As an undergraduate at Duke a few years ago, Annie Joyner decided to veer off her pre-med track to pursue a career in finance. It seemed like a great decision at the time, especially since so many banks were aggressively recruiting at the university's spring job fairs. All of them dangled prestigious Wall Street internships that often lead to lucrative careers in finance. Joyner was, she thought, one of the lucky ones. She landed a summer gig at Lehman Brothers and signed on afterward to become a full-time analyst.
Now, Joyner is back where she started—polishing her résumé. (Joyner is a pseudonym, requested in order to protect her job search). She walked out of Lehman for good last week, just as the 158-year-old bank's stock was making an incredible 74 percent, five-day free-fall before ultimately filing for bankruptcy. "Everybody was in denial … There was the sense that we're fighters, that Lehman was going to be fine," she says. Things didn't exactly turn out that way. By this Monday, the company had filed for bankruptcy, Bank of America had announced a deal to acquire Merrill Lynch at the bargain price of $29 per share and the future of the country's remaining investment banks were called into question.
The industry's demise is being felt on campuses across the country. Particularly affected are the big-name schools that funneled graduates into Lehman, Bear Stearns and other storied institutions. Wall Street firms once beckoned a third of MIT graduates, despite its commitment to breeding scientists and engineers. Today, that percentage has been nearly halved, says MIT's career center, and megafirms Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and CitiGroup won't even attend the university's career fair this year. Over at Yale, the director of career services says everyone is in a "holding pattern," waiting to find out if Lehman and Merrill will honor the internship and job offers they recently made to Yale students. "There's no doubt there's going to be less hiring on Wall Street this year, and maybe even the next couple of years," says Robin Mount, interim director of Career Services at Harvard University, where fall classes started Monday. "I think there's going to be some downsizing across the whole market." Mount and her colleagues are increasingly telling students the same thing: Don't set your sights on Wall Street.
Just how bad can it get for next year's business majors? "Who knows after what happened this weekend?" says Susie Clarke, who advises undergraduate students at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. "We're stressing that it's important to network and to have a Plan B in case a job in financial services doesn't work out for them right now, since we don't expect those opportunities to be what they have been in the past." The problem is also acute for graduate students. Karen Dowd, director of MBA career development at Notre Dame, estimates that there could be about 25 percent fewer job opportunities this year.
Career counselors are doing what they can to help but know they're only able to do so much. "[Students] seem to think I have a Bat-phone on my desk," says Jackie Wilbur, career-development director at MIT's Sloan School of Management. But she and her colleagues constantly remind students that they must be the masters of their own futures. "Anybody who's going to be in business has to expect chaos and change," says Dowd. "They all know they have to adaptable."
Students who can adapt can find inspiration in someone like Jennie Zhao. After graduating from the University of Texas in 2007, she took a job with Bear Stearns and shortly found herself in a collapsing company. "Now that I look back, it's kind of crazy," she says. "In college, I had been like, 'I'm going to do investment banking'." But she admits that her year at Bear gave her a better understanding of the type of work she liked and didn't like—she didn't want to spend her life number-crunching. "I'm not going to say [the collapse] was a blessing, but it wasn't devastating." And rather than work for someone else, she recently started her own text-messaging advertising company in San Francisco.
As for Joyner, she's not so entrepreneurially minded. She and her cohort are plumbing the depths of their Rolodexes and trying to find junior-level jobs wherever they can. But despite the malaise settling over the sector, Joyner says she's not ready to give up her Wall Street aspirations:"It's hard to move on."