This summer, my mom gave me the talk.
I was eating frozen yogurt on the couch when she popped the question: “What are you going to do after Yale?”
Her tone frightened me. My mom and I had discussed post-graduation plans before, but always in casual conversations. Usually, I parried her questions with a vaguely jokey answer, like “I’m going to be a poor grad student living in a dingy New York apartment” or “I’m going to Cape Town to study the effects of income inequality on education” or “Maybe I’ll bum around Cambridge punting Chinese tourists.” But this time, she sounded serious. In my panic, I dropped my spoon.
“Your father and I want you to become financially independent after graduation,” she said.
All of a sudden, the couch I sat on no longer felt secure. In a year, it will become a foreign couch, one that I will no longer be welcome to sleep on for extended periods of time (two months is my parents’ limit). In a year, I will be sitting on my own couch, eating my own yogurt, living in my own apartment. The prospect of growing up never felt so real.
“But don’t worry,” my mom added. “You’ll be getting the old family car.”
I didn’t feel a bit reassured; I can’t even drive.
My mom’s talk might have frightened plenty of Yalies into finance or consulting jobs. But I’ve decided to eschew those common career paths. I don’t consider a job in finance or consulting evil. Despite their role in the 2007-’12 global financial crisis, investment banks are still hugely important to a properly functioning economy. Likewise, consulting firms provide valuable services to companies that employ countless Americans. But punching dollar values into a spreadsheet and perfecting PowerPoints for Monday meetings seems rather far from what I want to do in life.
When I talk to some of my panicked senior friends, they see a binary choice between going corporate and becoming homeless. Even those who have never previously expressed interest in those two industries suddenly perked up their ears whenever they hear news about info sessions.
This panic has spread far beyond just seniors. Last Friday, the annual undergraduate career fair descended upon Payne Whitney Gym. As I trudged in my heels down Broadway (I was applying for a research job at the University of Chicago), I encountered two freshmen in ill-fitting suits headed in the same direction.
“What are you interested in?” I asked one of them.
“I don’t know. Maybe Bridgewater or Bain,” he replied. “I’m only in Intro Micro, so we’ll see.”
The undergraduate career fair looked like a sea of gray and black suits. As I meandered my way through the crowd, I heard the voices of enthusiastic young alumni pitching their companies to students. Maybe they were genuinely excited about asset management or derivative modeling. Or maybe they were just good at public relations. The dazzling array of flyers and brochures and pens and kitschy gifts disoriented me. Empty words like “talent,” “potential” and “advancement” buzzed in the air. Feeling overwhelmed, I scrambled out of the gym (still in my heels) as fast as I could. There and then, I vowed not to “sell out.”
It’s hard not to sell out. Especially for a student on financial aid like me. I am not ashamed to say that I am a recipient of the Pell Grant, a form of aid given to low-income students by the U.S. Department of Education. I am not ashamed to admit that I have held a job since the first day of freshman year because I need the extra pocket money. And I am definitely not ashamed to admit I shop at thrift stores (and not just because of their hipster aesthetic).
Many of my friends from low-income families often feel pressure from their parents to enter high-paying careers. It’s the typical immigrant story: the first-generation parents want their children to have the American dream, to be able to have a house in suburbia, to have vacations every year. The parents push their children to excel in school and in college, so their children may one day become lawyers, doctors, bankers and consultants. The aspiration towards financial security, if not towards the upper-middle class, is certainly admirable. Often, I feel guilty for wanting to become a political scientist because I know I will never be able to provide for my parents in the same way had I chosen a more lucrative profession.
Fortunately, I have parents who support my decision to go into academia. Perhaps it’s because my dad never fulfilled his dream career. Growing up in Hangzhou, China, he always wanted to become an electrical engineer. The Cultural Revolution cut short his aspirations. When all the universities in China were shut down, my dad — barely out of high school — taught math for several years to make a living. When the government finally restituted the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (gao kao) in 1977, he had already turned 24. Although he wanted to go to college to study engineering, my dad’s score placed him in medical school. In China in the 1970s, and to a certain extent even now, your gao kao score determined your profession for the rest of your life.
Decades later, my dad has accepted the fact that he works as a non-tenured research scientist at a cancer hospital. But he still tinkers with ham radio and tries to fix my old electronics. He seems his happiest fusing wires together in the garage or trying to teach me how to fix DVD players. A shadow of disappointment hangs over his professional life. At his age, my dad feels he can never fulfill his aspirations to become an electrical engineer.
“Don’t be like me,” my dad once told me as he drove me to a GRE class. “Be happy with what you do. But whatever you do, publish every year.”
The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” looped repeatedly on my laptop as I botched another statistical code to clean up a data set. A string of mild curses followed. But since I have gotten used these types of frustrations, I chuckle a little.
Sometimes I wonder why I take econometrics or conduct surveys for the News. I came to college as a student in the Directed Studies program, intending to major in English. Then, enamored with Plato and Thucydides, I wanted to study political theory. I longed to craft beautiful essays on grand ideas like Isaiah Berlin, Benedict Anderson or Ernest Gellner, who added literary elegancy to political prose.
One day during my sophomore year, a kindly professor took me aside and said, “You know there are no jobs in political theory, right? We’re in the era of big data, kid, so learn some stats.”
For those of us idealists who want to pursue our passions, we are often told the industries we pine to enter are diseased, dying or dead. (Plenty of News reporters and editors interested in print journalism can attest to this fact.) Furthermore, as Joshua Revesz ’13 correctly argued in his Monday column “A harmful career fair,” the Yale Undergraduate Career Services seems unhelpful for students who want careers outside finance, consulting, medicine, or law. Then, what is an enterprising, young idealist to do?
We get what we need. From the classroom, extracurricular activities and internships, we get the skills necessary to survive and thrive in a competitive economy. These skills may extend beyond the confines of the classical liberal arts education. Why can’t an art major learn to create websites? Or a history major learn to conduct geospatial analysis? Or a political science major learn how to use instrumental variables? In today’s fluid job market, employers seek hybrids like print-broadcast reporters or geographer-historians or sociologist-programmers. (Yes, the last ones do exist, and they work at Facebook.)
Despite my humanities leanings, I have grown to like statistics — and even linear algebra. Statistical softwares have become my friends. Conducting YDN surveys, which once seemed like a chore, now feels exciting. Learning new skills often seems daunting. (I still get frightened when I open up R, a strange stats package that seems to employ a language from Mars.) But this economy is not one for Luddites, even for idealist Luddites. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine searching for jobs outside the comforts of UCS, but the enterprising, young idealist must go the extra mile.
“What are you going to do after Yale?” many senior friends have asked me in the past few weeks.
I might not get what I want post-graduation, but I’ll get what I need.
Without selling out.