Location: Bowdoin / Magazine / Features / 2010 / The Job of Finding Work

The Job of Finding Work

Story posted September 03, 2010

Author: Ian Aldrich
Photography: Dean Abramson

Carolyn Williams ’10 doesn’t spend much time brooding over the state of the econ-omy. No real point in it, she says. The Wyoming native and English major is just too busy, for starters. She’s got the college’s radio station to manage, a marathon to train for, and a final semester of classes to get through. But more than anything, Williams—who’d like to work in publishing, public relations, or advertising—is just doing her best to stay positive as she navigates a tricky and competitive job market.

“I’m glad I didn’t graduate last year and almost wish I could graduate next year, but I think there are opportunities out there,” she says. Williams then laughs. “And when I do hear the numbers, I think, well, I’m a Bowdoin grad.”

The numbers of course aren’t good. Last year, in the wake of the economy com-ing apart in late 2008, college graduates faced the toughest job market in 25 years, a dour situation that translated into 40% fewer employment prospects compared to just 12 months before. The forecast doesn’t look to be much better in 2010.

And that only puts further downward pressure on Williams and other seniors like her as they gear up for a life after college. On top of her studies, on top of having to juggle schedules and budgets at WBOR, and on top of just trying to wrap up her final college months, Williams is managing the rigors of networking, résumé pol-ishing, and interviews. At times it can seem like a full-time job that she has to fit around a full-time college workload.

It’s part of the reason she has spent parts of her final Bowdoin semester camped out at the college’s Career Planning office. She’s not alone. In recent years, the of-fice has undergone a 21st century facelift to reach out to more students and incorpo-rate more technology to then get them to engage with the work world outside the school. That’s a lot of what Williams has been doing, working closely with advisors to sell her Bowdoin years—in addition to her time at WBOR, she’s worked as a re-porter and editor at The Orient, is a certified trip leader for the Outing Club, and will complement her English degree with a minor in music—into some valuable work experience. Which has happened. The summer before her junior year she landed a job as a staff reporter for a local paper back in her hometown, and a year later spent the break in Boston, where she had two internships—one at a big ad agency, the other with a textbook publisher. Both opportunities put her in the mid-dle of some pretty creative work, from collaborating with a team of other interns on crafting an integrated ad campaign for Volvo, to assisting in the production of a new version of a popular history book.

All of which has, in a way, added to her anxiety. She’s had a taste of being a part of some energetic work places and is eager to find that again after she graduates.  

“I’m always ready for a new challenge,” she says. “But it’s intimidating. And the uncertainty is unlike any kind of uncertainty I’ve ever faced. It’s not like college applications where you kind of know you have to get in somewhere. Potentially I could graduate without a job. That’s a very real possibility.”

Living Where They Live
Tim Diehl is the kind of guy who sees nothing but possibilities. As Bowdoin’s Director of Career Planning it’s his job to oversee an office that encourages students to explore what awaits them after they leave the college. It means helping them re-fine their abilities at not just selling themselves but also the benefits—good communication skills, good problem solving, good analytical talents—of a of a high-caliber liberal arts education. 

Diehl, who sports a cleanly-shaved head and packs an infectious laugh, moves with the kind of purpose, whether it’s tackling his workload or just embarking on simple walk across campus, of a man with a lot of ideas. Which he has. In less than four years, three of them as Director, he’s overseen a complete physical and phi-losophical overhaul of the Career Planning office that’s put it more at the center of campus life. Its headquarters, a first-floor section of Moulton Union, is a renovated, open space that serves as a welcoming home. There’s a small library of books, a series of advisor offices, conference rooms, computers, and a pleasant waiting area with comfortable chairs and a table stocked with new magazines and newspapers.

But to better broadcast what Career Planning does, Diehl has made it one of his missions to make sure the work they do isn’t confined to their office setting. These days, the department is spread all over Bowdoin. There is a weekly information ta-ble at Smith Union, collaborative programs with various student groups, and part-nerships with other wings of the college, like the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good and Alumni Relations. And aside from the usual job fairs, Career Planning has launched lighter, more creative programs, too, such as an annual Do’s and Don’ts Fashion Show, which draws on the support of local retailers to show-case what is and isn’t acceptable to wear at a job interview.

“One of the goals of emerging as a new office was to create a culture of career planning at Bowdoin so that our services and people wouldn’t be defined just by the physical space where they existed,” explains Diehl. “We wanted a presence of ca-reer planning across the college. It’s about living where they live, and living how they live. Being in the student spaces and not waiting for them to come to us.”

The results have been impressive. During just the 2009 academic year alone, the Career Planning office hosted or co-sponsored 140 programs, putting them in touch with 3,250 students, 26% more than the year before, and a more than 100% increase over 2007. And that boosted the demand for its services. In the fall of 2009, for ex-ample, Career Planning did 40% more one-on-one advising sessions than it had just two years ago.

In part, it’s about better branding. And that’s an area Diehl knows well. Diehl, a St. Louis native who earned a business degree at Washington University, and later an MBA at Duke, spent the 11 years prior to arriving in Brunswick working in southern Connecticut in brand management. Most of his work, both for companies and, later, as an independent consultant, dealt with consumer-packaged goods, everything from Dixie Cups to Dannon Yogurt.

For Diehl, who’d begun his marketing career in the admissions department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, it was exciting work, but not altogether satisfying. “I wanted a more meaningful purpose,” he says. “Whether someone picked a par-ticular yogurt flavor or brand of paper cup was less important to me than having an im-pact on people’s lives in an important way. And I saw that career services could use the skills I had. We’re working with students to help them best represent themselves and market themselves to employers. And we’re representing Bowdoin to employers to at-tract them to campus.”

The branding of the Career Planning office is evident everywhere, from the color-coded tip sheets that touch on topics like first round interviewing and net-working to the launch of a much more user-friendly, resource-rich website. But it’s not just how they’re marketing themselves that’s changed—the service, too, has been reworked. Not long after he took over the Director’s position, Diehl and his staff of eight embarked on a substantive survey to find out what Bowdoin students wanted from the office. More than 80% of the student body responded and the re-sults showed not just a desire for more individual attention but a preference to work with advisers who had experience in the areas they wanted to explore. Today, the Career Planning office is rounded out by staff members who hail from such diverse backgrounds as business, law, media, and healthcare.

The result isn’t just better contacts or richer work advice, but more actionable counseling. It’s about collaborating with students, whether they’re still trying to hone in on their interests or seasoned job seekers who’ve targeted companies they’d like to work, to map out specific goals so they can move ahead with their career planning process.

“The classic career services at small liberal arts institutions were about working with students in a very counseling way,” says Diehl. “Students would come in and meet with a career counselor and be told, ‘Maybe you should do this test or exercise and figure it out.’ It was passive and not informed by real world experience for the most part. We’re looking at ‘how do take your process to the next stage?’ So, we’ll say, ‘Do A, B, and C and then come back and see us in two weeks.’ It’s action-based advising and it seems to resonate with the students.”

Technology fuels a lot of this. The overhaul of the office’s website wasn’t just a matter of creating a slicker design or posting more of the department’s documents; it was creating a digital arm of Career Planning that catered to the tech-savvy needs of Bowdoin students. Each of the seven advisors, including Diehl, maintain a regu-lar blog, both to get the word out quickly about, say, a new internship opportunity, but also to manage a steady contact with the students they’re working with. There’s how-to advice in the form of short video interviews, and a heavy reliance on social media platforms like LinkedIn, to help connect students with alums and possible employers.

The latter, of course, is just good old-fashioned networking, something that at Bowdoin long predates Diehl, his office, and the Web, and it forms the backbone for a lot of what goes on at this Moulton Union office. Over the last few years, Diehl’s office has expanded the Bowdoin Career Advisory Network (BCAN), a group of alums who work with students on shaping their prospective careers, to some 2,200 members, up 30% from two years ago. It’s done that in part by hitting the road. In 2007, the Bowdoin Connections Receptions was launched, which each winter break brings together past and present Bowdoin grads in five different cities: New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Chicago. Over wine and cheese, alums chat up undergraduates about their experience, the current job mar-ket, and what opportunities might be available.

“We want to give students the tools for networking that will yield positive re-sults throughout their career,” says Diehl. “We say it all the time: We’re here not just to give them the access to something they may do for the next two or three years. We’re here to develop tools and skills that will serve them in the next 20 or 30 years. And in this market, where the hiring is going to be so restrictive, a lot of it is about the referral process. If you can have two or three allies in an organization that can make a huge difference.”

Leveraging the Power of the Polar Bear
Networking is an obvious part of what Carolyn Williams has been focusing on. It’s a Thursday afternoon in mid-February, and the Bowdoin senior steps into the office of Dighton Spooner, Career Planning’s associate director who works primarily with students who have an interest in broadcasting, film, advertising, public relations, and the arts. Spooner, who dislikes the formality associated with meeting with a student at his desk, folds his lanky body into a chair at a small table in the corner of his office, where Williams, dressed in jeans with her long brown hair bunched in the back, has already taken out a small notebook and a pen.

In many ways Spooner represents the new face of Bowdoin’s Career planning advisory team. His arrival at the college in the fall of 2006 came after more than two decades of television work, including 12 years at WGBH in Boston, where he produced a broad range of projects, from news and children’s shows, to public af-fairs programs and dramas. His résumé also includes stints in Europe and Los An-geles, where he was the CBS Network’s director of mini series, a job that saw him work with actors like Robert Duval, Diane Lane, and Danny Glover.

Like Diehl, however, Spooner wanted a change, and when he moved to Maine in May 2006 he wrote a letter to Bowdoin President Barry Mills to introduce himself and see what kind of opportunities might be available for him at the college. It wasn’t long before he was connected with the Career Planning office.

“When I was working in television I always felt an obligation to bring along that next generation of professionals,” he says. “I worked with singers, dancers, PR people, actors—and these are all the people I advise now, too.”

Like his six colleagues, an average week sees Spooner meet with about 30 stu-dents in sessions that can range from 30 minutes to an hour. On this day, his meet-ing with Williams is expected to run on the shorter side. The two have been work-ing together for more than a year, but it was just before winter break since they last had a get together, and Spooner wants to use the meeting to check in and see how Williams, who recently finished an internship application for Ruder Finn, a large publicity firm in New York City, is doing.

“So catch me up,” he says. “What’s going on?”

She details for him the internship application. “Other than that, I have an infor-mational interview with Arnold Worldwide [the Boston ad agency where she in-terned last summer],” she says. “And I’m just trying to network and not get too stressed out about things.”

Spooner flashes an embracing smile. “Look, you’re doing all the right things, and that’s the critical thing,” he says.  He pulls out a piece of paper with an email address on it. “There’s an alum I want you to talk to. She’s an account executive with J. Walter Thompson in New York and works on the De Beers account. She’s also been involved in that new line of business that’s encouraging women to buy diamonds for themselves. I think you guys would have a great conversation.”

“Great!” says Williams.

From there, Spooner cracks open a Mac laptop and brings up a Web site that posts jobs and advice for people who want to work in publishing. “I see it as a way for you to put publications on your radar screen that you maybe you hadn’t already thought about.” Then, he gets up and goes to his desk and fishes through a fistful of business cards for the contact information of a person he knows at a big marketing company that deals exclusively with magazines and books.

Williams is clearly appreciative of the names, even if she’s still feeling a little anxious about what lies ahead. And helping her deal with some of that is part of Spooner’s job, too. He’s there not just to advise but also to reassure. Beyond the information and names, of course, part of what Spooner does, and does well, is to help students like Williams see beyond what can seem like the regular grind of résumé writing and follow-ups, application submissions and interviews.

“I know,” says Williams. “I just need to step back and be philosophical about it and enjoy my senior year spring and know that it will work out at some point.”

“And it will,” Spooner says. “It’s just a combination of things coming together and being at the right place at the right time. And maintaining all those relation-ships. That’s a bit of a management test, but if they say get back to me in four weeks, make sure you do that.”

The meeting closes with a discussion around Williams’ interview next week at Arnold. Williams loved the creative responsibility the company handed her last summer, and she’s hoping to leverage her visit into a future job down the road. But she’s a little nervous about the interview, not entirely sure what she should say if they ask her to tell them something about herself. 

“Talk about the things you care about,” he says. “And how they relate to the things they care about. You’re involved with music here. You wrote for The Orient. Words and music are a part of what they deal with all the time. Talk about what you find compelling about advertising. Talk about how you first got interested in the field.”

“Well, it’s actually something I saw them do,” she says.

“Tell them that,” he says. “Say, it may sound like I’m sucking up to you, but this is one of the first things that got me going. That means a lot to them. It’s just a basic philosophical connection between you and them.”

Later, after the meeting is over, Williams draws a smile and lets out a breath. “Dighton’s funny because every time I come in here I feel like I’m a stress case,” she says.

“And every time I leave I feel like I’m going to be okay. This whole thing just requires some patience.”

Persistence Pays Off
It does indeed. But that’s not to suggest that the news for new grads is totally grim. In the midst of last year’s economic meltdown Bowdoin graduates did find work. And across lines, from finance to law to the world of non-profits, they discovered it in their chosen fields. It just required some persistence and a little creativity.

Take the case of Kayla Baker '09. An Arkansas native who studied economics and education at Bowdoin, Baker did what may have seemed like the unthinkable last year when she secured a job on Wall Street as a portfolio analyst for JP Morgan. Even among Career Planning’s more active visitors, Baker, whom Diehl describes as one of the most organized people he’s ever worked with, stood out, paying a visit to the office as early as her first semester on campus.

With an interest in finance—she had worked for a summer as a bank teller just before arriving at Bowdoin—Baker immediately took advantage of BCAN, making phone calls and sending out emails to anyone she thought might have a lead, a piece of advice, or just some general knowledge about the work. Names and contact infor-mation on all the alumni she connected with—more than 60 in all, from LA to Lon-don to Dubai—were recorded in a book she still keeps with her.

“I started with analysts because I was told that the best thing to do is not to start with someone too high up,” she says. “Then I started talking to senior level people. It gave me a chance to pick their brains, and they looked at my résumé. I was con-stantly getting critiqued. How articulate I was. What’s missing? How can I improve my vocabulary? They weren’t always easy chats. I was grilled, but they’d tell me, I’m grilling you only because I want you to get this job. It was well intended. Any-thing, you name it, I learned from alumni.”

It was through an alum in fact that Baker first learned about the internship at JP Morgan, which, after three months led to a job offer in August, just weeks before the start of her senior year. Today, Baker, who admits she watched with a little trepidation as the markets unraveled that autumn, is giving back in the best way she knows how. She’s now a part of BCAN, taking calls and answering emails from current students who want to follow in her footsteps.

“It’s great,” she says. “I was there for four years and so many people invested themselves in me and so it’s definitely great for me to invest back in others.”

Brendan Mooney ’09’s story is a little different. Like Carolyn Williams, the his-tory major and Bowdoin soccer player had to muster some patience with the job market. Unlike Baker, a career path didn’t begin to crystallize for him until a few years into his college career.

By his own admission, Mooney’s job experience was a little thin. Summer work consisted mainly of running soccer camps in Maine or back home in West Chester, New York. But then came a chance to work on Barack Obama’s New Hampshire primary team in the summer of 2007. Then the idea that law was something that made sense for him. The fall of his senior year, after a previous semester in Scot-land, Mooney walked into the Career Planning office for the first time.

“I knew I wanted to go to law school but not until two years after I graduated,” says Mooney. “That was my opening premise. But I’d never had a full interview before. Everything had always been over the phone, where at the end it was like, come on in, we’re not paying you anyway so it doesn’t matter.”

Working with one of the office’s other assistant directors, Sherry Mason, a former Portland attorney, Mooney focused his attention on finding work that could give him valuable legal exposure.  But the economy didn’t exactly cooperate. A select number of analyst positions with a firm in Boston that Mooney had targeted as his first option was cut in half. And an informational interview with a firm in New York proved to be a great experience, but offered nothing in the way of a job or any kind of lead. So, Mooney headed back to Brunswick to work at Bowdoin soccer camp for a few weeks in July before resuming his job search later that summer.

It helped that he wasn’t alone. “Because of how the job market was last spring, there was such a high percentage of my class that didn’t have a job, and that was comforting in a way,” he says. “You looked around and 50% of the smart people you knew didn’t have anything beyond a summer internship or even know what they were going to do for the summer.”

By the autumn a lot of that had changed. Mooney’s break came toward the end of summer. His interview with the New York firm had gone better than he thought, and his name had been passed on to a legal search company, which in September contacted him. A few weeks later, Mooney had a full-time paralegal job in the New York City office of a large international law firm. Now, his work life consists of proofing legal documents, making binders, and gaining some insight into what it’s like to be a lawyer. It’s done nothing to diminish his desire to go to law school. But he is thankful he followed the advice of the Career Planning office and his parents and got a job before he jumped back into the classroom.

“There was no point in putting myself out for $150,000 without not knowing if I like it or not,” he says. “And it’s given me a chance to live on a city on my own and really be a grown up for the first time.”

One Semester to Go
In late March, as spring slowly started to make an appearance on the Bowdoin cam-pus and students returned from spring break, Carolyn Williams still didn’t have a job offer. But she sounded far from worried about it. It had been a busy five weeks since her February meeting with Dighton Spooner. The interview at Arnold World-wide, the Boston ad agency, had gone well, and she’d been told to give the com-pany a call in April to pursue another meeting to discuss some anticipated summer openings.

And while she hadn’t heard anything about the internship at Ruder Finn, the New York publicity firm, Spooner had put in her touch with someone he knew at the company, who invited her to the firm’s offices. Williams got a tour of the place and then got the name of a Bowdoin alum who worked at a large finance communi-cations firm in the city. From there, Williams, an admittedly gun-shy networker when she first started working with Career Planning, immediately called him up and soon learned about a internship opportunity at the firm. Soon after returning from break, Williams was gearing up for a second interview.

All of this was squeezed around an actual internship offer she’d received from the Boston office of Keds Shoes that would have allowed her to work with the company’s product development team. But Williams, in a demonstration that her anxiety about her post-Bowdoin life truly had cooled, turned it down. She wanted to see what developed with Ruder or maybe the communications firm. She was also itching to live in New York City. “If I had taken the opportunity in Boston I would have always wondered what it had been like if I’d gone to New York,” she said. “Maybe I’m shooting myself in the foot, but I felt like I had to do it.”

Along with everything else—the other interviews, the chance go home for a few days during break—the Keds offer had been a boost to her ego. And it left Williams feeling as though something would happen, soon.

“I think things are going to work out,” she said. “I really do. Right now I’m really looking forward to getting the chance to enjoy my spring semester.”

Epilogue
As we were going to press, Carolyn Williams accepted an offer for a full-time, paid internship—with growth potential—from a financial communications firm in New York City. In what Dighton Spooner called “a perfect example of the Polar Bear network,” she had heard about the firm from Bowdoin trustee and par-ent Karen Hughes, and Samantha Cohen ’07, an alum who works at the firm, had referred her résumé to Human Resources.

Last year, in the wake of the economy coming apart in late 2008, college graduates faced the toughest job market in 25 years, a dour situation that translated in 40% fewer employment prospects compared to just 12 months before.

enlarge this imageClick image to enlarge…