Advice for the Class of 2020 (from the Class of 2008)

Graduating during a recession is scary. As somebody who graduated from college during the financial crisis, I feel your anxiety. Yes, in hindsight, 2008 might be a little better than 2020, but we are not in a competition on who graduate in a worse time.

When I was graduated in 2008, I did not have any job lined up, and news about corporations going under kept surfacing each week, I, too, was nervous and feeling even disillusioned by the promise of a college degree. Why did I spend all the hard work studying while still ended up graduating jobless?

Through this post, I hope to share some of my views and lessons learned in the past 12 years, which hopefully can help you to navigate the similar challenging time.

1) Getting a job should not be seen as an end-all

September of 2008 People were protesting in front of Lehman Brother while hundreds of employees were laid off and walking out of the building

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that not getting a job now does not mean won’t get a job in the future – vice versa, having a job now doesn’t mean you won’t lose it the next day

On a summer evening of 2008, I was walking in Midtown the day after Lehman Brother had declared bankruptcy. I found myself standing on the sidewalk, looking at protesters and news reporters following employees who were just let go as they walked out of the building. It was an emotional and chaotic day.

Who will be next?

It was also memorable to me. While I had been complaining about being unemployed and no one would pay attention to my resume/transcript, there I was, standing in front of hundreds of employees with 10-20 years of professional experiences, who were also out on the market, trying to figure out what to do next.

“Getting a job,” I realized, should not be seen as a destination – not reaching it does not mean a failure. Rather being unemployed, especially during the crisis, speaks more to the country, the economy, than one’s ability and intelligent. I learned that I should not keep feeling defeated, but just had to keep on hustle, as everyone do.

2) Be flexible and patient with your first job, but trust your heart when it’s time to move on

Graduating during a recession could mean underemployment. Similar to my first point, being underemployed now does not mean you will always be underemployed, it just means you are given a mean to build lean capital, slowly, while you look for your next opportunity.

Months after I graduated from college, I landed on a temp job in Jersey as a loan processor. The office was 1.5 – 2 hour away from home, it was a mind-numbing processing job that did not even require a college degree. I made around $30K, with 4 hour commute each day and some days I even had to work till 9pm. I was underemployed, stressed out, and extremely unhappy. But I told myself to commit for at least a year in this job.

Jersey City, 2008

I started to explore ideas of my next step. I thought about going to law school, but the tuition was expensive, I could hardly get by with my salary at that time. After I passed the 18 months mark, I uploaded my resumes to websites like A recruiter contacted me for a client-facing administrator position at a Japanese bank. I was excited for the position and I agreed with the interview right away.

3) Do not underestimate your Liberal Arts degree

Many parents I spoke to want their children to steer clear from liberal art degrees and focus on STEM (e.g. computer science, engineering). I actually think there are upsides of liberal art degrees. and in my case, my liberal art study helped me to land on my second job.

Kyoto, Japan

As an example, I spent a semester study abroad in Japan. I knew I liked to study all things Japan – the history, the cultures, the languages – I even spent my senior year writing a thesis paper about gender inequality in Japan and its effect to its economy. I honestly had no idea what I was going to do with those knowledge.

Two year later, I interviewed for my second job at a Japanese Bank. Even though I did not meet many of the prerequisites of the position, the interview turned out was not about how much I knew about banking. Instead, we talked about my study abroad, my paper – things that I felt passionate about! The interview helped created a rapport with the directors and I was extended with an offer the same week.

4) Do not apply for law school (or graduate programs) simply because you do not know what else to do

Law school and many graduate programs are expensive. As somebody who graduate during a recession, you may be tempted to jump straight back to school to “ride out” the recession, hoping the job market will be better on the other end.

I personally believe it does not makes sense to take out loans to get another degree, simply because you are unemployed/ underemployed after college. If you, however, feel strongly that the graduate program is the logical next step in your life, but not 100% confident about the job prospect of it, I would suggest to look into program that offers financial support that can defray your expenses.

I knew I was interested in studying laws, but I also knew that I did not feel strongly about litigation or even joining a big law after I graduate. Out of all the schools that I got accepted, I eventually decided to pick the law school that offered the most scholarship (covered 70% of my tuition) and a part-time program, so I could continue to work full time. I declined the offers from law schools that ranked higher but required me to take out $150,000 or more in debt. I minimized my debt so that I could bring my net worth back to zero soon after I graduated from law school.

5) Trust that you will connect the dots in the future

“you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.

You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life”

– Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs made a remarkable commencement speech in 2005 at Stanford University that changed my life. Throughout the speech, Jobs made the point that you have to trust your instinct that you know where you are going. Only after you get to a point in your life, you can then connect the dots.

Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech 2005

in 2008, when I was watching Lehman Brother crumbling, I thought the country is going through another Great Depression, and I will be unemployed for a long time.

Flash forward in 2012, I enrolled in law school, the US had passed one of the most aggressive financial reform legislation – the Dodd–Frank Act. My study began to focus on this new law, which eventually led me to be hired by a consulting firm 3 years later to work as regulatory advisor, and help companies to stay compliance with the new law to prevent major government bail out in the future. My career now is largely a by-product of the 2008 recession. In a way, my journey since 2008 has became the connecting dots that Steve Jobs talked about.

I want to say that the crisis and recession we are facing now, will too change the economy and market, and create new opportunities for you in the future. Although we do not yet know what the new opportunities will be, like Jobs said, you just have to trust your instinct and that every steps you will be taking now, will connect in the future. When you look back one day, you will realize that the journey you have been taking now are merely various connecting dots that will all make sense in the future.

To continue quoting from Jobs – “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

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