The Crisis Job Search Playbook: Advice on Career Management in a Recession

Members of the Classes of 2008 and 2009 share what they learned from looking for a job in the wake of the Great Recession.

June 05, 2020


Two women talking in a classroom of other students. Credit: Elena Zhukova

The Class of ’09 developed a special kind of resilience and confidence that has served them well going forward. | Elena Zhukova

There are certain words that keep resurfacing to describe the current moment: difficult, unpredictable, unprecedented.

And yet, the Stanford GSB Class of 2020 can take comfort in knowing that in some ways this economic situation is not entirely unprecedented. The MBA and MSx classes of 2009 found themselves in similar circumstances as they approached the workforce following the 2008 financial crisis. They recall emotional reactions that parallel those of students today — “surprised,” “frustrated,” “helpless,” “anxious” — but agree that the experience gave them a special kind of resilience that helped fuel their future success. In a panel hosted by Stanford GSB’s Career Management Center, alumni from the MBA classes of ’08 and ’09 shared their learnings from their post-Stanford GSB job searches. Here’s their advice:

Have a Long-Term Plan, But Be Flexible About How You Get There

Even though it might feel difficult to plan during a crisis, keep your long-term goal in mind. For Katie Enna Hobson, MBA ’09, this goal — what she called her “North Star” — was becoming an arts executive. In the short term, however, she knew that she needed to be “open to different pathways” and search for roles in business development to gain more functional experience.

Natalie Guillen, MBA ’09, initially wanted to do strategic planning at a fintech startup, but shifted her search to focus on larger companies. “Startups were having funding problems, so I was looking at more established companies because of the recession.” She eventually landed a job at PayPal, where she gained important experience in strategic planning. Later, she pivoted to executive coaching and now runs her own business, Advant Coaching.

Mike Silva, MBA ’09, remembers how he “felt pressure to get a job — any job,” and that the search felt like a frenzied race. In retrospect, he feels that was the wrong approach. “Continue to think critically about where you want to be and why. It’s tough to do, especially in times like these, but you have to trust that the dots will eventually connect.” Silva started out post-Stanford GSB at a boutique bank, but has since moved into private equity.

Even if you need to adjust your plans in the short term, keep in mind that most career paths aren’t linear, Hobson advises. “When you’re graduating from the GSB, you’ve gone to college, you’ve probably had a good job, and then business school was the next thing on this linear path, and you assume that life is sort of linear — that it’s obvious what is going to happen next,” she says. Hobson’s realized since that there’s something to be learned from every twist and turn, and these learnings can propel you forward to your ultimate goal in unexpected ways.

Lean on the Alumni Network

“I’ve never applied for a job through a company’s careers page,” says Eli Staykova, MBA ’08. “I’ve been connected to all of my job opportunities through the Stanford alumni network.” This was especially key when she made an industry shift from banking to tech. Keep in mind that alums are usually very willing to help students if they can. “I would say I had an 80% response rate,” Guillen says. “That’s amazing.”

Hobson started out by building a list of companies with relevant job postings and identified alumni contacts at each of those companies. She then prioritized the list and began outreach for informational interviews. Hobson categorized informational interviews three ways: purely informational, in parallel with a job application, and outreach that could lead to project-based work.

All of the job offers that Hobson received post-grad, she says, were tied to outreach in parallel with an application. She found that connecting with alumni who were working at the companies she was interested in was a huge asset in that process. “Their advocacy really helped, not only in terms of interview prep, but in terms of calling the hiring managers and pitching me on my behalf.”

If outreach doesn’t result in an interview or project, don’t discount the intrinsic value of cultivating those relationships. “Even though I didn’t end up getting a job very quickly, I developed a network that has served me for the last 10-plus years in an incredible way,” says Jake Kraft, MBA ’09. Kraft spent over a year searching for a job in real estate, but was able to sustain himself and continue building experience by taking on consulting projects. In the end, these efforts propelled these alumni toward their long-term goals. Kraft has continued to rely on the Stanford GSB network he built, he says, for market knowledge, advice, and help in subsequent job searches. “Alums have been extremely generous with their wisdom and contacts, which has made a huge difference in my career.”

Secure Independent Projects

Hobson says that one of her biggest takeaways from Stanford GSB culture was the ability to be inventive in the face of challenges: “If you don’t see a pathway, create your own.” As the job market fell to pieces around her, she began to seek out independent projects that would help her build experience that aligned with her long-term objectives.

You have a gift right now that you’re a cohort going through this difficult period together.
Natalie Guillen, MBA '09

After participating in a number of networking meetings that didn’t lead to job offers — Kraft estimates anywhere from 100 to 150 — he shifted his strategy, proposing real estate consulting services instead of applying for full-time positions. “I knew that even though people weren’t confident enough to put someone on the payroll, the buildings were all still there and needed to be managed,” he says. “It was a lower bar for companies to bring in someone on an hourly basis.” Doing this type of work sustained him until he was able to land a job at a real estate firm in mid-2010, which then served as a stepping stone to cofounding his own real estate investment firm.

In securing project-based work, both Kraft and Hobson agree that you should avoid working for free, if possible. “I think it is really important to position yourself for success in any kind of professional commitment,” Kraft says. “If you are hired for free, your success may not be perceived as important to the organization, and as a result you may not receive the attention and resources that you need to make an impact.” If you do find yourself with an unpaid gig, however, make sure that the project will help advance your goals and put a time limit on it. “You can say, ‘I’ll do this for a month [or] I’ll do 40 hours for you, and then can we come to a place where we can figure out if I’m adding enough value and can get paid going forward?’” Kraft advises.

Look After Yourself

“Cultivate a level of self-awareness about how all this is impacting your confidence and your perception of yourself,” Kraft advises. “Look for your self-worth elsewhere besides how fast you’re getting a job and how much you’re getting paid.” It’s also important to keep in mind that any global crisis isn’t going to affect all industries in the same way, the alumni agreed, so everyone’s post-grad journey will look different.

Focusing solely on the job search can be draining, so make sure to carve out time for the things that bring you comfort and joy. Kraft stresses the importance of having other activities, like “volunteer work you really enjoy or physical exercise goals or a hobby like music,” that allow you to feel “like you’re moving forward and having an impact.” Staykova agrees, adding that “you can actually control more things than you think,” such as “your attitude, your diet, the relationships you build, the companies you apply to.” Reframing how you think about how you spend your time and the level of personal control you have are all useful starting points for responding to the crisis in a healthy way.

Find the Silver Linings

Looking back, some ’09 alumni contend that they actually graduated at a great time. “I don’t think any of us were particularly excited about the future, but now with the benefit of hindsight, you could make the argument that we came out at a wonderful time,” says Silva. “There’s never been faster growth, especially if you wanted to work in tech.”

In responding to the uncertainty of their postgrad moment, the Class of ’09 developed a degree of resilience and confidence that has served them well going forward. “Nobody tells a Stanford JD/MBA that it’ll take you 14 months to find a job, so at first that was very difficult,” Kraft recalls. “But over the years, I discovered a reservoir of resilience and self-reliance that allowed me to go out and be an entrepreneur, and that’s worked out quite well.” Hobson says that the period following graduation in 2009 taught her how to handle ambiguity and let go of things beyond her control. “It really helped me compartmentalize what I can control versus what I can’t, and as a leader in an organization, that’s really important.” It’s a skill that Hobson uses now as vice president of strategy and development at One River School of Design — a role that she designated as her “North Star” years prior.

Regardless of individual circumstances or objectives, members of the Class of 2020 have one another as sources of encouragement and strength. Kraft remembers how much his Stanford GSB peers meant as he navigated his postgrad landscape: “In ’09, going it alone without that solidarity and support would’ve been much more difficult.” Guillen agrees, noting, “You have a gift right now that you’re a cohort going through this difficult period together.”


The Art of the Cold Call: Explore a Lot and Be Specific



In a panel hosted by Stanford GSB’s Career Management Center, alumni from the MBA classes of ’08 and ’09 shared their learnings from their post-Stanford GSB job searches. Here’s their advice on cold-calling when it comes to networking.

Being a student or a new grad puts you in an ideal position for cold-calling. “You can meet with people in a non-threatening way that is much more difficult once you have a job and people are trying to figure out what you’re angling for,” says Katie Hobson, MBA ’09.

In an initial outreach email, it’s important to be considerate of the recipient’s time. “My philosophy was always to be short, to acknowledge that they were busy and had other things going on, and to ask for a few minutes of their time for their guidance,” says Jake Kraft, MBA ’09. Hobson would always start by asking for only 15 minutes of their time. And of course, “if you say it’s going to be a 15-minute call … keep it to 15 minutes, or be mindful of time checks.”

In any kind of outreach, specificity is key. If you’re looking for career advice, don’t be general; prepare specific questions that are relevant to that person’s expertise or field. Some targeted questions could include:

  • What companies are you aware of that are growing right now?
  • Who are the people who are especially well connected in the area that I’m interested in?
  • What’s the best way to frame my experience to get hired for my target role?

If you’re pitching yourself to someone who works at a company that’s hiring for a role you’re interested in, be able to articulate the specific value and expertise you bring. Hobson describes her initial strategy as “get my foot in the door, be enthusiastic, know a bit about their company, and say that I’m willing to do anything.” She was quickly advised to narrow her focus, as her lack of specificity meant that people would be less likely to remember her in the future. People don’t want a “jack-of-all-trades,” says Mike Silva, MBA ’09. “They want someone who is specific and committed,” and who says, “I understand the role that your company is playing and the role that you’re trying to fill. Let me tie it to my experience.”

— Jenna Garden

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