“Unless you landed a job with a salary so high you couldn’t possibly spend it all, you need to begin thinking about developing a reasonable monthly budget.”
“Life After Yale” booklet, page 1, 2011 ed.
Keep reading or skip right ahead to the “Million-Dollar Retirement Advice for the Future Millionaire” chapter. Published annually by Undergraduate Career Services, the “Life After Yale” primer is teeming with morsels of insight, from filing taxes to preparing salmon with dill cream sauce — every piece of practical information recent graduates need to know, in 102 pages. This survival guide, though, operates under the tacit premise that those doing the surviving will be headed for a metropolitan apartment in search of employment, or with a job already in tow.
(This assumption is reasonable. According to the Office for Institutional Research’s most recent study of alumni activities one year after graduation, in which overall response rate ranged from 68 percent to 82 percent, 75 percent of members from the class of 2010 are employed.)
But first, start from the beginning — flip back a couple of sections, to the part about how to dress to impress. Let’s say it is a balmy November afternoon in a Caribbean city: what should you wear to the office? If you’re Gerald McElroy ’09, you wander the streets of Santo Domingo in a Superman costume. Business casual.
A red cape, fake pectorals and a stunning set of synthetic abs in lieu of a tie and blazer. This is McElroy’s dress code for the day. The scene, as baffling as it seemed, epitomized the nitty-gritty of his job: face-to-face interactions, colloquial approaches, donations from drivers and pedestrians. His post-graduation stint as a Fulbright scholar in the Dominican Republic revolved around his work for local charity organizations. He currently acts as development director for the Yale-founded student organization turned 501(c)3 nonprofit, Yspaniola.
McElroy’s choice to chase after his own international projects led him to some of the most uncertain waters Yale alumni can tread after college. Many seniors suit up every year to partake in the well-oiled recruiting machines of Wall Street and Teach For America. On the other hand, it proves nearly impossible to determine the number of Yalies who go down non-traditional avenues following their senior year (“non-traditional,” of course, within the Yale context — meaning, any option outside of graduate school, the finance and consulting sectors, or teaching.) Be it the arts, journalism or civic work, careers outside the popular tracks can take plenty of forms for a considerable demographic of post-graduation Bulldogs. Taking this plunge into foreign territory after shedding your cap and gown involves a myriad of considerations: social groups, vocational interests, chance encounters, fellowship applications. The paths to finance, consulting, or graduate school are quite clear in comparison.
“I know lots of seniors, myself included, who are planning and thinking about doing very non-traditional things abroad,” said Catherine Osborn ’12, a Latin American Studies major hoping to work in development and urban policy in Brazil. “But we’re very hesitant to announce them to the winds because who knows? We might not get funding and have to change our plans.”
Yalies who opt to go abroad after graduation do so after accepting and understanding the risks inherent in their personal decisions. What remains a little tricky is pinpointing the common denominator anchoring these experiences, what ultimate set of values determines their decision to pursue the alternative.
Many postgraduate fellowships awarded each year offer students the opportunity to mold their post-graduate experiences around their needs and long-term plans. While the Center for International and Professional Experience houses its own Office of Fellowship Programs (OFP), other available channels of funding include residential colleges, the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
More than 100 postgraduate fellowships were either won through the OFP or reported to their office in the 2010-11 academic year, said Kelly McLaughlin, director of fellowship programs and outcomes assessment.
“Veering off of well-known paths requires students to be prepared to deal not only with more uncertainty and challenges but also potentially, often happily, to find a much better fit for their interests and talents in the long run,” he added.
While most of these challenges take place once students arrives at their destination, the phase leading up to the actual experience can be nearly as stressful for applicants.
Yet Osborn said that candidates have a great deal of control over the process since the applications include written essays and proposals that they can refine, and interviews for which they can prepare. She has applied for the Fox International Fellowship through the MacMillan Center and the OFP’s Parker Huang travel fellowship, among others.
The risk in planning a postgraduation project that relies on fellowship funding from Yale “is more in the fact that all the deadlines are later,” she said. “So you might be ineligible for other potential jobs.” The success of these fellowship applications usually depends on how students can balance this process with other available opportunities.
McElroy has been heavily engaged with Yspaniola since his freshman year of college. Even before then, he harbored an ever-growing affinity to languages (he speaks fluent French, Spanish and Haitian Creole) and Latin America, and he mostly surrounded himself with Yalies who had kindred interests.
“I felt comfortable in pursuing what might be perceived as non-traditional to some,” McElroy said. “During my time at Yale I met many other idealistic individuals like myself who shared the belief that we can go forth and make a positive impact in the world.”
After spending his first year out of Yale working for a law firm in Paris, France, he has made a second home of the Dominican Republic for the past two years through his Fulbright research on microfinance and his involvement in Yspaniola.
Yspaniola encourages sustainable advancement and empowerment in marginalized communities of Dominicans and Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Headquartered in the northern cities of Santiago and Esperanza, the bulk of their work occurs in the nearby Batey Libertad.
Bateys are rural communities in the Dominican Republic that originally expanded through the sugarcane industry in the first half of the 20th century as plantations increasingly employed unregulated Haitian migrant labor. At present, providing these communities with basic public services is an onerous task mired in red tape.
McElroy described how Yspaniola has evolved from its Yale roots, sponsoring several service-learning trips from the U.S., while also developing a women’s leadership institute, a microenterprise project and a tutoring program. Initiatives start on the ground and come about organically, he added, the product of collaboration between Dominicans and Haitians living in the batey.
A university scholarship fund, one of Yspaniola’s main projects, was established by Jonathan DiMaio ’09 on a Yale Parker Huang Fellowship after graduation; he is now the organization’s executive director. Two high school graduates from the batey receive generous stipends, academic support and leadership training each year to study in nearby Santiago, with the expectation that they will return and serve as local leaders.
“We recognize that the people from the community know what’s best for them,” said Julie Gladnick, Yspaniola’s local program director, as we took a stroll in Batey Libertad. Poverty, much like the dust on the ground, covered every inch of the area. As I looked around I felt like a stranger in my own country, and I could notice my cheeks flushing.
The 6:45 a.m. bus ride from Santo Domingo to Esperanza proved uneventful. I sat in the back row, knowing that no one ever dares to use the claustrophobic bus bathroom. I closed the shades and shut my eyes. I wouldn’t be missing much by ignoring the scenery rolling outside my window: mountains beyond mountains, the occasional mattress strapped on the back of a shabby motorcycle.
I arrived. Gladnick introduced me in Creole to many community member as “un ami de Ge Ge,” McElroy’s friend. Everybody there knows him. She had an answer to every minor inquiry and curiosity: on the residents’ personal histories, on the racial tensions within the batey.
The littlest toddlers poked fun at me: “Américain, américain!” I found it endearing — worse things have been said about my pallor. I kept meeting new faces, seeing naked babies sitting on the dirt. I accompanied a mild-mannered woman with joint pains to the local hospital. Everybody was welcoming, devoid of the bitterness I expected in a deprived environment. I began to understand what may drive Yalies back to these places, the Batey Libertads of the world.
Once he receives his Yale diploma Thomas Smyth ’12, along with two other partners, will board a one-way flight to Zambia. He will be going to his new home.
Under the Leitner Fellowship, Smyth traveled to Zambia the summer before his senior year, he identified a huge demand for small energy sources in rural areas off the grid, even with the near ubiquity of cell phones. Out of this trip, he came up with Zamsolar, a new company aimed at distributing solar products in under-electrified communities. Despite the venture’s social and environmental mission, he said, making Zamsolar a for-profit enterprise will help it get its products out to more citizens.
As with any startup, Zamsolar’s founders will be expected to put sweat, equity and capital into their operations. Smyth will earn enough to cover daily living expenses, he explained, while every other dollar from his investors will go toward the business.
The risks intrinsic to this undertaking did not deter him, in part due to the smorgasbord of academic and networking services provided at Yale.
“It would be much scarier for me if I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I was doing,” Smith said.
In fact, Smyth claims that our generation has a fundamentally different attitude in regard to uncertainty than generations before us. His senior essay, titled “The Riskless Generation,” tries to trace the genesis of this anti-risk mindset.
“We are more risk-averse in terms of everything,” he said. “People are closing off doors that could lead them to incredible opportunities.”
If the Office of Institutional Research’s post-graduation employment surveys are any indication, Smyth might have a point. Whereas the study shows that the percentage of employment following graduation has steadily gone up from 16 to 75 percent starting with the class of 1960, the percentage of “others and indefinites” has oscillated since that same year, from 13 percent, peaking at 41 percent for the class of 1973, and currently standing at 4 percent.
The sheer number of graduates flocking more and more toward safe and gainful employment, at least in the past five years, could be logically pegged to the turbulent economic backdrop.
“There is some evidence consistent with those who graduate in recessions being more risk-averse,” said Lisa Khan, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Management known for her research regarding the effects of recessions on college graduates’ decision-making and salaries. “However, a number of other factors could also explain that behavior.”
Graduates may also be avoiding entrance into a toxic economy. Application numbers for fellowships nationwide have risen noticeably in the wake of the recent financial crisis, according to Kelly McLaughlin, director of Yale’s fellowship programs and outcomes assessment. Yale has been no exception, with a steady increase in applications for both national and Yale fellowships.
For those who instead choose to enter firms during a recession, Kahn has found they are less likely to leave, relative to their office peers. These workers are unsure of the probability of finding another job, she said, even if it doesn’t provide conclusive proof of more risk aversion.
She continued: “I have seen some work showing that those who graduate in recessions are less likely to start their own companies at early stages in their careers — again, possibly suggesting increased risk aversion.”
That being the case, Smyth’s endeavors may stand as a distinct rarity among the already rare. A political science major with no previous start-up experience is setting out into another country to build a business from the ground up. At the very least, the fledgling Zamsolar enjoys the nurturing assistance of mentors and investors.
“We couldn’t make this project work without people in the finance industry,” Smyth acknowledged. “My business would not be possible without access to capital.” (McElroy echoed a parallel sentiment: “Not everyone who does finance is a sellout, just like not everyone who goes into development is a saint.”)
But if Smyth’s hopes are any indication, this risky new venture runs not only on capital but on shaky idealism. Smyh said he has “no idea” what he will do after Zamsolar, intending to stay in the continent until he “makes it work.”
Tully McLoughlin ’11 breathed in and then paused.
“I think there’s a small percentage of those who graduate college that know exactly what they’re doing, and take a small step in pursuing what they want to do for the rest of their lives,” he told me. Eloquent, young and peppy, he appeared to have all the answers.
“I don’t fall into that camp.”
McLoughlin is currently in Accra, Ghana, partly to be out in the world, partly to test his own capabilities. Through Yale’s year-long Cohen Public Service Fellowship, McLoughlin works as a project officer for Farm Radio International, a nonprofit focused on improving food security and agricultural techniques for African small farmers.
He is now halfway through his year abroad. As a Yale senior, he explained, it was important for him to escape the urgency to apply for something by default.
“There’s a lot to be gained from the undefinable challenges of living and working in a foreign country,” McLoughlin said. “But it’s also the reason why it’s so hard to persuade people to do it, especially to people graduating from college now who are looking for something to seek their teeth into and know what they are facing.”
Indeed, once abroad, not everything is indicated in the job description.
“Going from a structured college life, filled with pre-cooked meals, registrars, advisors and organized extracurricular activities, to a foreign country without anyone really looking out for you or giving you feedback was a little bit scary,” said Zachary Fuhrer ’11, who lives in Brazil under the Gordon Grand Research Fellowship researching the politics of prostitution in the United States and Brazil from a human rights and public health perspective.
Fuhrer studied abroad in Northeastern Brazil during his junior year, took five semesters of Portuguese classes at Yale and wrote a senior thesis that required him to read original 19th century Brazilian texts. In his quest to feed his growing interest in the South American nation, he primed himself for his postgraduate experience.
The offices of Morgan Stanley near Times Square did not strike anyone in our tour as decidedly miserable. As a recent Yale alumna — a bouncy Humanities major turned stockbroker — led our group into a conference room furnished with sandwiches, fruit and beverages, it was easy to forget how I got there. The feeling did not last long. It was quite glaring: all the Yale freshmen and sophomores in the room were present on account of their Latino or African-American heritage. This was our tailored day trip, not just any kind of recruitment session. The Kool-Aid, however, tasted no different than the one I drank during an earlier visit to Goldman Sachs.
Major investment banks and consulting firms have the time and the resources to fine-tune their recruitment strategies down to an absolute science, including lucrative offers, countless panels, and meetings that cater to minority students.
“The difficult thing is when you compare living and working abroad to moving to New York City,” McLoughlin said. “The New York path is much clearer, it’s a simpler sell. Finance firms make it seem like a no-brainer.”
Not only is it an easier sell, but a much more noticeable option. Undergraduate Career Services Director Allyson Moore recognized in an interview that financial consulting firms claim the upper hand when it comes to having a more visible campus presence than other employers.
In response, Moore has partnered with Dwight Hall and other community service groups to brainstorm additional ways to heighten student awareness and increase the visibility of less moneyed firms in the nonprofit and public sectors. UCS and Dwight Hall have also agreed to co-sponsor a nonprofit career fair during the next academic year.
But in fact, the largest employer of Yale graduates for the past few years happens to be a nonprofit, Teach For America — 24 percent of the class of 2010 survey respondents listed in the OIR study went into education, the highest percentage in any category. If there is any resemblance between the appeal of a TFA position and a Wall Street job, McLoughlin said, it is the streamlined process of employment. Any Ivy League student can recognize and adapt to the methodology of “applications” plus “interviews” equals “competition”, and as McLoughlin himself quipped: “who at Yale doesn’t like to win competitions?”
The debate around job recruiting, though, often overlooks students’ financial circumstances, career motivations and even the likelihood of having a genuine interest in finance or consulting.
Pragmatism drove one Yale senior away from the development sector and into a desk at the prestigious management consulting firm Bain & Company after college. This senior, who will be referred to as Lindsay in this article, asked to remain anonymous out of respect for her family’s economic situation.
Lindsay had spent two summers working for Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), a nonprofit founded by Yale economics professor Dean Karlan that measures the impact of international development programs. She expected to work for the organization after graduation.
Her thinking eventually began to shift for a few practical reasons. Although she is morally and personally committed to development as her ultimate career path, she opted for a consulting job that could provide her with specialized know-how for future work in her field of choice. Moreover, the realistic pressures of paying off her student loans weighed on her shoulders.
Her plan is to work for Bain for two or three years, she told me, and learn about the managing and scaling of different projects. Later on she will apply this set of skills toward development initiatives, where her true passions lie.
“You’re always thinking of risk when you’re thinking of unconventional paths: Will it be the best thing that will further my professional goals?,” Lindsay mentioned. “Maybe the objective of my work [at Bain] is not going to be personally exciting, but the mechanisms of that work are what I’m interested in.”
Lindsay said she gets a fair amount of flak from some of her friends working at nonprofits for going to “the dark side.”
“Dark side.” A Yale colloquialism reserved only for jobs in finance, consulting, banking and business. At some point, the joke must end and its underlying criticism begins to unravel.
“The world needs your commitment to public service,” University President Richard Levin told graduates at the 2006 Baccalaureate Address. “We at Yale expect it.”
For some, this commitment does not necessarily mean going into finance. On Nov. 15, around 50 students picketed a Morgan Stanley information session outside of the Study Hotel on Chapel Street, where it was being held. Right across the street, an “alternative info session” took place.
The goal of Occupy Morgan Stanley, according to an email announcement sent the day before, was to “make students think more critically about what they’re going to be doing next year in a broader context.”
Volunteers carrying posters and rallying calls filled the sidewalk as their peers walked past them and went inside the hotel. By questioning — or “demonizing,” depending on whom you ask — the recruiting event, the demonstration became Yale’s translation of the global Occupy movement.
“Twenty-five percent is too much talent spent!,” the protesters chanted.
It turns out that oft-touted statistic might be a bit inflated. The 25 percent figure refers to the respondents of a survey on employment sent to recent alumni, Moore said, not the total number of graduates of a given class. For instance, the data collected from the class of 2010 shows that only 869 of the approximately 1,280 graduates replied to the survey, 68 percent of the class.
But to solely focus on the facts and numbers would be to miss the larger picture. Whether a future banker or an aspiring artist, most Yalies admit to an appreciation of a campus atmosphere where the ideas and decisions of their friends do not stand unchallenged.
“I think it’s always great to have a conversation about it and not take anything for granted, be aware of all opportunities,” said Smyth, also an attendant and observer (though not a protester) at Occupy Morgan Stanley.
“What will you do with your privilege?”, read one of the signs in the protest. If anything, questioning students’ vocational paths shines a light on a perceived moral component of a Yale education, one that is gradually becoming more salient in the public forum.
Over kosher shawarma at a Diamond District Israeli restaurant, Fuhrer had lunch with a former Fulbright scholar in Brazil who is now his mentor. During their conversation, Fuhrer received a piece of advice he still keeps with him.
“He said, ‘Nothing matters until you’re 30’,” Fuhrer recalled. “This was not meant to discredit any of the work you do in college and your immediate post-grad life, but to encourage a spirit of risk-taking, as in ‘You’re young. You have plenty of time to sit at a desk in Brooks Brothers slacks and wax poetic about your bright college years over summer trips to Martha’s Vineyard.’”
This advice suggests a step-at-a-time mentality, one which is adopted by most recent graduates abroad. For McElroy, he now aspires to get a master’s degree in development. McLoughlin still remains unsure of his next move.
Back at Yale, how normal such non-traditional paths seem depends on students’ undergraduate life, the friends with whom they socialize and the extracurriculars they cherish. Seniors tend to overemphasize what their peers are doing right after graduation, Osborn said, so they ignore the possibility of changing career choices down the line.
“It is hard to pass moral judgment on other Yalies based on their first year jobs after graduation,” she said. Osborn learned this past week she received the Huang fellowship for post-college research. She can temporarily accept the award, pending notification from another fellowship in April.
At this stage in the academic year, several seniors may lack concrete plans. Recent alumni, in turn, have spent enough months out of Yale to put their experiences into perspective. Since their first postgraduate decisions are not likely to dictate the course of their entire career, the only thing that remains certain in their futures is the desire to get “somewhere.” Wherever “somewhere” happens to be, they agree, there is no dearth of time.
“I do love the [African] continent and there is so much more to explore,” McLoughlin said, the excitement ringing in his voice. “For now, in my twenties at least, this is the time to have adventures.”