Ilana Greene and Nicholas Olds
I still remember the moment when I looked at my schedule and thought, “Wow, I have no projects this month.” I started my career as a freelance writer and journalist after receiving my Master’s degree from Harvard Business. My workload eventually became more frequent, but in my first year, I was not only having difficulty finding work, but companies that traditionally paid well were no longer compensating the way they had been. As one of my mentors, Julian Herbstein, a Harvard graduate and the chief executive of International Capital Group, put it: "Lots of people say they want to start a company but very few do. Why? Fear plus opportunity cost." In my case, I was still trying to figure out my opportunity cost.
For one thing, graduate school had not prepared me for negotiating compensation. So in response to being underpaid initially, I cut my expenses and tightened my belt financially because I did not want to lose the opportunities I had. Eventually though, cost-cutting only took me so far before I had to look into rejoining the workforce, and possibly a return to investment banking. However, there were few jobs available in my new field in marketing or writing- even the investment banking jobs were few and far between.
Therefore, because I was on my own after graduate school, I could not live on anything less than what I made. So I began to research other industries and employment sectors by reaching out to my mentors to find a job, and potentially a career, that I could be passionate about and apply my skills and experience. I remembered that I had always been interested in government, and had several friends and family that worked for the city of Chicago and related positions in the government. Ultimately, I wondered, what if I pursued a career in public service?
I began my research by speaking with Frank Rosenkranz, a research scholar whom I had met at Harvard Law School. "I think public service jobs usually win during recessions and other times of uncertainty." He informed me that according to a Harvard Crimson survey in 2010, just under two-thirds of graduating seniors had found a job. Therefore, these graduates began pursuing public-service jobs because of their stability. Frank then showed me a statistic that began to make me think more seriously about a government job: 7% of Harvard Business School graduates worked in the government in 2009. Admittedly, this was not a particularly alarming number until he told me to consider that only 24% of graduates worked in finance in 2010, compared to 41% only two years earlier.
Supporting Frank’s point was Elena Dzhurova, a master of law candidate at Harvard Law School that I had met through a mutual friend. "I personally don't believe there will be a tremendous shift from corporate towards public in the long run. I think in the long run most graduates will opt for sectors that offer more opportunities and higher salaries." However, Elena offered a caveat to my pursuit- government jobs are dependent on funding, which leaves them open to budget cuts. She stated that this has been a particularly growing concern as more and more municipal governments declare bankruptcy. So for any government or public service job I pursue, it is necessary to account for the location because a metropolitan city like Chicago will have more opportunities and stability than a suburban town.
Even if my potential shift to public service and government jobs is not permanent, Elena stressed that I should adjust my compensation expectations and become more conservative with my money. In the toughest of economic circumstances, she emphasized that I should seriously re-consider making large purchases until I have financial stability for a significant amount of time.
This is obvious advice, but it holds more weight because of her background. When Elena was a child, her parents would take her on Sunday drives through the impoverished sections of her city to give her perspective on how lucky she was to be comfortable. However, this lesson became invaluable when her financially well-off parents lost all of their wealth in the stock market crash. “I really got the picture, and when I went back to the bad part of town, I really understood."
Elena’s story resonates with me because it is a reminder of the risks involved in entrepreneurship. As Frank Rosenkranz told me, there is also a certain amount of risk being a Harvard graduate aspiring to be an entrepreneur: "Coming from Harvard, you don’t think about potential recessions. You think about fame, money or doing the right thing. A significant long-term change would need a significant change in these views and attitudes.” His advice is practical because he reminded me that regardless of whether I pursue a career as an entrepreneur or head into a more stable career in government or public service, the only certainty in life is uncertainty.
Inspired by their stories and insight, I began working harder. This started with two extra hours per day to solicit new projects. Then, when a colleague suggested I get create my own writing vehicle because there was a market for independent financial reporting, my plan came together. Eventually, I acquired more projects from the exposure I gained from my website. But the fear and anxiety was always there: what if the work stopped coming in?
However, the work kept coming in. And it began to appear on various websites and magazines, and these articles began to be syndicated in other publications. Now, a few years later, I negotiate my compensation at a fair rate, enabling me to loosen my belt financially to form a comfortable salary. So although I do not know what the future holds for my career, as long as the work is satisfying, my quality of life will be much better than it was before.
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