Given the heavy course load and hike up Science Hill, many students do not subject themselves to a Group IV major unless they plan to capitalize on it in a lifelong career. But upon graduation some science and math majors enter careers that are largely unrelated to their courses of study. They exchange their dreams of research and discovery for money, power or the whims of interest.
Students with a variety of bachelor of science degrees enter business fields that draw obliquely, if at all, on their major. Though their reasons for departure vary, alumni said the skills they picked up while studying science are useful in their jobs, even if much of the knowledge acquired along the way has proven to be unnecessary.
At the outset of his junior year, Hang Lee’s ’02 life seemed fairly set. In two years he would graduate with a bachelor of science in applied physics, attend graduate school and take a job as a professor, helping future generations repeat the process. But with his final college summer approaching, Lee began to question his plan. While his friends were applying for summer banking and consulting jobs, he was contemplating life as “a poor grad student” and decided to try his hand at investment banking.
Lee found some mathematical concepts he had studied in physics could be applied to securities trading, a lucrative industry which he said had high entry-level salaries at the time. After graduating, Lee joined J.P. Morgan, completing his transformation from research scientist to Wall Street maverick. Though he still has the option to continue his physics studies in graduate school, he said he has no plans to do so.
“What I do is Wall Street’s version of rocket science, but compared to rocket science in physics, it’s a walk in the park,” Lee said. “I’ve enjoyed three years of living in the city, making a good living, and did so by applying some of the basic concepts I learned in college.”
Philip Jones, director of Yale Undergraduate Career Services, said cases like Lee’s should not come as a surprise. A major at Yale is only intended to comprise a third of the student’s education, which nurtures diverse interests, he said.
“You’re not getting an expert in anything when you hire a student with a liberal arts education,” Jones said. “The connection between an academic study at Yale and a professional endeavor is very weak.”
Jones said the most common reason for diverging from a science major is pure interest: a student’s taste can extend beyond science or can change over the course of a college career.
But alumni and current students offered a number of other reasons for their switches. Money was a primary incentive for Lee, and in the case of Leah Barton ’97, a strategy and business consultant for Shell Chemicals, the power to effect change motivated her to stray from her chemical engineering Bachelor of Science.
“I like making decisions, and I like being able to chart a vision for where a company could go and think about the broader consequences of business decisions beyond just science,” she said. “Being able to take a more holistic perspective is what keeps me interested in my work.”
Barton taught math and physics in the Peace Corps for three years after her graduation and then took a job as an engineer with a hydrogen fuel cell company. The company expanded, and her duties shifted toward management, inspiring Barton to get an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School. She added a masters in international studies diploma to her wall art collection and then took her current position at Shell.
Barton, who scouts polymer markets, said her chemical engineering degree is useful but not necessary. The catch, she said, is that the chemical industry perceives the degree as necessary, which gives her credibility.
“The irony is that I love what I’m doing, and I wouldn’t have been able to get here without this chemical engineering degree,” she said. “But I might be better at what I’m doing if I had taken a broader spectrum of courses and paid more attention to some of the non-technical discussions that were happening in other classes.”
Though a major in the sciences can provide an advantage in a number of related fields, it is almost never a disadvantage in unrelated fields, said Jennifer Sullivan, a spokesperson for the careerbuilder.com recruiting service. Organizational skills, modeling and experience with the scientific method of problem solving are useful outside the sciences, she said.
“It really all goes down to how you’re marketing your skill set,” Sulllivan said.
Skills acquired in the sciences can be applied to unrelated fields in various ways. Lee, for example, calculates the price of convertible bonds using the same equations he learned to describe the random motion of microscopic particles in physics.
But Lee said he sometimes debates whether his knowledge is better used probing the secrets of physics or harnessing the stock market. The former involves enrichment through knowledge, while the latter largely involves enrichment through riches, he said.
“I could be sitting up in a lab experimenting or coming up with novel concepts. That might be a much more worthy cause than what I do,” Lee said. “But if you weigh the probability of really being able to make an impact [in physics] versus the certainty of being able to make a good living, I’d stay where I am.”
Santanov Chaudhuri ’06, who is double-majoring in Economics and Mathematics and Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, said he has no ethical qualms about choosing a career in investment banking. He has worked in research labs for three years, and has decided that his true passion for science is in its industrial applications, which he said benefit society as much as pure research.
“Investment bankers also have a huge role to play in helping companies … to make this new knowledge applicable to the real world,” he said.
These science majors may be “selling out” for higher-paying business jobs, but professors said they are not discouraging such career decisions. Richard Larson, director of undergraduate studies in Astronomy, said his department has embraced an increasing proportion of students who wish to double-major and pursue careers other than astronomy. The department has relaxed requirements for the bachelor of arts degree to attract non-scientists to the major, and now over half of the bachelor of arts students go into unrelated fields.
“Now there are more and more [students] who have diverse interests,” Larson said. “Yale seems to particularly attract that kind of student, so we’ve been trying to cater to them.”
Larson noted that some great artists, such as Leonardo Da Vinci and William Herschel, were also scientists. If the same connection holds for investment banking and science, more students might trade in the laboratory for the trading floor.
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