Yalies love finance, but not as an academic discipline. Yale College offers barely 10 finance courses, none of which are hugely popular. Classes such as “Financial Markets” taught by Nobel laureate Robert Shiller, have lost their popularity. There are few undergraduates in finance-related courses at the School of Management or the Law School. It is easy to begin investing in the stock market — and instructive for sure — but, I barely know any Yalies who do so. What do Yalies love? Finance jobs. Investment banking, sales and trading, global capital markets, the whole gamut.
Thousands of students vie for analyst positions at Goldman Sachs or Bank of America, with only a vague idea of what they are getting themselves into. I enjoy attending finance recruiting events to witness bankers presenting their companies as fabulous workplaces that are all about “people” and “great ideas.” These events resemble a mating dance: Yalies try to “network,” hoping some bigwig managing director might recommend them for their dream job as an investment banker. Recruiters fish — or rather, phish — for young apprentices, who will work any number of hours if it means adding “Goldman Sachs” to their resumes.
When I ask friends why they hope to work in finance, they bring up some or all of three following reasons: improving their resumes, gaining experience and earning a high salary. But few think of staying in finance: Those few years are often a springboard into private equity, investing in businesses that aren’t traded on a stock exchange — most companies worldwide are private. The fabled pay isn’t at all great either, considering the hourly wage. The math involved in this calculation is left as an exercise for the reader.
Finance jobs are popular because they are straightforward, promising large salaries and perceived stability. Recruiting is well structured: Apply through the website, attend coffee chats, complete the first round of interviews, the second round, the super day in New York and voilà! You are an analyst now, making $80,000 pretax, which seems high for debt-laden juniors or seniors. What they forget is that little is left after you pay taxes, rent and living expenses in New York. Many won’t have time to spend that money, given their work hours.
When I compare the desires of my banker -to-be friends with those that are bankers, I realize that they live in vastly different worlds. Future bankers dream of interesting tasks — negotiating with clients and making important decisions. Current bankers spend countless hours on Excel, building valuation models for companies that their client wants to purchase. Future bankers find meaning in their potential job; current bankers spend hours composing a pitchbook that no one reads. Future bankers want to make millions; but current analysts don’t see that in their immediate future. Future bankers will have time to spend their millions; current bankers struggle to find time for sleep, love lives or shopping sprees. Alas, don’t forget that appetite accompanies eating: The more you make, the more you want to make. Making $80,000 a year won’t make you much happier, but it will make you want to make $800,000 a year.
Here’s the caveat. If you stick to your finance position and perform reasonably well, you’ll meet the $800,000 mark before you’re 40. Having Goldman Sachs on your resume helps build credibility. But are you really interested in this? If so, go for it. If you need more than a few seconds to think about your answer, you should reconsider.
I am not criticizing finance as a field, even though doing so has become fashionable at Yale. As an economics and mathematics double-major, I find finance fascinating and have probably taken more finance courses than any other undergraduate. I invest all my savings into stocks. I don’t think that finance is a rent-seeking industry that creates “negative externalities on the wider economy.” At the very least, it has a net positive impact. I’m glad Yalies work for “companies that evade taxes through loopholes” — though it’s not really all that simple. Such companies, like Google, are credited with some of the most important innovations and inventions in modern history. I don’t know about you, but I trust Warren Buffett or Bill Gates more with my money than I do the federal government. Even so, I wish students put more thought into what they want to do with their professional lives, rather than following the cute stories that recruiters present to them. I have no problem with Yalies working in finance. I have a problem with them going into finance blindly.
Finance, overall, contributes to the well-being of our society, a view articulated by Yale’s own William Goetzmann ’78 GRD ’90. But before delving into finance, you should ask yourself why you are headed there. Rather than coming up with what recruiters want to hear, ask yourself these questions. It’s an interview you should conduct with yourself; an interview where failing isn’t any worse than succeeding.
Jakub Madej is a junior in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .