A Guide to Surviving the Recession for New Grads

So, you did everything right….passed all the classes…made the right decisions, but nonetheless, coronavirus had other plans for your life post-graduation. I know the feeling. It wasn't too long ago that I was in your shoes during the 2009 financial crisis. Back then, it really seemed like recent grads were screwed – and yes, we really were screwed.

After six months and 500 resumes, I finally got two entry level finance job offers on the same day. The first job paid $36,000 with no benefits and the second paid $32,000 – I was thrilled. Since then, I've worked in investment banking, equity research, and now live very comfortably with an easy 40-hour work week corporate role…..I guess something worked out. Enough about me, let's jump into my 7 item to-do list for a prolonged recession:

1. Get Humble Quick

If you're only willing to apply to positions that you really want, you won't be applying for much. Of my 500 applied positions, maybe 20 actually fit what I wanted to do after leaving college (IB and ER). Whether it was bank teller positions, cash box positions, mortgage processing clerk positions, or back office operations, I applied to anything related to my degree. A lot of people on this website scoff at the back office. Trust me. After being unemployed for 4 months, you're going to shit your pants with excitement when JPM or Citi call with a back office position – I sure did. The quicker you start applying everywhere; the quicker you will get responses.

2. Don't Get Depressed. This Is Only a Career Sidetrack

You're going have to work a worse job than originally planned. That's basically it for 99% of people in your shoes. If you don't get that first great job out the door, don't worry. Your career is just sidetracked for a few years. It's not over. You've been dealt a bad hand. For reasons out of your control, you didn't make the varsity team this year. Don't worry and don't get depressed. Instead, get tough. There is next year and the year after that too.

3. Plan Resumes and Cover Letters for the Long Term

When you're first applying, there is a tendency to rush and send the same resume and cover letter to everyone. Fight that urge. This is a marathon. If there is an operations position open, tailor your resume and cover letter to that position. Spend half the day if necessary getting the cover letter right. Save it under a folder titled "Operations". Repeat for every job title. Before you know it, you will have 20 folders with custom-tailored cover letters for whatever position comes up. If the cover letter takes 4 hours to perfect, consider that you may be using the same one 20 more times before this is all over. The early investment of time is worth it in the long run.

4. Don't Shun Corporate Websites

On the same topic, take time early on to fill out the really boring corporate websites that ask a million questions and take almost two hours to fill out (I'm looking at you BB banks!) Yes, they feel horribly impersonal. Yes, you feel like your resume will never be seen by a human being, and yes you're probably right most of the time. However, I got maybe 25% of my interviews from these corporate websites. Also, think long-term again. Some of these sites may have 10 worthwhile positions over the next six months. Put up with it once, and from then on, it's as easy as clicking a mouse.

5. Use Your Time Wisely

At the end of the day, you will have more free time than open positions. I used my free time to volunteer at a homeless shelter about three times a week. I met a few amazing homeless people that I still think about today….and about a million others who were complete scumbags. Personally, it was a very character formative experience. In addition, it gave me something to put on my resume. Look, if a job is between a kid distributing food during covid and one who stayed home playing Xbox, I'm giving the volunteer kid a job, all other things equal. Also, working at the charity, I met the head of HR for a large asset manager and got an interview there. So you never know how this will expand your network. Toward the end of my six months of unemployment, the charity had given me a higher level of responsibility and were even considering a position for me. I was never trying to play those angles, but I was pleasantly surprised by the career benefits of volunteering as well.

On that topic, also use your free time to get in shape. It's a recession. You'll be lucky to land a job, and when you do, your employer will work you like a dog for no money. Exercise now while you can. I lost 10 lbs while unemployed but in hindsight wish that I had done even more.

One caveat to using your time wisely is attending graduate school. I know a lot of people who continued on to grad school to avoid the recession. I'm not saying that's a terrible idea, but I personally don't know of almost anyone with a great career who did that. In my opinion, the value of a graduate degree comes from a combination of experience and the additional book knowledge. One without the other is not that useful. I worked for over a year and then got into a graduate program part-time while continuing to work full-time. After graduating and passing CFA level one, I then made a jump to my first investment banking analyst job.

6. Stay Persistent

This is a really tricky one. I sent 500 resumes. Everything in my gut told me to quit after the first 200 resumes. I kept going. I felt like an idiot after 300 resumes and plenty of interview rejections. I still kept going. After 400, it really seemed hopeless, but I kept at it. I say this is tricky because at some point, you probably should quit and change paths. However, at the same time, it seems that great career breakthroughs only happen long after you've lost hope, yet you continue trying anyway. In fact, I'd say that this is one of the reasons that there are so few financially successful people. You almost have to be irrational. The rational person quits and goes on with an average life. I can't blame them – they made the rational decision! People like me are the weirdos who don't understand "no".

7. Don't Trust Advice Too Much – Forge Your Own Path

I wrote this to help out kids who might be stuck in a prolonged recession much like I was during the financial crisis. However, covid-19 is different. In many ways, I think it's worse. That means that you'll have to adapt and play some things by ear. My playbook worked for the last recession which was the worst since the Great Depression, but today is not the same. You'll probably get a lot of bad advice - I definitely got it from Baby Boomers back then (side note: anyone who thinks the 1991 recession was terrible does not need to give you advice. I would have prayed every day and night to graduate in 1991). Your parents and elders are going to be pretty clueless as to your experience. Just realize that and move on. Feel free to ignore bad advice regardless of who it's coming from.

Well, that about wraps it up. I know things seem bad now, but your future is bright if you play your cards right. The U.S. is still one of the greatest countries in the world to do business and will be after the coronavirus as well. Things might be tougher than for the past generation, but this is still a place of opportunity. Don't let adversity swallow you up. If you give up, Bernie might get a few more votes in 2024….but seriously, don't quit and don't vote Bernie.

When you get out of this mess, you're going to be stronger and tougher than your elders and younger peers. People have been talking a lot of crap about Gen Z. After this, you'll be the one talking down to Gen X and Baby Boomers about how easy they had it. Stay strong and get to networking and sending those resumes.

Comments (35)

Most Helpful
May 16, 2020 - 11:28pm
Shaynepunim, what's your opinion? Comment below:

"It seems that great career breakthroughs only happen long after you've lost hope, yet you continue trying anyway." "You almost have to be irrational. The rational person quits and goes on with an average life." " People like me are the weirdos who don't understand "no"." "Don't Trust Advice Too Much - Forge Your Own Path"

YESSSSSS. Genius post!

This is SO DEAD ON CORRECT I had to repeat and bold it. I won't bore anyone with the details, but I resemble this response. It seems like things finally turn when you really are nearly a zombie from disappointments. Stay the course, because that's exactly when thing hit. Many of my professional turns were "impossibilities." I wasn't irrational, I was naive, which was perfect! You know how little kids sometimes turn out this friggin amazing artwork, and you're like holy s---...it's because they don't even know that they're not supposed to be able to do that.
You're often limited only by what limitations you put in your mind. And things go in phases, and steps. It might not be perfect right off the bat. But determination works.

May 17, 2020 - 10:56am
rocketblaster, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I've just joined this platform and I couldn't agree more, there's always a beginning in everything (this being my first post here). Although I'm not working in the financial field, I recall sending out more fifty applications before getting an interview.

My two cents would be: (1) be consistent with your endeavours by setting realistic goals, perhaps preparing and sending out one cover letter & resume to a targeted firm a week. Simply put, the higher the number of applications, the higher the number of possible interviews. Visualization might also help, having thirty paperclips on the left side, each resembling one email you aim to send out and you put them to another pile when you're done. Those above me already mentioned the necessity of being humble and to echo that I would say to cast as wide a net as you possibly. The worst outcome might simply be that you receive offers which below your expectations, but again, these are unprecedented times. And by casting as wide a net, we avoid succumbing to an sound premise, even though it may be a wrong premise, i.e. a mistaken belief that your existing skillset don't meet the prerequisites hence you opt not to apply altogether. (2) time goes by very fast and you won't likely regret using it to learn more whenever you can. Learning is always a lifelong pursuit, there certainly is a range of online courses to supplement your knowledge, like udemy and coursera. A few years ago I had a gap period of several months after my undergraduate studies before my place at postgraduate studies was confirmed. Had I fully grasped how occupied I would be after being employed in a full-time position, I would certainly have made greater use of that gap period to fost a side interest of mine, which includes finance. (3) occasionally planning too much and striving to be a perfectionist may cause you to miss opportunities. This is not to say to adopt a "you only live once" mentality and to simply execute tasks without checking but thinking too much may inevitably lead you to question yourself. I do recall completing an application for a summer internship position many years ago but eventually didn't submit it in the fear that I would have to resit one of my exams in the same summer. This never in fact materialized and is an example of cost of overthinking. (4) spend some time everyday, say the time during breakfast, to recall the many things you are grateful for, the journey you have travelled up to now, the positive experiences you have enjoyed, which helps set the tone for the day and it would be difficult thereafter for you to question yourself on whether you have the ability to continue to power through. Grit matters most.

  • Associate 2 in CorpDev
May 17, 2020 - 11:07am

Thanks OP very good thread - curious about life after IB / ER for you, what corporate role did you end up with and how does pay for a 40-hour week compare with finance?

May 18, 2020 - 1:23pm
NoEquityResearch, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Wish I could say more, but my path has been a little unique. Even mentioning that I did banking + equity research, I'm within a small group of possible people. If I said any more about my roles on the corporate side, you could probably narrow me down to 1 of 3 people.

Comp is over $200K in a low cost of living area (with great benefits on top of that). Also, feel that there is more upside potential. The downside of some corporate roles can be plateauing on comp and promotions but feels like there is space to move higher.

May 18, 2020 - 9:40am
Secyh62, what's your opinion? Comment below:

This is a great post that I'm sure a lot of people need right now graduating into this absolute nonsense. Key takeaway that I would reiterate from my own experience is that it is a numbers game and you have to be thoughtfully persistent. One idea that has really helped to shape my own life is that you can only worry about the things that you can control. You have no control over a global pandemic, how many jobs are posted right now, what recruiters are looking for, all you can do is put the puck on net. You can't score if you don't put the puck on net, and you never know, sometimes you get a good bounce that you never would have or could have expected. Remember they don't ask how, just how many. A lot of people get in their own head and get this 'this is hopeless' attitude and they psych themselves out from even taking a shot. They start to think that all the time spent writing cover letters, filling out apps, sending out cold emails, linkedin messages, is all a waste of time. Well I can guarantee you that if you aren't putting pucks on net, you will never score, that is your only certainty. Keep grinding, every 'no' you get is one no closer to a yes. Statistically, you need a certain amount of no's so keep pushing through. Worry about what you can control, put in the work and you will get results.

May 18, 2020 - 1:39pm
NoEquityResearch, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Thanks glad you enjoyed the post, and you're definitely right about attitude and psychology. I mentioned Bernie Sanders up there to be funny, but the comment is also based on a real phenomenon with attitude that I witnessed during the recession....a lot of my friends really gave it a good shot at first and sent a 100 or 200 resumes. Then, they just gave up. They started having an attitude of "it's hopeless. the system is rigged, etc."

The sad thing is that this psychology and attitude lasted much longer than the recession. Even when the job market got way better, lots of my friends didn't start applying to positions again. They had basically just given up.

In this last election, Bernie Sanders got a ton of votes. I'm not surprised. I know exactly who those voters were. To defend their self-esteem, a lot of people convinced themselves that everything is rigged. But as you note, whether it's rigged or fair or unfair doesn't matter, All you can do about it is get out of bed every day and keep trying.

May 18, 2020 - 10:06am
KOL A, what's your opinion? Comment below:

How should individuals reconcile the importance of being humble and taking less than ideal job opportunities (back-office and middle-office) during an economic crisis with the adage that returning to banking from a back-office or middle-office role becomes increasingly difficult given one's new "brand"?

No intent to argue. Just curious to hear your thoughts.

  • 2
May 18, 2020 - 11:02am
bcrew13, what's your opinion? Comment below:

This is what I'm wondering. I get it's more important to have a job if you're unemployed, but in terms of actually getting to IB is almost impossible if you are coming from non-target and your first position is in BO. Not impossible, but very hard.

Im in an MBA program, and if I take a job BO with the intent of making it into FO, it'd be almost impossible, and by the time this is 100% over, it may be that the next class is recruiting and would be taking my place.

Jun 3, 2020 - 9:36pm
jarstar1, what's your opinion? Comment below:

I don't know about banking, but I'm finishing my MBA trying to get into real estate and my offer fell through because of Covid. I came from construction before school and asked my network if I was forced to return to it if it would hamper my potential to get into development later on (getting pigeonholed as "the construction guy" can happen very quickly). Most of them said not at all, most people would recognized how Covid destroyed so many opportunities and taking the time to sharpen skills that would help in duture roles would be seen as a plus. IB is such a different recruiting type though (basically polar opposite of RE) I get how this advice might be totally moot.

May 18, 2020 - 11:40am
NoEquityResearch, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Yes, it's very difficult. However, that said, it was actually harder to get that first job in 2009 than it was jumping to banking several years later.

As I noted above, I worked for several years while also finishing a graduate degree. Only in 2013 was I able to switch to IB. It's just a bad situation that will sidetrack your career for a few years. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to fixing that. You just gotta keep rolling with the punches until you wind up on top.

However, on the upside, coming out of the recession, things started looking up. By 2012, companies had real problems finding young people with ~3 years of experience. If you had done anything in a professional finance setting, you were much more valuable than you might otherwise be in a better market. In recessions and afterward, companies become shellshocked. They don't like taking chances on people with a high GPA and a blank resume. So, if you've done real work for a couple of years, you are suddenly pretty valuable in a post-recession environment. I think that definitely helped with the move to banking.

May 18, 2020 - 11:53am
KOL A, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Follow-up. Do you think pursuit of a part-time graduate degree hurt your odds at breaking back into investment banking? I know that firms typically favor full-time candidates from a select grouping of institutions.

May 18, 2020 - 10:36am
Camondo, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Very good post and lots of very helpful advice, in particular around the necessity to become pragmatic extremely quickly. If that's of interest, you can also have a look at the post I published at the beginning of the COVID pandemic on how to best navigate a recession based on my experience in 2008-09.

One point I disagree with is around trusting other people's advice. More than ten years later, I still very vividly remember the overwhelming amount of stress I had to deal with as I was desperately looking for an internship and full time role in one of the worst financial recessions ever. Unfortunately, people around me did not come from this industry so I had to rely on my judgement. Looking back, lots of alumni and platforms such as WSO were already offering lots of incredibly helpful advice and testimonies. Don't panic, it's genuinely pointless, but if you have questions ask them (even if sometimes they may sound stupid)! Don't procrastinate and act as quickly and diligently as possible. If you are lucky enough to know people in the industry, approach them and kindly ask for a call and a bit of their time.

That being said, the OP is right on one particular point: don't trust the so called best friends who are also looking for the same role(s) and are trying to put you down.

If you have questions, I am happy to answer them here or privately.

Hope this helps. Camondo

  • 6
May 18, 2020 - 7:01pm
earthwalker7, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Two bits of advice I keep repeating on WSO in the decade since I joined: 1) save your money - just because you're feasting today, doesn't mean you're not starving tomorrow. Don't buy stupid shit. Downturns are inevitable. That fancy watch won't help you if you are put to having to either take a back office job somewhere depressing, vs. holding out for something better.

2) Have a side hustle

You are a platform for your career. Your money is your fuel. You need long runway so you can take the time to make smart career-advancing decisions. Downturns happen, without exception. Freedom is the only thing worth buying. That watch / fancy car won't get you more than fleeting happiness. Freedom is true joy.

May 19, 2020 - 4:23am
chromeg, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Will hiring for summer 2021 IB interns be down significantly? I've been told that analysts are pretty cheap and only associate VPs and lagging MDs get cut

  • Intern in IB-M&A
May 19, 2020 - 5:46am

Would love to know more about your experiences in IB vs ER, which did you prefer and in hindsight is there one which you would have rather spent your whole career doing rather than splitting time between the two?

May 19, 2020 - 8:40am
NoEquityResearch, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Funny that you ask as I've written three full length posts on the matter. See links below:

Worlife Balance ER vs IB


Exit-Ops ER vs IB


Career Ladder ER vs IB


May 22, 2020 - 2:57pm
BrokerJoker, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Great post... Another 2008/09 grad here and, it fucking sucked. Couple of things I'd add: 1. Expect to get a shit job during a recession. Believe it or not, this will better position you to take off when the market turns; 2. Stay busy, no matter what. Volenteer, join clubs, start a business - do whatever you have to to stay busy; 3. You will get tons of shit advice from people who never had to experience what you are going through. Expect to get useless advice however, DO NOT STOP ASKING. Sometimes you get an once of gold; 4. Do not go back to school for a MBA/Masters. I witnessed tons of classmates do this and they are well behind in their careers and, more in debt compared to people who didn't. The value you get from an MBA is learning new ways to address business issues from prior work experiences. I would though recomend training / seminar format stuff like Wall street prep/breaking into wall st. 5. Leverage the fact that a lot of the hiring managers / decision makers did graduate in 2008/09.. This is a huge benefit. I can easily relate to people in this situation because I went through it. We witnessed the financial system collapes from the inside out... In all, good luck and dont give up.

  • Analyst 1 in AM - Equities
May 28, 2020 - 12:03am

I'm glad you brought up point number one. I've been getting a lot of questions from mentees about opportunities to pursue/accept and I am not quite sure how to answer them.

For example, I'd love to hear your thoughts about jobs with low pay, little exit opps, but a good opportunity to network and the like vs passing and keep looking for something "better" in this job market. Basically, where would you draw the line in terms of "shit jobs"?

May 22, 2020 - 10:32pm
eatmybananas, what's your opinion? Comment below:
I lived this life too and did 6 years in a job that I didn't want to be at.

Lamar Jackson is known for wearing a shirt that says "Nobody cares, work harder"

That's the best advice I can give as we all sometimes need to be reminded.

Amen brother. Life is fair because it is equally unfair to everyone. Just set your sights on what you want and get after it, no excuses.

May 27, 2020 - 10:51pm
IndigoTaurus, what's your opinion? Comment below:

Its been a while since ive been on here. Im glad I decided to come back and read this post. I am a recent grad and I was beginning to feel lost (even a little depressed). Ive been sending my resume everywhere and anywhere, but I havent had much luck. This post actually helped me a lot and gave me hope.

Nov 13, 2020 - 7:09pm
Carlos1111, what's your opinion? Comment below:

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Nov 26, 2020 - 12:01pm
Amtexe, what's your opinion? Comment below:

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