Grads consider options amid gloomy job market

by Beacon Staff • March 25, 2009

In an inhospitable working world, many Emerson students are hitting a brick wall in their job searches, and are, instead, following a national trend toward graduate school and public service.

A National Association of Colleges and Employers study showed the percent of students hired after graduation is expected to plunge 21.6 percent for the class of 2009 compared to last year. In Massachusetts, the unemployment rate, now at 7.6 percent, has risen consistently in recent months. A Northeastern University study found there are eight unemployed Bay Staters for every open job.

"I'll just work as hard as I can and try as hard as I can," senior Jessye Herrell said of her ongoing quest for post-graduation employment. "I'm a film major and there's been a lot of talk with what's going with [financing] films right now."

Applications for graduate enrollment at Emerson are up this year, and are expected to rise even higher. So far, for the school year starting in fall of 2009, Emerson's graduate admissions department has received 1433 applications for graduate admission, up from 1406 for fall of 2008 and 1383 for fall of 2007.

Kristin Burke, director of graduate admission, expects to receive roughly 100 more applications before the admission season is over. Assuming that happens, the total would reach 1533, an increase of eight percent from the previous year.

First-year graduate journalism student John Guilfoil initially declined to attend Emerson in 2007, because he'd been working full-time at iThe Boston Globe/i after graduating from Northeastern University. But as the economy began sinking, he decided to rethink attending grad school.

"It kind of makes sense to stay in school when the economy is so bad," Guilfoil said. "I had offers for jobs in both journalism and public relations and those jobs don't exist anymore. Those people have been laid off."

Graduate application rates rising tends to be a lagging indicator of a bad economy, said Stuart Heiser, manager of Governmental Relations and External Affairs for the Council of Graduate Schools, in a phone interview with iThe Beacon/i.

"We don't yet have information for 2008, so I can't really speculate on that," Heiser said. "What I can tell you is that in the last recession, which ended in 2001, that year applications for U.S. graduate schools increased by 6 percent, but the following year applications increased by 13 percent."

Hesier said there are different variables in play this time around, and that could affect graduate applications and enrollment.

His hesitation to speculate notwithstanding, total U.S. graduate enrollment increased 3 percent in 2007 from the previous year, according to a report issued by the Council of Graduate Schools.

"The increase in doctorates awarded[...]is a necessary step in producing the highly qualified workforce required to enhance U.S. competitiveness," said Debra W. Stewart, president of the council.

Another way students are avoiding the workforce is through public service organizations. Teach for America, a national teaching organization that sends recent graduates into under-served school districts, reported it received 35, 178 applicants for 2009, its highest pool in the last five years.

Public service, rather than more schooling, attracted Audrey Geis, a senior political communication major.

Geis has a long history of activism at Emerson, serving as the coordinator for Alternative Spring Break as well as a liaison for the Peace Games, an organization that believes in implementing peace and justice education programs in schools and community groups.

"I knew from interning, and from working for nonprofits, that I didn't want to be sitting behind a desk," she said.

Geis eventually applied for two programs, the New York City Teaching Fellowship and WorldTeach. NYCTF allows participants to earn their master's degree in teaching as they work in a New York City school. WorldTeach sends its volunteers all over the globe, to teach in impoverished areas. Geis said she was attracted to these programs because of their focus on education.

But as graduation looms, those who choose to enroll in neither graduate school nor public service are facing the dour economy head-on.

Senior Faith Johnson said she's had trouble knowing where to look for post-graduation employment, despite having an internship on a film.

"I'm just terrified," added senior performing arts major Kelly Halpin. "I think a lot of people are just wondering what they're going to do."