Career Services helps students during the pandemic: ‘We’re all in this together’

The office moves online as students navigate employment during uncertain times

Double doors lead into a waiting area. A large banner to the left reads, "University of Pennsylvania Career Services Established in 1926.
While the office on campus is currently closed, Career Services has shifted to an online platform to better serve Penn students. 

What’s going to happen to my summer internship? Are employers still hiring? If I received a job offer before the pandemic, will it be canceled? These are some of the many questions Penn students ask during the current economic climate.

For help, they turn to Career Services for anything from navigating job boards to reviewing cover letters to conducting mock interviews. The office, which serves approximately 21,000 undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students, has pivoted its resources online to meet students’ needs during this crisis.

“We were well-positioned to move virtually,” says Barbara Hewitt, executive director. “We have lots of online resources and adapted our same-day drop-ins so that students can do that over the phone as well to address quick, last-minute questions.”

Matan Davis, a junior studying classics and minoring in computer science, has been logging in from Los Angeles. “I prefer the online platform, he says. “It’s a lot more accessible. I can request an appointment an hour before if it’s an urgent question or deadline.” Davis has been applying to a wide swath of internships and trying to keep his options open. “Because I’m a classics major, I don’t have a set career path,” he says. His most-coveted opportunity is at Sotheby’s where he applied to intern in the antiquities department. 

Davis worked with Career Services to tailor his resume for the position, set up an informational interview with a Penn alum currently working for the company, and conduct a mock interview. “Over the past few weeks, I’ve been making an appointment almost every day to find out the next steps,” he says.

Career Services has booked more than 800 online appointments, including a significant number of mock interviews, says Claire Klieger, senior associate director. These numbers leave her hopeful. While some industries may rescind offers, new jobs are still being posted. “There are still opportunities out there,” she says. “Students may need to be more flexible at this point.”

The office is also accepting applications on a rolling basis through May 1 for summer funding opportunities for students that might otherwise not be able to fund research opportunities or internships, Klieger says. Because of restrictions, they will not approve projects requiring international travel but will consider applications from students who are currently in the same country where they would like to intern. 

“What’s been difficult is the uncertainty that’s out there right now,” Hewitt says. “A lot of employers are taking a wait-and-see approach.” Employers are primarily concerned about keeping interns safe, in addition to economic fallout, she says. 

Most students are managing this uncertainty fairly well, Hewitt says. Students are adjusting to online classrooms and are appreciative that Career Services is still active and addressing their needs. 

The office has been a “huge help,” says Chad Vigil, a senior from Pueblo, Colorado. Vigil, a biological basis of behavior major in the School of Arts and Sciences, has been planning a gap year before applying to medical school. “Right before COVID hit,” he says, “I was fortunate enough to get an interview at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.” Vigil found the job through Career Services and used the office to conduct a mock interview. 

“When the offer letter came in, I had no idea how to navigate that,” says Vigil, adding that this would be his “first real job that isn’t a work-study position or working at Taco Bell.” Vigil used the online drop-in services to discuss how to evaluate and negotiate the offer letter.

He was uncertain of whether the offer would still stand when the pandemic hit, but the principal investigator, Matthew Jolley, assured Vigil that he would be able to work remotely if necessary. Starting this summer, Vigil will be working with the research team to use computer modeling to reconstruct aortic heart valves in pediatric cases and assist with running clinical trials without using test subjects, thus minimizing risk. “It’s a new, up-and-coming lab that has grown exponentially,” Vigil says. 

“I feel very fortunate,” Vigil says, noting that other graduating seniors do not yet have positions lined up. “I cannot express how happy I was to get this offer, and that’s why I talked to Career Services because I really didn’t want to mess this up.”

For students still in the application process, Hewitt advises patience and flexibility. Doctoral students seeking faculty positions are concerned about their job prospects, as some universities are instituting hiring freezes. Hewitt’s staff works with these candidates to broaden their job search. “We would look at their skill set: research, writing, teaching. We would work with each individual student to see what skills they bring to the table and how these skills could be applied to a variety of career paths.”

She urges students and alumni to think of this time as one for professional development opportunities, adding that Penn offers students free access to LinkedIn Learning, where any completed course can be added to a job candidate’s LinkedIn profile. “This is a chance to pursue something that maybe you didn’t have the opportunity to do before,” Hewitt says.

“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen to the economy,” she says. “The long-term impact is unknown.” She sees growth opportunities in nursing and technology, while acknowledging that “you don’t just learn how to code and then get a job right away; it takes some time to develop.” 

The office is also fielding questions about pass/fail grading options, and how that will be viewed by graduate schools and employers. “For the most part, the employers have said they’ll been understanding,” Klieger says. “They were anticipating being understanding of grade dips this semester. One employer said they are going to view this semester with an asterisk. Another employer doesn’t look at transcripts at all.”

Career Services has been advising students to take time to adjust and be judicious about using the pass/fail option, Hewitt says. “Employers are not expecting a perfect transcript. It’s OK to have a B.

“My piece of advice is that we’re all in this together,” Hewitt says. Some students worry their careers will be stymied if their grades dip or if they can’t land the perfect internship, she says. “But employers are going to get this; graduate schools are going to get this. Everybody’s in the same boat.”