Working 9 to 5: Students Try Out Professional Life

Ask most college students what's on their mind as they head into their junior or senior year, and you'll get a common answer: the future. Some may start to question a direction they've taken for granted for years; others want to take a closer look at the option they're certain is best for them. Still others just hope an inspiring thought will come their way, preferably before graduation.

Summer jobs and time off from study have long been popular ways to explore careers. But a number of colleges offer students another option: externships. Students shadow a professional for a week, often during spring break. They check out the more "glamorous" side of the working life - sitting in on conferences, fielding phone calls, attending power lunches.

They also get a window on the modern-day balancing act between family and career, accompanying their "employer" to the grocery store on the way home, helping with dinner, deciding how to juggle children's needs with the demands of long hours and daily chores.

Yoshiko Nagao and Robbi Miller, two students at Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges in Cambridge, Mass., kept journals about their recent experiences as externs. Their experiences influenced them differently: Ms. Nagao is reconsidering her interest in investment banking; Ms. Miller still is planning to head to law school. But both young women say the week was time well spent.

YOSHIKO NAGAO joined Susan Hewitt, the president of a New York real-estate investment fund that focuses on saving troubled cooperatives from bankruptcy by restructuring their mortgages and collaborating with sponsors, lenders, and co-op boards to create a survival plan. Ms. Hewitt is married and has two young children.

DAY 1

I went to a day-long workshop for co-op boards.... An interesting issue Susan's panel discussed was the reaction of co-op boards [to restructuring plans]. The procedure of getting co-ops out of distress is long and complicated. Most board members are laymen and sometimes that becomes a detriment to negotiations.... The moral of the story is: The business world is based on individuals who will make business decisions on much less rational grounds than you imagine. So much for 20th-century objective rationalism.

Day 2

I had my first power lunch! Susan regularly lunches with a mortgage-broker friend to catch up and to find out about market trends. It seems that in the business world, much of what you know you find out from contacts.... We talked about careers.... He started out as a construction worker but switched after a few years of hard labor.... Another moral: Very few people seem to end up where they do because they consciously plotted a path there. So maybe I'm wasting my time trying to plot out my future.

Day 3

On the way home, Susan talked about marriage a bit. Having a career definitely forces you to make choices, she told me, and she chose to marry and have children later in life. She's glad she did.... She told me to marry late, and take "food and culture" vacations before you have children. Afterwards, it's just beaches and babies.

We also talked about my career path. I had no idea how to tie up my diverse interests in a coherent career game plan. I apparently had a very skewed vision of what investment banking was. Susan told me I should look at small businesses that fulfill my interests rather than go into something out of the need for security and glamour.

At the end of the evening, I was confused, spent, and wiser. Before, I thought I had the right idea: Go with investment banking. It's safe, it's hard, and it's in keeping with my objectives. Now I wasn't sure: Should I become an entrepreneur in the real sense....? Why isn't there a manual on this?

Day 5

Susan got into negotiations with a lawyer trying to wheedle concessions in a deal, including a significant reduction of her powers in the deal. It was fascinating watching her stand her ground. When the lawyer kept evading the direct issue, she did not hesitate to give him a piece of her mind and get him to confront the issue. I've never seen a woman do that, much less get away with it in a business transaction...

At the end of the week, I had learned that I don't have to be as nervous about my future as I was earlier; as long as I'm honest with myself and know what kinds of risks I want to take, I can make it. And there is so much to look forward to later in life, especially if you follow your interests rather than what you think you should be doing, what your parents think you should be doing, or what your friends are doing.

Robbi Miller worked with an attorney who has her own two-woman firm in Philadelphia. Her sponsor is married and the mother of children ages 4 and 7. Ms. Miller also lived with her sponsor's family.

Day 1

The day is coming to a close, and I'm exhausted. A client came in, and for the first time in my life outside of TV I got to hear/see how lawyers listen to their clients' stories.... This woman's car had been stolen, and three lawyers later she couldn't get the insurance company to pay for it. She didn't seem to know what was going on, and she was suspected of fraud. It was interesting how [the lawyers] went about debating if she was telling the truth....

I got to hear about practicalities: what kinds of cases make money and what don't. I learned about the eight exceptions under which you can sue the state of Pennsylvania for torts.

[My sponsor] started to tell me she never intended to go to law school and that she views her job and practice as a business that happens to be law, and wouldn't do it this way again if given the chance to change.

Day 2

It's 8:15 p.m., and I'm the only one who's pooped. My sponsor told me how she sometimes likes to get up and go to work from 4:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., come home, pack off the kids, and go back to work at 8 a.m. She says if you want to impress your clients, fax them at 5 a.m....

I got to look over files. They're like mini-soap operas, and you get to play detective. I'm fascinated by the element of "there are two sides to every story."

Work seems unpredictable - not sure when you'll have to do what for how many cases. It's not like school, where if you have more than two midterms on a day you can reschedule. A day somehow seems harder but more fulfilling.

Day 3

Court was fascinating: the couple was my age with a 2-1/2-year-old girl. A real personal view of the law. Whereas my sponsor wouldn't have done law school if she had it to over again, her partner loves it - says you'll never think the same again.

Between bathing the kids and reading stories ... computer problems, errands, husband not home for the evening, free time ... I don't know about her but I'm exhausted. Maybe the stress of school serves a purpose - to learn how to deal with a lot at once. Even though this seems worse, I think it would be better for me: real problems with people attached - and a reason to care.

Day 5

We went to the office, and I summarized a deposition. Then off to a meeting with 14 people.... There I saw backstabbing, longwindedness, talking behind the backs of members not invited till after lunch, etc.

The most important thing I have learned is that there is something to look forward to. I expected the mom/job thing to be possible. I didn't expect it to be enjoyable - which it was.

The choice of "what to be when I grow up" doesn't seem so daunting. You choose what you think you like, but it's only a component of your life. It all seemed to fall into place. Law is another type of business. I think I'll like it. It looks exciting and fun.

I'm glad I did this. I gained perspective, experience, knowledge, insight, a mentor, and most important, a friend.

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