Valerie Pavilonis

I was having an out of body experience while the Swedish consultant waited for me to calculate yearly revenue. She repeated the case interview question. “Should our client enter the Japanese condiment market?” I was so nervous I hardly knew who I was, let alone anything about Japanese condiments. It was first grade all over again, when everyone could read except for me. I was stupid, I was ignorant, I was not privy to this secret code everyone else seemed to know.

I’d gone to The Study at Yale and pretended that finger foods fascinated me while my peers mingled with 22-year-old consultants. I’d sat in OCS waiting rooms where the fear of inadequacy hung thick in the air like humidity. I’d bought a blazer from H&M. And for what? I was still sitting here dumbstruck by basic math.

Eventually my interviewer had enough of watching my soul leave my body. She outright told me how to do the necessary calculations, but I was so stunned by my own ineptitude, I couldn’t bring myself to answer the question. I thanked her for her time, said I didn’t want to keep wasting it, and left. I called my mom in the elevator and cried. Consulting didn’t like me back.

My love affair with consulting was a fling like any other: It started in late summer, inspired me to buy some cute outfits and ended with tears in late September. But for many Yale students, the love lasts several years, and for some, a lifetime.

Consulting and finance are the two most popular employment industries for Yale graduates. In the Class of 2018, 13.4 percent of graduating seniors went into consulting and 15.4 percent into finance. That’s one-third of the Yale pie. It’s a big slice, and it keeps getting bigger. In the past eight years, the percentage of graduates entering finance and consulting has grown from 25 percent to 30 percent. Consulting and finance are different fields, of course, but amidst the wide variety of careers someone could pursue after Yale, they seem, at least to an outsider, like they’re cut from the same cloth. Other industries can’t even come close to their popularity. To put it in perspective, teaching was the third-most-popular field and drew a mere 7.9 percent of students. Most other disciplines like healthcare, engineering and journalism each employ less than four percent of recent graduates.

The list of Yale’s most popular employers reads like a “Best of Corporate America” USA Today ranking. Besides Yale itself and several large technology and health organizations, it’s mainly a mix of big banks and consulting firms: Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey, Bain, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. It made sense to me that banks were on the list. Banking has stood the test of time as a lucrative post-Yale career path, despite its less-than-stellar reputation amongst creatives on campus. Since banking is more specialized than consulting, a lot of the bankers I know are genuinely interested in markets and mergers and whatever else it is that banks do.

But the widespread popularity of consulting was still a mystery to me. Why are these firms ranked among our favorite employers? Is it okay that they employ so many of our graduates? And most embarrassingly, why did I want them to like me so much?

As I do with most of my questions, I turned to my smart Yale friends for answers.

I’ve learned that Yalies all have strong opinions about consulting — until you ask them to go on the record. My friend Ethan, a senior with a full-time consulting offer, asked for anonymity, joking that he “generally tries to stay out of the YDN.” Liam, a recent graduate and current consultant, said that I could quote him as long as I didn’t mention any of his identifiable information. Two older, former consultants asked that I not even quote them anonymously. While some were — rightfully — worried about backlash from their employers, the majority of people just didn’t want their names publically linked to consulting.

It’s not like you guys are in the CIA, I wanted to say. But their reticence got me thinking. It must say something about this industry that, even with its exorbitantly high employment numbers, no one is willing to talk about it publicly.

 

Low risk, high reward

I’ve always thought consulting was a pretty good gig. Consultants travel around to a variety of organizations and make them more efficient. It’s the business equivalent of a well-rounded liberal arts education. While a lot of projects are with big businesses, the consultants I know have also worked on cases for school districts, city governments and nonprofits.

It sounded like the ideal post-grad job to me: gaining exposure to a variety of fields, truly mastering Excel and PowerPoint — finally, no more hyperboles on my resume! — and getting paid to offer my opinion to CEOs three times my age — all while keeping my long-term options open.

Most entry-level jobs are grueling, and consulting is no exception. Consultants average about 80 hours of work each week, and four of their five workdays are usually spent traveling. Most of their time is spent analyzing data in Excel and transferring it into PowerPoint presentations for clients. It’s admittedly unsexy work, and upper-level consultants are generally the only ones advising clients directly. The amount of travel also eventually loses its shine. As my brother’s friend put it, “At a certain point, a Marriott in Poughkeepsie looks a helluva a lot similar to a Marriott in Paris.” Still, I wanted the job. I’d worked long hours at Yale. I could average 80 hours a week for a few years if it meant I’d keep my options open and use these skills for the rest of my life.

I liked that the job was low-risk and high-reward. “Consulting allows me to dip my toes in various industries and markets without serious commitment. And boy, am I afraid of commitment,” said Enrique ’22. He only wanted his first name printed to avoid Googlability. The job is a stable way to tread water for a few years.

With the economy as uncertain as it is right now, consulting’s healthy salary became all the more appealing to me. Consulting provides lower-income students with the kind of economic mobility their parents never had. Devin O’Banion ’20, a senior with two consulting internships under his belt, said that these jobs “can literally change people’s lives” with their generous, occasionally six-figure, salaries. For me, a very-much-not-rich history major, that kind of money right out of college is almost unimaginable.

 

Too many figs, too little time

If consulting is the lucrative career decision for the indecisive, what does it say about Yale students that 13.4 percent of us go into this field? One explanation might be that we haven’t sufficiently developed our decision-making muscles.

When I was looking at colleges, Yale’s marketing slogan was “and rather than or.” At Yale, I could be a singer and a student. I could take classes with Nobel Prize winners and Pulitzer Prize winners. At 18, I couldn’t handle the thought of choosing one life over another, so I chose Yale. And that was probably the last big decision I’ve had to make. In college, I’ve filled my schedule to an outrageous degree, simply because I’m afraid of prioritization. I need six extracurricular activities, so I don’t close any doors to the future!

Since Yale encourages exploration, I haven’t had to narrow down my life to its non-negotiables. Of course, I’m grateful that Yale has given me more options than I know what to do with. My well-rounded education has only been an issue when I’ve had to think about my first steps after college. I wanted to continue life as a generalist free from the burden of choice, and consulting seemed willing to humor me.

I’m not alone in my indecisiveness. As my friend Enrique confessed to me at 12:05 AM over Facebook Messenger, he’s grown even more uncertain of his life’s direction since coming to Yale. He feels like consulting is the best way forward while he figures out what he really wants.

“Basically,” he said, “I don’t have to make serious decisions and I can still earn good money.”

I empathize with him. If I could, I would live a thousand different lives. I feel like Esther in “The Bell Jar,” staring up at the different paths before me like figs on a tree. I don’t want any figs to wither before I decide which one to pick. Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed by the choices that Yale has given me, I just want to pick whichever fig keeps my life small and comprehensible.

I would love for someone to come along and tell me what the next step is, and that’s exactly what consulting companies do. As Ethan put it, “You go from high school to college, to the places that recruit on campus. Consulting is another deferral on making a decision about what you want to do with your life. It’s easy to keep going on a track.” As Liam told me after a long day of work at a prominent firm, “the path to consulting is so well-advertised on campus that it can feel like the only path.”

Ethan walked me through his journey to a consulting offer. As a junior, he got an email invitation to an information session and decided to go because “well, it’s not that hard to go to an info session.” To apply, all he had to do was submit a resume, cover letter and transcript through Yale’s On-Campus Recruiting portal. “I don’t think any other industry has such a low barrier to apply. You don’t even need a certain set of skills to be considered a strong applicant,” he said. The job is low-commitment in the long-term, too. One former consultant I spoke with said that, of his 35-person entry cohort at BCG, only three remained at the company after two years. Most of his colleagues leveraged their firm’s name for a job elsewhere, often at startups, private equity firms or government organizations. Others went off to graduate school.

Besides on-campus visibility, students’ personalities might also be a determining factor in the consulting stampede. Duncan Goodall ’95 started his career as a consultant, quit after seven years, became the owner of Koffee? on Audubon Street and now works as a full-time coffee house entrepreneur. “My impression from my time at Yale was that, in order to get into Yale you had to be an exceptional rule-follower and path-follower,” he said. “So, a person who has been successful at following a path to get here is naturally going to use that same toolbox for what comes after Yale. But that’s not necessarily a recipe for success in the real world.”

He believes that this rule-following mentality narrows our vision of the future: “The average Yale student has been primed to go for the most prestigious job and the highest spot in the social hierarchy. Consulting fits the bill, so they do it.” Duncan was once this type of person. He walked onto the Yale crew team after he heard it was the hardest sport. He studied Ethics, Politics & Economics because he thought it was one of the hardest majors. Consulting aligned with his linear idea of success. “In hindsight, I recognize that my fundamental motivation was to go for the most challenging path because that, in my mind, was the key to success,” he said. “That had been the cause of my success up to that point, but I had no sense of self-reflection. I had no thought process about what I really wanted to do.”

Duncan made me think. Was I a mindless work drone? I’d never asked myself why I wanted to pursue consulting. It just felt like one of my only legitimate, lucrative options as someone with few hard skills, a lot of ambition, and no particular focus.

 

Untangling the taboo

Even with consulting’s flaws, it’s still not the worst job a person could have. So why are students so ashamed to publicly admit their involvement in the industry? Why is “consulting” a taboo topic on campus?

Some of it might have to do with the fact that Yale, more than most colleges, prizes creativity. Many of the most iconic “Yale” institutions have an artistic bend to them, like the Dramat, the Whiffenpoofs and the Yale Daily News. Those who go into creative or altruistic professions are “interesting.” They’re admired for sacrificing financial stability in the name of passion. Creativity, then, becomes a form of social capital, implying a value judgment in favor of those who choose journalism or acting over a corporate job. Under that mindset, consulting’s clear-cut path looks greedy, passionless and pragmatic, rather than simply another post-grad option.

The stigma may also come from some Yalie’s knee-jerk reaction against participating in capitalism in a meaningful way. Consulting does, in part, perpetuate capitalistic inequality and alienation. Not only are consultants alienated from the product, they’re alienated from the companies as well. As Liam put it, “You’re only thinking about how the company can improve, instead of what it does. You don’t have anything to do with the company’s mission and that can make it hard to stay energized after a stressful day on the job.”

At certain points during consulting recruitment, I felt like my peers believed I was contributing to the world’s economic inequality more than the average person. It was often my richest friends, the greatest beneficiaries of capitalism, who expected me to forgo my — and my parent’s — financial stability in order to tear down some vaguely defined “man.” It’s true that consultants work within a financial structure that often prioritizes returns to shareholders over the prosperity of everyday people. I’m not saying that consultants should be absolved from their employer’s sins. But maybe, as Devin said, “It’s easier to criticize a 22-year-old making PowerPoints, than it is to confront the factors that drove the person to the job in the first place.” But we must be candid about what those factors are. For some people, it’s the need to pay their family’s bills. But for others, it’s the desire to maintain the lifestyle that they’ve always known.

Something Devin said broke my idealist heart. “The truth of the matter is, even if I don’t believe that McKinsey is inherently more valuable than Shakespeare, I live in a world that does. So, it’s not nonsensical of me to acquiesce to these forces that are way more powerful than my personal sense of what’s important.” Maybe we criticize our consulting friends because they reinforce McKinsey’s value. Our society operates on pragmatism more than romanticism, and that can be hard to swallow. Consultants embody the reality that we come to Yale to learn about truth and beauty and justice and somewhere along the way, we forfeit this pursuit to work at companies that stand for … what exactly?

For some Yalies, the consulting taboo stems less from capitalism or a lack of creativity, and more from an opportunity cost. Liam put it best: “Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is, what would the world be like if schools like Yale sent 30 percent of their students into careers with a direct benefit to society? … What if all those people worked in sustainability or something like that, instead of finance and consulting? What would the world look like if they did something they cared about?”

This statement, like Devin’s, also broke my idealist heart. But it gave me hope. I wonder what would happen if we let ourselves be lost for a while after graduation. Duncan is happy with the zigzags his life has taken — from Yale student, to consultant, to coffee shop owner. His story makes me wonder, what’s the point of searching for meaning in college if we don’t bring that with us into our daily lives? Maybe we should all make like Nietzsche — and Duncan — and live dangerously for a change.

Of course, some Yale students genuinely want to be consultants. Clara Penteado ’21, for instance, loved the often-dreaded case interview process. “I really like working on a case because of the problem-solving perspective. I love looking at data and finding out what the problem is,” she said. “It’s like this puzzle you need to solve, and I think it’s super fun.”

To those students like Clara — which I’ll bet is a lot smaller than 13.4 percent of the student body — I say, live your truth! It seems unfair for us to sit here at Yale, supported by alumni donations and the perks of an elite institution and say that our consulting friends are substantially more culpable for inequality than we are.

 

The notebook

In some ways, I’m more confused about consulting now than I was before I started talking to people about it. I feel very young and uncertain of what the life best lived should look like. However, these conversations have left me with a few tentative conclusions and some sage advice from Duncan.

The first, consulting is a valid choice for people who know it will be interesting and helpful for them.

The second, maybe, we should stop treating these aforementioned people like the master puppeteers of capitalism that they might not be.

And finally, and most importantly, to those people — like me -— who flock to consulting simply because they have no idea what else to do: consider looking elsewhere. Just because you haven’t had a divine revelation about your life, purpose and passion, doesn’t mean you should remain a generalist forever. Consulting for a few years will not free you from the burden of choice. It will mean working 80 hours per week.

But how do you know what you’re supposed to do, if it’s not consulting?

Duncan has some advice. Carry a small notebook — “a little 2.5x5inch spiral thing of some sort” — with you wherever you go. Keep it in your back pocket and note the moments when you feel “in the zone.” Duncan said you’ll know you’re there “when you lose all sense of time and place, and become so deeply enmeshed in what you’re doing that hours can go by and you won’t even notice.” When this happens, take out your little notebook and write down what you were doing. “Those are the things that are going to point you toward the path you’re supposed to be following,” he said. After a while, you’ll be able to look through it, identify patterns, and get a better picture of where you’re supposed to go next.

So I asked myself, what would I write in my notebook? And I found that none of it had anything to do with consulting.

I had my answer.

To be clear, I did NOT have a divine revelation about my life, purpose and passion. And I am NOT moving to a cabin in the woods to write novels. I still need a job that pays me money. But how can I expect to get where I want to go if I don’t take any active steps to get there?

My next job is not going to be consulting, but for some, it will be. At the end of the day, this is an individual decision. I don’t believe that becoming a consultant is inherently right or wrong — life is too complicated for blanket statements like that. What matters is that we make our choices deliberately, that we don’t just trudge down the path which requires the least agency. Life is so open to us — more open than it is to most people, more open than it was to our parents. There are always going to be more figs on the tree than we know what to do with. Let’s trust ourselves enough to pick one.

 

Nancy Walecki | nancy.walecki@yale.edu

  • SVV

    Left-wing brainwashing produces hypocrites who long for capitalism’s fruits but must virtue-signal their disapproval. How is that a good thing?