Looking for Work in Times of Terror
I finished SIPA at the worst possible time. A financial crisis has already started in March, and by the time we got our diplomas at the end of May, no one was hiring. This was particularly true in the financial sector. So my financial situation was clear. Loan payments could not wait past the New Year. I quickly learned firsthand the term “hiring freeze” and started my job search with shattered optimism.
Every morning from 7 am until noon I would send out job applications. After that I would go to a job acquired through the student service. It consisted of archiving paperwork for a foundation. The job was so boring it was quite a relief to discover the foundation’s chaotic basement. I would release all negative energy accumulated while sending futile job applications by rearranging huge pieces of furniture and dusty boxes.
A few days and a hundred applications later, I got an interview with a Swedish SIPA graduate, a senior manager at Solomon Smith and Barney. I put on my only suit and tie, ready to tell a story about Bosnia, war, obstacles, motivation, desire to learn, and the fact that it would be a great cosmic injustice if she does not help me.
The interview lasted for about 30 seconds. She stormed into the office and immediately asked what I wanted. I was stunned. “Uhm, a job?” Well, I had to know exactly what job, in which department, why I fit the position etc. I had no idea. How is it possible that she was not interested in some Balkan war that had ended only five years earlier? I did not get to tell the usual “Had to burn my sneakers in a stove so mom could cook lunch” episode. She did not care. Realizing how unprepared I was, she took a post-it and wrote Killer Interviews. “Here’s a book. See you!” And she was gone.
I introduced another step to my daily routine. In addition to sending applications and cleaning the basement, I would practice interviews, as instructed by the cold Swede’s book.
Days passed. August was well underway when I saw an ad at the SIPA career services site. Merrill Lynch needed a fixed income fund analyst! It was a sign from heaven! During my time at SIPA, I conducted five interviews at various departments, unsuccessfully trying to get my foot in the door. I got a sixth chance now.
I killed that interview. Also had to write an essay on the spot. “Should Argentina use fiscal stimulus or restraint to avoid bankruptcy?” I elaborated on the futility of any attempt at frugality in the nation that spends seven times more on beauty cosmetics products per capita than the rest of the developed world.
My future boss with an Italian name said he would hire me, but, because of the hiring freeze, he did not have permission to give me a full-time position. We would start part-time until the time was right. I agreed, wide-eyed and amazed. I did not inquire about the salary. Who cares about salary? I got into Merrill Lynch! In the season of mass financial sector layoffs, not only do I find a job, but I get into a fortress I had been circling for two full years! To mark the occasion, I spent the following night with a group of students from the former Soviet Union countries. These guys do not need a strong reason to waste a bottle or two of Russian Standard, the best vodka at the Brighton Beach liquor store.
So the waiting began. More days passed, but no call from the Italian. I would call only to have him patiently explain how the payroll officer was on vacation.
I finished my archiving work and took an unpaid internship at Eurasia Group, a political consultancy. Twice a week I would do political and economic research, a much better use of time than sitting at my dorm and lamenting how broke I was.
Eurasia employed about fifteen people, many of them SIPA grads. They knew all about the developing world and the owner was some sort of a wunderkind. Fittingly, he looked like Harry Potter’s identical twin, only more interested in Russian oligarch power maps than regular sorcery. Every Friday at the end of the day he would summon us to his office for vodka shots.
On a beautiful September morning, still waiting for the Merrill call, I took the One train to Times Square and walked towards Eurasia’s Fifth Avenue office. I notices smoke rising above the twin towers, but had no idea what to make of it. I arrived at the office and saw that everyone was terrified. Some spoke of tens of hijacked flights that would start raining upon us. A war was declared on the United States. One colleague assumed that the next target could be the Empire State Building six blocks down the Fifth.
Then both towers crumbled. Fear and confusion in everyone’s eyes took me straight back to the beginning of the war in Sarajevo in 1992. I calmly stood up, told my boss Tina that it did not make sense for us to sit there. “Everyone should go home,” I said and left.
After a two-hour walk I was back in my room in the Upper West. I checked voicemail and there was a message from Tina: “After today’s terrible events, we realized that the demand for our political risk analysis will rise sharply. We want you to work for us full-time, so we will take care of your work visa.”