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In 2000, a student walked into the lobby of Yale’s Undergraduate Career Services and asked how to become a puppeteer. “This guy wanted a certain salary, certain benefits,” recalls Phil Jones, the director of UCS since 1999. “We put a counselor to work on it and ended up with tons of information on puppeteering positions. It’s rare, but every once in a while a student hits us with something new.”

Seated in his office at 55 Whitney Avenue, UCS’ base of operations for the past seven years, Jones exudes confidence. British and heavily bearded, he has faith in his department’s ability to smooth over the potentially harrowing experience of securing employment after nearly two decades of uninterrupted schooling.  He is quick to champion the professional prowess of Yalies independent of UCS’ involvement. “The greatest fear I hear from the students who come here is that they’re not going to get jobs,” he says. “That’s ridiculous. In a competitive market, the most competitive people are going to get the jobs, and the smartest people tend to be the most competitive. And where are the smartest people?” He pauses, and leans forward conspiratorially in his armchair. “The smartest people are here!”

And  yet, despite their intelligence, his clients are considerably less sanguine. From the oft-quoted complaint of UCS’ favoritism towards investment bankers and consulting firms to the prohibitive expense of its overseas Bulldogs programs, not all students sing the praises of their Whitney Avenue advocates. Despite UCS’ undeniably daunting resources—an expansive alumni network, a seemingly endless cycle of specialized seminars, and a sizeable and well-trained staff—Yalies continue to write off the service as impersonal, limited in scope, and lacking in the kind of capabilities that New Haven’s hotbed of precocious pre-professionals really wants.

Jones uses the story of the puppeteer to illustrate the open-mindedness of the office he runs, but the tale raises questions of its own. Who really pulls the strings at UCS? Is it big-name firms like Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan, whose high turnover rates require a constant influx of fresh Ivy League blood? Is it the Yale administration, pushing its undergraduates to enter lucrative fields and seek prestigious positions? Or is it the students themselves, increasingly concerned about their professional futures as graduation approaches, yet wary of abandoning the cushy confines of college for the monetary crush of the marketplace?

Jones’ answer is unequivocal: “I don’t care what you do,” he explains. “Our role here is to challenge students about what they want from a career. What’s your criteria?” Indeed, since he acquired his post in 1999, Jones has taken sweeping steps to broaden UCS’ interactions with students, allowing what was once a Wall Street clearing-house to cater more and more to individualized interests and courses of study. “The important thing is sitting down one-on-one with undergraduates and discussing their future,” he maintains. “It’s going to be different for everyone.” Before Jones took the helm at UCS, there were no counseling appointments. Now, the office accommodates roughly five thousand meetings a year.

This personal contact is Jones’ response to his concerns over the deceptive ease of applying for positions in the age of Internet commerce. “It’s a kind of tunnel vision students have,” he says, “like if it’s all online, people can just furrow the path that’s in their head. Somebody walked in here once and literally asked for our list of jobs.” Jones does not see providing laundry lists and sign-up sheets as his responsibility. He contends that the road to the perfect career is one students must follow on the strength of their own ambition. UCS can provide direction and advice, but does not aim to fence clients into the field of their dreams. The service, in Jones’ words, “specializes in the totally clueless.”

But in drawing a distinction between monomaniacal pre-professionals and the desperately aimless, UCS misses what may be the most sizeable demographic of all: students with a pretty clear idea of their career goals, but not the faintest sense of how to achieve them. Bevan Dowd, a senior Literature major, unsuccessfully attempted to locate a writing or publishing internship through UCS for the summer between her sophomore and junior years. When repeated searches proved fruitless, she decided to take matters into her own hands. “I spent a lot of time on the UCS website,” she explains, “but there just wasn’t enough variety.” Frustrated, Dowd went home and Googled “magazine internship New York City.” She sent her résumé to the first hit and spent the summer employed by a small food magazine. Her work involved, among other editorial duties, tracking down the top ten apple pies of the Big Apple.

“I think the biggest problem with UCS is that a lot of people just find them unapproachable,” says Dowd. “I know that they’re trying to change the image that they’re just for consulting and banking jobs, but that message isn’t reaching students.” Contrary to Jones’ conjecture, Dowd identifies most Yalies’ professional anxiety as aggravated not by the uncertainty of finding a job, any job, but by the daunting quest to locate the “perfect fit” career. “UCS is a good resource,” she says, “and it makes Yale unique. But the complications that arise in a job search can’t be assuaged by a service so many students see as tied up in a limited array of fields.”

Even those in pursuit of positions at investment banks and consulting firms acknowledge the system’s limitations. Andriana Diez, a senior who will work for JPMorgan next year, praises the organizational abilities of UCS. “I couldn’t imagine going through the job search without UCS,” explains Diez. “One week I had 13 interviews. If it hadn’t been for them, I would have been out of school for a week.” Still, Diez is quick to point out that a student’s opinion of the organization depends largely on the career she chooses and the quality of her counseling sessions, which can vary widely. “I feel like UCS is really underappreciated on campus,” she says.  “But how people feel about the program generally goes along with whether or not it helped them personally.”

Olga Berlinsky, another senior with a job offer from a top consulting firms agrees. “Last year, I was applying to some banking internships and set up an appointment at UCS to talk about finance interviews,” recalls Berlinsky. “The first question the UCS person asked me was, ‘Are you really interested in this stuff, or are you just doing it because it’s being thrown at you?’ That really surprised me.”

Jones’ commitment to diversifying UCS’ appeal beyond simple scheduling and headhunting has been at least partially effective.  Their counselors are asking the right questions, but the jury is out on whether they are helpful.  “My impression is that UCS isn’t really the place to get direction,” comments Berlinsky. “I think there are plenty of other resources at Yale, like friends, professors, and deans, that are more suited than UCS at helping you answer those general life questions.”

The question of the puppeteer remains. Just how willing is UCS to tackle the unprecedented and the absurd, to assist students with ambitions well beyond the realm of the immediately feasible? Jones, during our conversation, noted that the “hardest thing for Yale students is that there really isn’t anything they can’t do.”  I wondered just how far UCS’ definition of “anything” extended, and decided to find out firsthand whether something more akin to Pinocchio than puppeteering was at work in the director’s tale.

After scheduling a standard thirty-minute appointment, I made my way to UCS’ Whitney Avenue headquarters and waited in the lobby for my counselor to appear. Before long, an affable red-haired woman emerged from behind a cubicle and shook my hand. We exchanged pleasantries—where was I from, what was my major?—and proceeded to her office.

“So what brings you here today?” she asked, leaning over the desk.

“It might sound a bit strange,” I said, “but I’m looking for a job as a taxidermist.”

The counselor scrunched her eyes inquisitively, but appeared otherwise unfazed. Turning to her computer, she began to pore through UCS’ vast database of alumni contacts. A quick search of the listings yielded no matches. Moving over to a compilation of job postings, the counselor brought my attention to a pull-down list of career categories.

“We can take a look at Environment and Preservation,” she explained. “Taxidermy is a kind of preservation, I guess.” When this too failed to produce a hit, the counselor rotated in her chair to face me. Scribbling notes on a steno pad, she lifted her eyes to meet mine.

“Have you tried a random Google search?”

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