Wonks who have no idea what they're doing
Graduating seniors struggle with navigating D.C. job market
by Emily Martin
Liz Victoria, a senior in SIS, has known she wanted to pursue a career in intelligence for awhile now. She felt she did her undergraduate career the right way — focusing on classes, joining organizations, and getting the perfect internship at the Department of Defense.
But graduating does not stress her the most. Victoria said the most stressful part has been looking for a post-grad job.
“I don’t feel like I’m really prepared. Specifically for my field, I don’t feel as though AU properly sets you up to succeed,” Victoria said. “AU kind of promises you, especially in SIS, that you’re going to come out with a job, and that is not the case.”
Graduation is over a month away, but graduating seniors have been feeling the pressure for awhile now. In a city full of young professionals and a university full of wonks, the expectation is that students will walk across the stage with a job lined up, but for many seniors, that expectation is unrealistic.
Grace Sly, a SIS alumni that graduated Dec. 2018, said she felt that same stress when walking across the stage. But after three months of unemployment, Sly accepted a position with the Department of Commerce in the International Trade Administration. Before the offer, she said she was applying to jobs so frequently, she attended five interviews within three days.
Unlike Sly, Victoria has been on the job search since freshman year and she has applied to nearly 60 jobs within the last couple months. Victoria said she has been applying for jobs throughout her undergraduate career because she wants to go into the counterintelligence field, which requires a security clearance.
“It’s absolutely destroyed me mentally, I feel like I never have time to do anything,” Victoria said.
Victoria said the expectation of graduating with a job may be due to “wonk” culture at AU, which reinforces the idea that all students succeed in a traditional sense. She said the pressure that comes along with the culture negatively affected her.
Victoria has had a few internships with different organizations, but compared to classmates at AU who boast having 4 or more internships throughout their undergraduate career, Victoria said she has become concerned that she has not had enough.
“I’ve had three [internships], one of which was with the Department of Defense, [which] gave me a security clearance, I was full-time — it was a big deal,” Victoria said. “And I still feel like I’m so behind… Just because you move around a lot doesn’t determine your worth, but, man, the professors, the school itself, AU as a whole really make you think it does.”
Brian Rowe, the director of experiential education at the Career Center, said he has seen students react differently to “wonk” culture, with some embracing it and others rolling their eyes at it.
“We have a wide variety of opinions at AU and that’s why our students are so successful in all aspects of life,” Rowe said. “You don’t have to call yourself a wonk if you don’t want to, but it is a certain level of engagement that helps people be successful.”
Rowe emphasized that adaptability is important when trying to enter the D.C. job market, not just wonkiness.
“You can have that ideal and set goals for yourself, but you have to be able to pivot when things don’t go the way you had envisioned them,” Rowe said.
Sly said it’s more the culture of D.C. that got to her, rather than being a wonk. Sly said since the District is full of young professionals, she internalized the idea that she would soon succeed like one of them.
“Definitely after I got the degree, I got the sense of, ‘oh, I didn’t do it right, I didn’t finish out correctly,’” Sly said. “It was difficult because through my university experience I had had internships pretty much every semester, and so I felt like I had done everything they had told me to, which is go out, get internships, do well in school, study abroad so you can know more about your subject, and it just didn’t work out the way that I wanted it to.”
Sly, like Victoria, said she did not consider graduation to be stressful, but Sly waited to start her job search until January, after she graduated. She said she regretted that because it made her unsure of her future after she crossed the stage and unemployment proved to be more stressful.
“The first month after I graduated, I was a little more chill about the job search and was just appreciating being done with school,” Sly said. “I heard that when you’re unemployed or when you’re still looking, a day kind of feels like a year. And if you don’t preoccupy yourself it’s really easy to burrow yourself into a hole of, ‘nothing’s happening, this is awful.’”
Sly said she passed the time by taking a German language class, volunteering to tutor at the Washington English Center, studying for the GRE and teaching herself how to code. She was unemployed for months after graduation, but now she will start at her new job in just a couple weeks.
But Rowe said students should start that job hunt sooner rather than later, and most students actually do.
“People are coming [to the Career Center] throughout, and that’s what we want. We encourage freshmen during Eagle Summit to start to meet with us during their first year,” Rowe said. “Students shouldn’t think they have to come in with a perfect plan or idea. It’s good to be flexible and inquisitive, and it’s great when students come in early because the longer a student waits to come in, the more stress it can be for them.”
Rowe said the most important thing students can do is start building and maintaining a network of contacts, like professors and internship supervisors, so that during their senior year, they can utilize that network to find potential jobs.
“Networking and interacting on a professional setting is less concrete for students,” Rowe said. “Meeting someone for coffee, doing an informational interview, researching an organization beforehand, students don’t see that concrete satisfaction of hitting the send key. But in the long run, those professional interactions serve you better.”
Sly also recommended that graduating seniors start making connections and networking with alumni now.
Victoria said she has utilized AU Career Center resources, such as attending the career fairs and searching listings on Handshake, but she finds many times the defense field is not included in employers at the fair or in job listings.
Victoria also said she took the advice of the Career Center and received a security clearance earlier on, but now she feels the SIS-specific Career Center, available only to juniors and seniors, isn’t doing enough to help.
“They tell you at this point in time to not apply for jobs in intelligence, which is not a true thing and I’m very fortunate that I know that, but they just tell you it’s not worth it and that you’re not going to get a job in the government right away, so they kind of just leave you out to dry,” Victoria said.
For now, though, Victoria said she will continue to search Handshake, Indeed, LinkedIn and USAJobs for listings to apply for and Sly said she had several interviews with organizations this week. Rowe said utilizing these resources is helpful, but he would still encourage seniors to visit the Career Center.
“Even if you’re graduating May 2019 and reading this, come in and we can help,” Rowe said.
Despite this offer, Victoria said she feels the university emphasizes joining the workforces too much and does not allow students the room to enjoy their time at AU. She pointed out that the UPass was originally marketed as a means for students to commute to their internship for a lower price, and not as an opportunity to explore the city more.
“Everything’s about what’s going to happen May 13 instead of what’s happening the last four years,” Victoria said.