15 Apr 2020

Managing Through Crisis: Navigating MBA Employment Prospects—a Q+A with CPD Director Kristen Fitzpatrick

Kristen Fitzpatrick

by Shona Simkin

The global pandemic has necessitated a reshuffling and reordering of all of our lives. For Harvard Business School MBA students, that has meant a transition to online learning, a physical relocation for many, and a drastically altered landscape for internship and job prospects. We sat down with Managing Director of Career and Professional Development Kristen Fitzpatrick to talk about student concerns, the job and internship markets, and how her team is helping and coping through this time.

What are you hearing right now from students?
For first year students there’s a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. Before the pandemic hit, almost half the class had already secured an internship. But now, they're not positive it is guaranteed, and if it is, they're not certain what form it will take. Some companies have committed to bringing them in and making the role virtual, while others are still deciding. For graduating students, many have firm commitments on their offers, but others were planning a late spring or summer search with startups or smaller organizations, and those processes have ground to a halt.

For all of them it’s a lot of grappling with the unknown, and a lot of disappointment and fear. Like all of us, there are fears for their loved ones, fears that if they’re in their home country they may not be able to return to the US—the employment fear is just one of many.

What is your advice and counsel?
We're focusing on transferable skills with all students—less about industry, more about function. We’re helping to revamp their resumes to highlight functional skills that translate across industries. All of our students have strong business analytic and project management skills, which are useful in every industry. We're focusing on that transferability, on what they can control and leading with those strengths as they communicate with employers.

Another important message is that where you start is not where you end. This is the first recession these students have been through, so we’re trying to give them a sense of perspective, from what we all have seen before. After 9/11, for example, there were students who wanted to go into banking, and that door was closed for quite a while. To get to where they wanted to be, they might have had to weave their way in through corporate finance, or build up some corporate M&A experience. They found their way, they found their patch of happiness, but it was not what they thought it was going to be.

What skills and experience are your staff drawing upon?
Our coaching staff is extremely experienced and tenured. One of our coaches commented that this was the fourth recession she's helped our students through. They talk a lot about the mental readjustment that has to happen. Those who are able to say, "this is my first job, it doesn’t have to be perfect, I'll do my best and see what happens," usually experience less stress. Those who really have their heart set on a certain role or company have a harder time processing that lack of control and disappointment. We're all having deeper conversations on a lot of levels; telling students that they don't have to do an internship, they still have years of work experience that matters and counts—this is a good time to try something new and experiment, but you also don't have to.

What have been some of the biggest challenges?
Not knowing for sure what’s happening with employers. We can’t say it will be ok, because we don't know that. We have a very good rapport with our partners—they tell us what they know, and we tell them what we know, and right now too many people don't know anything with certainty.

What have been some positive experiences?
It was wonderful to hear from the companies that communicated early, and with conviction, that everything was going forward, and from those who said they were still hiring and wanted more applicants. It’s also been wonderful to have alumni reaching out about opportunities at their organizations, or who want to connect with students. This is the way HBS comes together.

What’s next?
We're in many conversations with alumni about opportunities, and are also creating opportunities for students who want to wait until there’s some sense of settling down to start a search, or for those who don’t want to work remotely. We’re working to connect students with small businesses who need help given the impact of the virus. We’re developing educational skill-based training through the summer, increasing funding available to students to pursue opportunities that won’t be paying much, advising students on how to network in a virtual world, and offering panels with alumni who have been through recessions and 9/11.

How are you and your team staying connected?
We have Zoom huddles three times a week, when we share updates and make time for humor, sharing funny memes or stories. We’ve all been through hard times with students, and our goal is to be there; to provide comfort without taking on their pain. That can be really tough. We’re also being very flexible—we have colleagues with very small children, so some are on and working super early, others super late. We’re being patient with each other and assuming good intent. But I miss everybody!

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