As a senior majoring in computer science at the University of California, San Diego, Caroline Kang imagined working for Google after graduation. She had worked for three years at the campus tech department and at a computer database company, but when June rolled around, she was jobless.
"I didn't think that I would end up graduating without a job," Kang said. "I definitely thought, 'Somewhere in the tons of applications I'd probably get a job,' because I knew there was a job out there."
Like many new grads, Kang is learning that landing a job these days requires more than just a college degree. Though persistence and networking are important, no sure-fire formula exists for finding a job. I followed three 2012 graduates for the past month on their job search, and found that despite setbacks and rejections, these new grads have also used their extra free time for service and ministry opportunities.
The class of 2012 faces a bleak job market: Last year about 1.5 million - or 53.6 percent - of college grads under 25 were jobless or underemployed. And with the national unemployment rate at 8.2, recent college graduates with little job experience face tough competition, including the more than one million workers laid off last year.
California college grads are even worse off, with an unemployment rate 2 percentage points higher than the rest of the country.
Tom Yee, 34, graduated from California State University, Northridge (CSUN) in June with a degree in criminology. He returned to school after losing his computer programming job during the dot-com bubble burst. He chose criminology so he could interact with people, something he said computer programming lacks.
While a knee injury has kept him from pursuing a career as a police officer, Yee told me one month after receiving his diploma that he was certain he didn't want to go back to tech jobs. He applied to admission office jobs at CSUN, where he had worked while in school, and nearby Master's College.
But as time passed and those positions closed, Yee changed his mind and said he would take any opportunity that comes his way, even applying for a software training position at Kaiser that relies on his computer programming background.
"I think being out of work for so long, I think you have to be a little more flexible," Yee said. "I think you have to do what you have to do to get by, at least for awhile."
Recently, Yee said he has cast an even wider net: He applied to be an insurance agent, technical support specialist, and a zombie for a TV show. If he cannot find a job soon, he'll have to move back in with his parents in San Diego after 10 years of living on his own.
Kang has also widened her options. After a round of applications to large tech companies like Google and Amazon last May fell through, Kang put her job search on hold until after graduation. She then decided to increase her chances by applying to smaller tech companies in San Diego, which are less stable than the large companies.
Still, when one company recently offered her a job, she turned it down because she expected a better opportunity in the future. Kang hasn't given up hope on her Silicon Valley dream job: She is still applying to positions at Ebay and other companies.
Phil Wilke, a CSUN grad with a degree in sociology and Yee's friend, also plans on holding out for the right job. Wilke dreams of leading a research project that explores how parents can talk to their adopted children about their identity. The issue is personal to the 29-year-old: He was adopted from Korea and though he is grateful to his parents for their support, he has struggled with his identity throughout his twenties.
Wilke has yet to start applying for jobs because he headed off to volunteer as a camp counselor for a Christian adoption agency camp soon after graduation. But he plans to look solely for non-profit jobs that will prepare him for his research.
"I'd like to get any job in the adoption field," Wilke said. "Having that is most beneficial to what I want to do in the future."
And if he can't find a non-profit job in the adoption field, he is willing to relocate or go back to school to get his Masters in Social Work.
Even though Kang had not expected to have such a tough time finding a job, she thanked God for the lessons in humility and patience that she has learned. She has also used the extra time to get involved at her church and a ministry that spreads the gospel through city-based evangelism.
"My plan is not necessarily [God's] plan, what I plan and what I want is not necessarily what He's going to give me, but it's going to be good," she said.
Yee will also be taking advantage of his free time: He is currently on a missions trip to Mexico to build houses for four needy families in Baja California.
Even though he hasn't landed a interview yet, Yee remains hopeful, "I think that the thing that keeps me optimistic is that there are jobs out there, it's keeping consistent and hopefully finding the right one."