WashU Expert: Searching for work in the summer of COVID

Don't give up, says Career Center's Mark Smith. There are some jobs and even more opportunities.

Mark Smith, associate vice chancellor and dean of career services, advises that students can still build experiences and skills this summer. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

With 33 million Americans unemployed and the global economy hurtling toward recession, some students may be tempted to sit out the job and internship market. But that would be a huge mistake, said Mark Smith, associate vice chancellor and dean of career services at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It seems hopeless right now, I get it,” Smith said. “But the worst thing you can do is give up. There are opportunities, but you need to be flexible. The Career Center can help.” 

In this Q&A, Smith talks about whether companies are still hiring; how to build skills; and if pants are necessary on Zoom interviews. (Spoiler alert: Yes!)

What’s the word on the street? Are employers rescinding job and internship offers?

Yes, some have, but less than you might think. Many companies are delaying their internship start dates or making their internships virtual. And some are just not sure what they are going to do. 

So what should a student do this summer if they cannot find an internship?  

There are a lot of ways students can make the most of this summer. I would encourage students to find places where they want to work and proactively pitch ways they can help. But if you can’t get an internship, you can still find ways to gain experience and skills. Perhaps this is the summer you learn some basic coding or learn Farsi. There are a lot of free online programs in a lot of areas. Maybe you volunteer. Or maybe you lead an independent research project and ask a faculty member for their feedback. You are not working for them, but you’ve created a relationship.

What about jobs? It feels like a fool’s errand to apply for work when there are millions of unemployed workers. 

There is no sugarcoating it — those standard summer jobs in service and retail aren’t there right now. But if you are a graduate ready to start your career, don’t wait to start looking. Right now, we’ve got more than 1,000 jobs posted on our CareerLink database, which is surprisingly more postings than we had last year at this time. Industries like accounting, banking, biotech and life sciences, environmental services, research and others are still strong.  And don’t  forget, companies want our graduates. They want smart, hardworking employees, and that’s what WashU’s got. 

You’re always talking about networking, but is it weird to ask someone for an informational interview in the middle of a crisis? Don’t people have more pressing things on their mind? 

This is a terrific time to network. People are very sympathetic, more so than usual. Everyone feels terrible for students who are missing their graduation and they want to help. I would absolutely feel comfortable asking someone if they would like to meet by phone or Zoom.

In this work-from-home era of no makeup and sweats, how should a student dress for an online interview?

Definitely wear pants!  I think it’s safe to err on the side of being more formal. You want to look like a serious person and show respect. So wear a pressed shirt or blouse and avoid Zoom backgrounds. You don’t want the focus taken from you. 

So all hope is not lost? 

There is no doubt that this is a tough time to graduate. But this is not the first class to enter into a tough market. People get through it. The economy comes back. And we at the Career Center are always ready to review materials, meet online and connect students to alums who are working in their field. We are here for students now and after they graduate. 

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