If this year is anything like the last 10, around 25 percent of employed Yale graduates will enter the consulting or finance industry*. This is a big deal. This is a huge deal. This is so many people! This is one-fourth of our people! Regardless of what you think or with whom you’re interviewing, we ought to be pausing for a second to ask why.
I don’t pretend to know anymore about this world than the rest of us. In fact, I probably know less. (According to the Internet, a consultant is “someone who consults someone or something.”) But I do know that this statistic is utterly and entirely shocking to me. In a place as diverse and disparate as Yale, it’s remarkable that such a large percentage of people are doing anything the same — not to mention something as significant as their postgraduate plans.
I want to understand.
In the spring of my sophomore year, I got my first email from McKinsey & Company. “Dear Marina,” it read, “Now that you have finished your sophomore year, I am sure that you’re starting to think about what the future may have in store for you,” (I hadn’t), “Perhaps you are starting to experience that nervous, exciting, overwhelming feeling that comes with exploring the options that are coming your way at Yale, especially given your involvement in the Yale College Democrats. To help you get a better sense of what is out there, I thought I would take the opportunity to provide some more insight into McKinsey & Company.”
This weirded me out. How did they know I was involved with the Yale College Democrats? (How did they know about that nervous, exciting, overwhelming feeling!?) As a sophomore, I’d hardly settled on a major, let alone a career path. But despite myself, it made me feel special. Who were these people? Why were they interested in me? Why were they inviting me to events at nice hotels? Maybe I perused their websites, WHO KNOWS? The point is: they got me, for at least an evening, to look into this thing and see what it was all about.
Of course, everyone gets these emails. I’m not special. Their team of recruiters is really good. They come at Yale with a myriad of other consultant firms and banks and sell themselves shamelessly and brilliantly to us from the time we turn 20. We get emails and career fair booths, letters and deadlines. I don’t know much about consulting but I do know if I were having trouble recruiting smart kids for a job, I’d hire a consulting firm to help me out.
But it’s not just them. It’s us, too. I conducted a credible and scientific study in L-Dub courtyard earlier this week — asking freshman after freshman what they thought they might be doing upon graduation. Not one of them said they wanted to be a consultant or an investment banker. Now I’m sure that these people do exist — but they certainly weren’t expressing interest at a rate of 25 percent. Unsurprisingly, most students don’t seem to come to Yale with explicit passions for these fields. Yet sometime between Freshman Screw and The Last Chance Dance something in our collective cogs shift and these jobs become attractive. We’re told they will help us gain valuable skills. We’re told a lot of things.
One senior I spoke with (whom we’ll refer to as Shloe Carbib for the sake of Google anonymity) has known what she’s wanted since freshman year. When asked what she hopes to do with her life, Shloe responded immediately: “Oh you know, I want to write and direct films or be an indie music celebrity.” Ironies of expression aside, there was a sincerity to her avowal. “I want to devote my life to the things that I love. I want to create something lasting that I’m really proud of.”
At Yale, she’s worked hard in pursuit of these goals — directing theatrical productions, playing in a band and collaborating on the 2012 Class Day Video. Yet on Monday evening at 8 p.m., she found herself at a top-tier consulting firm event at the Study — meeting and greeting in anticipation of her interview the next morning.
“Of course I don’t want to be a consultant,” she said the night before, clutching a borrowed copy of Mark Cosentino’s “Case in Point” (the aspiring-consultant bible), “It’s just very scary to watch as many of your friends have already secured six-figure salaries and are going to be living in luxury next year. I’m trying to figure out if I love art enough to be poor.”
Like many students, Carbib was roped in by the easy application process. All she had to do to apply to the firm was submit a resume, cover letter and transcript by the drop deadline.
“Oh, it’s brilliant of them to make their first round of applications so easy,” she said. “It was so little work that I felt like I might as well try.”
Indeed, the recruiting tactics of these companies are undeniably effective. They express interest in us personally — complimenting our intelligence and general aptitude and convincing us that those skills ought to be utilized to their full capacity (with them, of course).
Tatiana Schlossberg ’12 admits she initially fell for the same trick I did.
“I got a personal email and went to their event because I couldn’t believe that they were interested in me and I wanted to find out why,” she said. But when she got there, she wasn’t sure why she came in the first place. “I looked around and felt that I not only didn’t belong with the group of people but that I didn’t believe in what the organization stands for or does,” she said. “There’s definitely a compulsion element to it. You feel like so many people are doing it and talking about it all the time like it’s interesting, so you start to wonder if maybe it really is.”
Mark Sonnenblick ’12 wonders if it might be. A musician, writer and improvisational comedian at Yale, Mark is looking (among other things) into a job at a hedge fund next year. “I want a job that will dynamically engage me,” he said. “But I guess the bottom line is that I want a job in general and I don’t really know how to get a job. This is easy to apply for and would make me a lot of money.” Ultimately, he hopes to work writing music and theater, but understands that’s not exactly a field with an application form.
Of course, many of the people I talked to expressed more explicit interest in the industry. Well, to be fair, most people didn’t want to say anything at all. For every student I interviewed, at least four others refused. In the age of digital print, applicants are (understandably) worried about potential employers searching their names and finding angsty quotes about Their Doubts and Their Hopes. One Saybrook senior declined an interview because he reckoned there was no way to “not sound like a douche bag.” Either he’d come off as pompous for sounding excited about his future job or superior for sounding too good for it. In the words of Michael Blume ’12, “They don’t wanna be interviewed cause they already be on the path to making mad bills.”
However, a few people with offers and interest were willing to talk to me. Their stories and motivations for pursuing consulting or finance had remarkable similarities. The narrative goes something like this: Eventually, I want to save the world in some way. Right now, the best way for me to do that is to gain essential skills by working in this industry for a few years.
Former YCC President, Jeff Gordon ’12 is a great example. Jeff wants to devote his life to public education policy reform but is considering a job at a hedge fund among other options for next year.
“I guess the appeal of that kind of job is more in personal development than in any content area,” he said. “It’s appealing because it seems challenging and because it involves interaction with smart and talented people. There are also some transferable skills.” Yet Jeff claims he could not see himself working in the industry forever.
“I couldn’t imagine myself doing something outside the content area that I care about for more than a few years,” he added. “I take something of a long view on this — I want to place myself in a position to make a very positive difference in social justice.”
But at the same time he has some doubts about these motives: “I think the last time that most of us went through something like this was when we were applying to college and we’re conditioned to accept the ready-made established process. The problem is, most places don’t have something like that. It’s messy and confusing and we’re often afraid of dealing with that mess,” he said. “Second of all, a lot of people, myself included, are very worried about narrowing their options or specializing, and consulting firms do a great job of convincing us that we still have many options open.”
“I think it’s a combination of that and prestige,” he added.
Annie Shi ’12 has similar justifications for her job at J.P. Morgan next year. When asked what she might be most interested in doing with her life, she mentioned a fantasy of opening a restaurant that supports local artists and sustainable food. Eventually, she’s “aiming for something that does more good than just enriching [her]self.” She just doesn’t think she’s ready for anything like that quite yet.
“How can I change the world as a 21- or 22-year-old?” she said. “I know that’s a very pessimistic view, but I don’t feel like I have enough knowledge or experience to step into those shoes. Even if you know that you want to go into the public sector you’d benefit from experience in the private sector.”
Annie also considers the financial incentives of the position.
“I’m practical,” she says. “I’m not going to work at a non-profit for my entire life; I know that’s not possible. I’m realistic about the things that I need for a lifestyle that I’ve become accustomed to.” Though she admits she’s at least partially worried of ending up at the bank “longer than [she] sees [her]self there now,” at present she sees it as a “hugely stimulating and educational” way to spend the next few years.
Others disagree. One senior who interned with J.P. Morgan (and who requested anonymity) had a very different experience with the bank.
“Working there was a combination of the least fulfilling, least interesting and least educational experiences of my life. I guess I did learn something, but I learned it in the first two days and could have stopped my internship then. In the next two months I learned nothing but still came into work early and for some reason had to stay until ten,” he said. “I would see these people who loved it but honestly it seemed like they were either uninteresting or lying to themselves.”
But Annie and Jeff weren’t the only two students I spoke with that prescribed to this notion of the private sector as a kind of training ground. The industries certainly work hard to advance this idea — marketing themselves as the best and fastest way to train oneself for … anything.
Kevin Hicks ’89, former dean of Berkeley College thinks it’s a load of crap.
“As for the argument that consulting provides an extraordinary skill set with which one can eventually change the world, I just don’t buy it,” he said. “Everyone knows what the skill set is for most entry-level consultants: PowerPoint and Excel.” He sees a huge problem with the idea that consulting and finance are good ways to prepare oneself for a career elsewhere.
“Most firms are looking for people who will stay up until 3 a.m. seven nights a week making slides for a partner who goes home to Wellesley for dinner every night at 5 p.m. — and who will do so thinking that they’re ‘winning.’ Look at it this way: most firms assume that you’ll leave for law school or business school within three years, and they invest in your training accordingly. Quality mentoring when you’re young is worth whatever you pay for it. Sometimes that means less money, sometimes that means less of a life beyond work. But quality mentoring is not going to be delivered by someone who is 26, and just one tidal cycle ahead of you.”
Hicks believes this idea of skill set development is a product of fantastic marketing by the firms themselves.
“There are a half-dozen more life-affirming ways you can acquire those same skills, including taking a class at night at a junior college while you do something more interesting. I suppose I’m open to the idea that consulting may truly be a great first job for someone, but too many seniors march lemming-like towards it because everyone else seems to be doing it, and it’s the next opportunity for extrinsic validation. If McKinsey says you’re okay, you’re okay.”
“The danger in doing a prefabricated thing after graduation,” he continued, “is that there’s no unique story to tell about it. If there was ever a moment to be entrepreneurial and daring — whether in terms of business or social change, and really test yourself, this is it.”
“If you’re like most people, you’ll do one thing for two to three years, then something else for two to three years, and then — somewhere in that five- to seven-year distance from Yale — you’ll see a need to fully commit to something that’s a longer term project: graduate school, for example, or a job you need to stick with for some real time. The question is: where do you need to be with yourself such that when the time comes to ‘cast your whole vote,’ you’re reasonably confident you’re not being either fear-based or ego-driven in your choice … that the journey you’re on is really yours, and not someone else’s. If you think of your first few jobs after Yale in this way — holistically and in terms of your growth as a person rather than as ladder-rungs to a specific material outcome — you’re less likely to wake up at age 45 married to a stranger.”
Professor Charles Hill also believes it’s an unproductive use of Yalies’ time — but for slightly different reasons. He sees the job world as split into two categories: primary functions and secondary functions; productive and unproductive. Unlike straight-up corporations, he doesn’t see these banks or consultant agencies as contributing to the world in a primary, meaningful way.
“People go into it without knowing why,” he said. “They consider you a crop. They harvest you, put you in their grinder, pay you well and off-load you.” He sees consulting services as something companies invest in to protect against potential lawsuits — providing somewhere for C.E.Os to point the finger in the event of legal trouble. When the economy goes down, corporations cut back on the use of consultants — Hill argues that if their services were truly needed, the exact opposite would occur (i.e. the corporate use of consultants would increase.)
His alternative? Professor Hill wishes more Yalies would go into the productive economy, i.e. work for the corporations themselves.
“Students have these ideologies dropped down on them from the ’60s and ’70s about corporations being evil,” he said. “For some reason people will work for consultants and banks but not for PepsiCo or General Motors.” As for the non-profit world, Hill sees it as a waste of our talents. “It’s a question of grand strategy,” he said, insisting that our energy is better spent elsewhere.
In terms of OTHER IMPORTANT PEOPLE, University President Richard Levin believes “there are many ways to contribute to the well being of society, and there are many forms of public service.” He rejects the notion that “people who choose a business career aren’t interested in being public spirited,” asserting that “what’s outstanding about Yale graduates is that whatever career they choose they end up being active participants in the civic life of the communities in which they live.”
Harold Bloom disagrees.
“Alas,” he groaned, “This is the death of the mind. That is not my vision of Yale University.”
Inevitably, some of the students I spoke with aren’t interested in the industry at all. “I can never say for an individual person because I don’t know their financial circumstances,” Alexandra Brodsky ’12 said, “but 25 percent is a lot of talent that could do a hell of a lot for the world elsewhere. I think that we have to be aware of that when we make these choices.” Brodsky, the co-coordinator of Dwight Hall, spends a lot of her time at Yale surrounded by non-profit management. For her, the argument that working in the private sector is the best way to prepare oneself for this line of work is faulty.
“I think the best way to get the skills to work for a non profit is to work for a non profit,” she said. “The answer people give about skills acquisition is very convenient.”
Sam Schoenburg ’12, a political activist and campaigner, is on the same page. “I’ve always been interested in government work or advocacy and I don’t feel that [consulting or finance] would satisfy me in the same way — even if it was only for a couple of years,” he said.
“There seems to be a great disconnect between the lofty speeches we hear at commencement from Yale administrators about devoting ourselves to public service and the career advice we’re presented with during the rest of the year.”
Still, some people I talked to were interested in the industry for its own sake — fascinated and excited by the work itself. Three such students requested to remain anonymous, but one, Sam Beckinstein ’12, was willing to comment on his genuine interest in consulting as a career choice in itself, not as a means to another end.
“In my everyday decision-making, I want to be doing something that has an impact,” he said, “and when I think about how best to be in that position, I usually think of some kind of strategic management.”
Joe Breen ’12 is caught somewhere in the middle. He’s interested in eventually going into affordable housing development, running a non-profit that improves services for a community or provides services that do not yet exist. But he’s applying for a series of jobs in the real estate private sector and isn’t sure how he feels about it morally.
“It’s hard to say which types of things are improving communities and which are exploiting communities,” he said. “But ultimately, I want to work for an organization that I’m positive is not exploiting communities for profit.”
Joe isn’t sure where commercial real estate falls on that spectrum, and it frustrates him.
“I would love for there to be a great two-year program that helps you gain all of these skills and gets you to start helping people right away, but I haven’t found that yet,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to be proactive in finding your own alternative, meaningful experience when you’re running an organization and taking classes. These commercial systems are already in place. They have deadlines. They present themselves to you.”
At times, Breen admits, he worries we’re sending our “best and brightest” into jobs that “abuse communities for profit.” (He also worries that every quote he gave for this article has the word “community” in it.)
The Office of Yale Undergraduate Career Services is well aware of these complaints. But Associate Dean and UCS Director Allyson Moore contends that they’re seeking to answer them.
“We recognize that financial services and management consulting firms have a wealth of resources at their disposal and that their on-campus recruiting efforts are thus highly visible,” she said via email. “That means there is a responsibility for UCS to help those industries with fewer resources, such as arts, non-profit and public sectors to receive equal visibility.” This year, they made sure that one third of the organizations at the career fair were from these categories.
“We were quite pleased with that,” she said, “and will continue these efforts within the coming months.” One such initiative is an online self-assessment service designed to identify students’ passions so they can “hone in on motivations” to better address their needs.
Honestly, I think UCS is an easy scapegoat. The real reason so many of us pursue careers in consulting and finance is far more complicated than that. Of course the word scapegoat is problematic to begin with. Are consulting firms inherently evil? Probably not. Are banks inherently evil? Probably not. Frankly, I don’t know enough about EVERYTHING to make a statement like that one way or another. So is there anything intrinsically wrong with the fact that 25 percent of employed Yale graduates end up in this industry?
Yeah. I think so.
Of course this is my own opinion, but to me there’s something sad about so many of us entering a line of work in which we’re not (for the most part) producing something, or helping someone, or engaging in something that we’re explicitly passionate about. Even if it’s just for two or three years. That’s a lot of years! And these aren’t just years. This is 23 and 24 and 25. If it were a smaller percentage of people, perhaps it wouldn’t bother me so much. But it’s not.
What it boils down to is that we could be doing other things. Sure, working at Bain or McKinsey or J.P. Morgan might be one way to gain skills to help us get hired elsewhere, but it’s obviously not the only option. There’s a lot of cool shit we could all be doing — and I don’t need to enumerate the clichés.
Obviously, some people need to make money. They have school loans to pay off and families to support. For those of us with an actual need to make money quickly, these industries might make a lot of sense. In fact, I think that working hard to earn a decent amount of money can be quite noble. I’m still struggling with the fact that due to my own (selfish) desire to be a writer, my children probably won’t have the same opportunities I had growing up. For most students, however, I genuinely don’t think it’s about the money. It’s a factor, sure. But it just feels like a factor.
What bothers me is this idea of validation, of rationalization. The notion that some of us (regardless of what we tell ourselves) are doing this because we’re not sure what else to do and it’s easy to apply to and it will pay us decently and it will make us feel like we’re still successful. I just haven’t met that many people who sound genuinely excited about these jobs. That’s super depressing! I don’t understand why no one is talking about it.
Often times at Yale, I’ll be sitting around studying or drinking or hanging out when I’ll hear one of my friends talk about a project they’re doing for a class or a rally they’re organizing or a play they’re putting on. And I’ll just think, really, honestly, how remarkably privileged we are to hang around with such a talented group of people around here. I am constantly reminded of the immense passion and creativity of those with whom I get to spend time everyday.
Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe it really is a fantastic way to gain valuable, real-world skills. And maybe everyone will quit these jobs in a few years and do something else.
But it worries me.
I want to watch Shloe’s movies and I want to see Mark’s musicals and I want to volunteer with Joe’s non-profit and eat at Annie’s restaurant and send my kids to schools Jeff’s reformed and I’m JUST SCARED about this industry that’s taking all my friends and telling them this is the best way for them to be spending their time. Any of their time. Maybe I’m ignorant and idealistic but I just feel like that can’t possibly be true. I feel like we know that. I feel like we can do something really cool to this world. And I fear — at 23, 24, 25 — we might forget.
(*) Yale Office of Institutional Research, “Type of Employment Chosen by Undergraduates” (2010).