‘This is Not a Normal Year’: Finding
A Job in Difficult Economic Times

With nearly every sector worldwide affected by the COVID-19 crisis, Kevin Doyle offers advice for students looking to enter the job market at a difficult time and shares advice from alumni who launched their careers a decade ago during another time of economic crisis.
Even during a normal academic year, this would be a very busy time of year for the F&ES Office of Career and Professional Development (CDO). On the one hand, the office helps first-year master’s students land summer jobs and internships that are closely aligned with their academic and career goals. On the other, of course, they help graduating students land their first job out of school.
This, of course, is not a normal year. Over the past two months, as nearly every sector worldwide has been affected by the global pandemic, the CPD team has worked with employers, administrators and faculty to adjust summer requirements in a way that works for students, and helped the nearly 150 graduates of the Class of 2020 jump into the job market during a time of unprecedented challenges.
We chatted with Kevin Doyle, executive director of the CPD, about the enormous changes the office has been able to achieve in just a few weeks, the job prospects for the graduating class, and the reflections he’s heard from F&ES alumni who entered the workforce a decade ago during another time of economic uncertainty.
What does the job market look like for students graduating this month?
Kevin Doyle: Well, let’s state one thing right at the top. The hiring picture is not universally bleak, at all. Right now, I think about “the job market” as the employer market for the 148 amazing students leaving F&ES this month — taking into account the personal and professional aspirations of each one. Many graduating students have accepted — and are receiving — job offers. F&ES grads from the Class of 2020 will soon be working at places like Ernst & Young, Microsoft’s Cloud Ops and Innovation Team, Rheem, Ranger Power, Open Space Institute, McKinsey, One Acre Fund, United Nations Foundation, the NOAA Digital Coast Fellowship Program, and more. Others are in final interviews, and still more have had offers paused, but not rescinded. 
Still, c’mon, one only has to read the news to see that the overall economic conditions are not good, with millions of people unemployed, daily reports of bankruptcies, and a great deal of uncertainty about what comes next.
Since the first case of COVID-19 in the United States in late January, the pandemic had an immediate impact on employer decisions about hiring. There were two that were clear to everyone right away. The first was the need for employers to categorize all work into (a) “essential” activities requiring the creation of safety measures for workers still showing up on job sites; (b) work that could be done remotely through “work from home” arrangements; and (c) projects and programs that needed to be put on indefinite freeze, or cancelled. The second impact has been a more general pause as employers begin to make assessments — “guesses” might be a more accurate word — about the medium and long term impact of the pandemic on their work plans, finances and hiring needs.
Working through these two impacts has taken time, and during that time, most employers — even many healthy, well-funded employers — have hit the pause button.
As the pandemic — and the government response to it — has unfolded over the last 3 ½ months, we’re starting to get some sense about which environmental sectors, industries, geographies, and professions have been hit harder than others. Getting good intel on those differences will be an important job for us going forward. Even within those categories, we’ll want to pay attention to how different employers assess their long-range prospects.
What about the market for summer internships and research projects? How has that been affected, and what is F&ES doing to help?
Doyle: We’re in the middle of this right now, and things are so much better than we might have thought even 6 or 8 weeks ago. As you know, all F&ES master’s students need to have an approved summer experience between their first and second year to graduate. The usual requirement for these summer experiences is that they be 10 to 12 weeks in length, and 30 hours a week. For many students, these internships are fully funded by individual employers, and by marquee programs like the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps. Every year, F&ES provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in supplementary funding to many students to help make challenging summer experiences possible. In a normal year, F&ES students would travel to summer internships and research projects all over the world.
This year, most summer experiences need to be “work from home” projects. Yale-supported travel is not possible. Many employers have eliminated summer programs altogether. Many that are going forward are cutting back total numbers, or offering lower dollar amounts.
I’ve been so proud of the way that everyone at F&ES has responded to this crisis. Here’s what we’ve done:
  • Changed the requirements so that summer experiences can be fewer hours and weeks as long as they meet the academic and professional development goals of the requirement;
  • Worked with employers and programs to persuade them not to cancel summer experiences and to keep using F&ES students;
  • Convinced employers that internships and projects in far-flung locations could be done effectively by students from home;
  • Solicited projects from F&ES alumni and friends — including faculty, centers and programs — with financial support from CPD administered funds;
  • Added over $120,000 to the already large amount of support money for summer experiences.
In the end, every first-year F&ES graduate student will have a funded summer experience of some kind that helps advance their academic and professional goals. While everyone wants to return to normal next summer, we’re exceptionally grateful to all who rallied around to assure that we’ll have a full complement of remarkable F&ES summer experience students in 2020.
What are the most important things that students who are looking for jobs should be doing right 
Doyle: It may sound a bit strange, given just how unprecedented the COVID-19 pandemic is, but “the most important things” now are essentially the same as “the most important things” were before COVID-19. Putting them in bullet points, they might look like this.
  • Get focused. Know what you want, and have a definition of what success looks like. Remember why you wanted to do this work in the first place.
  • Get information. Don’t make any assumptions. Gather intel on the employers, sectors, industries and geographic areas you’re most focused on.
  • Get a network. That means maintaining connection with your current network, and using referrals to deepen and expand it.
  • Get to work. Treat the work of landing a job, like a job.
  • Get help. No one can do the job search alone. Lean on all of us in the F&ES family for support.
  • Be patient. These things take a while, even in the best of times — and these are not the best of times.
  • Don’t depend too much on searching for job postings online. There really is a “hidden” job market.
  • Always have at least one “Plan B.”
The last point is worth a special note. In difficult job markets, having at least one “Plan B” is essential. There are two that are particularly appropriate right now. One, Expand your circle of acceptable employers. This doesn’t mean throwing away your dreams! There are three easy ways you can expand the circle, including:
  • Consider additional employers within your preferred sector (government, nonprofit, corporate, consulting, academic)
  • Consider additional sectors (for instance, add private-sector employers if you have been focused only on the public/NGO side of things – or vice versa)
  • Consider additional geographies (your best job possibility may be in a city, state or country you haven’t thought about yet)
Also, promote yourself for contact work — ideally with a contract-to-permanent expectation.

During this very uncertain time, many employers have work that needs to get done — and professional-level money to support that work — but they do not have approval from senior management to hire new full-time people with related salaries, benefits, and expectations of career trajectories. As a work around aimed at both recruiting talent, and getting work done, many are turning to employing contractors — either independent sole proprietors or small and large firms they have traditionally turned to. If your intel turns up this strategy being used by your expanded circle of preferred employers, jump in.
The Office of Career and Professional Development recently brought in some alumni who entered the workforce during the recession of a decade ago. What kind of advice did they offer?
Doyle: We put out a call to YSE alums who graduated into the great recession of 2008-2009 on AlumniFire and elsewhere, and were happy with the response. In the end, we organized a Zoom panel of five alumni from those classes. They are living proof that you can start in hard times and come out just fine.
I was struck by how generally optimistic the alumni were about environmental hiring, even in the short and medium term; and how closely aligned their advice to the classes of 2020 and 2021 was to the strategies we focus on at the Office of Career and Professional Development. They were in agreement that getting through the current moment would require at least three things:
  1. Play the long game. Where you start doesn’t have to determine where you finish, or even your next step.
  2. Be a bit more flexible and open to new opportunities. As an example, several on the panel said that they hadn’t really considered a federal government career when they graduated, but applied anyway, and…well, the rest is history.
  3. Work it like a job, and keep applying. Couldn’t agree more!
PUBLISHED: May 8, 2020
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.