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Last fall, many of my friends received prestigious job offers from finance and consulting companies. And before I knew it, it seemed that most of them were choosing from one of those fields for their post-graduation employment.
I was not interested in a job on Wall Street, but I started to feel frantic when I realized I had no idea what my post-graduation plan would look like. When a Teach for America recruiter contacted me in October, I was eager to sit down and talk to him about the program, even though previously I had known little about TFA and was not particularly interested in working in K-12 education. After speaking to the recruiter, I applied to the program and got an offer in January.
When I received the offer, I realized that I didn’t actually want to work for TFA, but despite this realization, I didn’t know if I could turn down the offer. It was January of my senior year, and it was the only one. Many of my friends told me that I would be crazy to say no, considering the circumstances.
The Average Columbian
Bartlomiej Piela, a senior in CC who plans to work at JPMorgan Chase after graduation, sums up the problem as follows: The average Columbia student seems to break down their post-graduation options into five categories—finance, consulting, Teach for America, graduate school, and other. And, as Piela says, “there’s a lot of uncertainty about ‘other.’”
Based on information gathered by Columbia’s Center for Career Education, of the 55.7 percent of the 2011 Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science graduates employed the fall after they graduated, 26.9 percent were working in finance, 10.5 percent were working in consulting, 9.8 percent were working in education, and 22.8 percent were attending graduate school.
The employer that hires the most Columbia graduates is TFA, and six of the top 10 employers are financial institutions—Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Barclays Capital, Bank of America, and Citigroup.
Statistics gathered by Harvard show a similar trend. 16.5 percent of the 61.8 percent of 2011 Harvard College students employed are working in finance, while 12.5 percent are working in consulting, and 11.8 percent are in education. Furthermore, 2011 was the first year in the past five years that the percentage of Harvard students working in finance fell below 20 percent.
Su Ann Lim, a senior in CC who decided to turn down an offer at a consulting firm to work for the United Nations in Indonesia after graduation, says of this post-graduation trend,“It’s so sad—there’s so much potential, and it’s not being tapped.”
Finance and Consulting: Everyone’s Doing It
In the fall, I noticed that many of my friends, of all different majors, were getting offers in finance. When I voiced concerns about post-graduation employment to my dad, expressing my concern that the only jobs available were in finance and consulting, he asked, “Well, why don’t you apply to those jobs?”
While the large starting salaries offered by finance and consulting jobs seem the obvious reasons that over one-third of employed Columbia students choose this career path, students say that the money is only one of many factors.
A dominant reason for this trend seems to be the sheer visibility of these companies on campus. Not only do finance and consulting recruiters constantly host information sessions throughout the year, but it seems as though every graduating senior is talking about a future career in at least one of the two. George Haines, a senior in CC, says Capital One invited some of its Columbia applicants to a Yankees game in New York City in order for the students to have a chance to talk to employees and get a feel for what the company was like.
The visibility of these companies on campus creates the perception that finance and consulting are the only jobs open to graduating seniors. Furthermore, people feel that everyone else around them either wants to work or is already working at these jobs. CCE Dean Kavita Sharma says, “The Goldman Sachs, the McKinseys … all have dedicated staff for recruiting,” when employers in other industries do not. This, she says, “creates the perception that everyone does it [finance]—but they don’t.”
However, even if the perception is untrue, the fact that students have it is noteworthy. “If everyone at Columbia wants to work there, that’s going to exert pressure on you to work there,” Piela says. When students see that 26.9 percent of last year’s class is working in finance, it is natural for them to consider the path for themselves—especially if they don’t know what else to do.
Finance and consulting companies also appeal to students’ fears of uncertainty—both by recruiting early and by imitating the college admissions process.
“It’s brilliant for Wall Street firms to recruit from September. That’s a huge short-term benefit for students going into finance—they don’t have to worry about a job anymore,” Piela says.
“Some students want that security. It’s about the students’ priorities,” Sharma says.
On top of this, shy of a common application, applying to financial firms is almost identical to applying to college. Both are highly structured processes in which students are assessed on the basis of GPA, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, and personal attributes.
Al Spuler, CCE’s executive director of administration and planning, says that students have to be knowledgeable about the industry and show interest in it to succeed. “There’s a difference between there being structure behind the process and the process being easy,” Spuler says.
Columbia students, though, are hardly strangers to rigorous application processes. In fact, it is precisely the competition in both finance and consulting and the prestige that comes with it that many students find appealing.
However, some Columbia students choose to go into such fields solely for these reasons, without a great knowledge of the actual job. “I feel that for a good amount of people, they don’t know what they are getting themselves into,” Jason Su, a junior in SEAS, says. For example, he says of investment banking, “If you look more into it, it’s actually not very attractive at all … I haven’t met an investment banker who enjoys their work.”
While many students do enjoy the strategic, quantitative work that both finance and consulting offer, there is a general feeling from people that the jobs are not what they used to be. Such a feeling was made particularly public when ex-Goldman Sachs executive director Greg Smith wrote an op-ed in the New York Times this month titled “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs.” “I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work,” Smith wrote, claiming that workers have come to care too much about making money as opposed to creating beneficial relationships with clients.
“Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing,” Smith wrote. “Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.”
Teach for America
Despite the significant interest in finance and consulting, Teach for America is the No. 1 employer of Columbia students, as well as University of Pennsylvania, and Brown University students. Last year, approximately 18 percent of Harvard’s graduating class applied to the program, according to the Harvard Crimson. It is one of the few employers that has been able to compete with the large financial firms to draw in students. They have done this in part by mirroring financial firms’ recruitment and application processes.
They recruit early and enthusiastically and try to make the application process as accessible as possible. TFA also has five different application rounds throughout the year so that students can choose how early they would like to apply—allowing TFA to effectively compete with all industries’ hiring schedules. At Columbia this year, the recruiters emailed most of the senior class and some of the junior class throughout the year to invite them to have a chat about the program in one of the cafés on campus. Wendy Kopp, who founded TFA, even came to campus to speak about the program and answer questions from current applicants.
Sierra Kuzava, a senior in Columbia College who applied to TFA, says she appreciated all the support and help she received from TFA while applying. “It feels like my attention and time really mattered to the TFA reps,” Kuzava says.
After I got an offer, I received a number of phone calls from TFA representatives to discuss the program. Throughout the decision process, recruiters assured accepted applicants that the program would be a rewarding experience and benefical for the applicant’s future. They were very persistent in encouraging admitted applicants to accept the offer.
Like finance recruitment, TFA’s recruitment process has been highly criticized for accepting college seniors who know nothing about eduction and are not interested in pursuing it beyond the two-year commitment. Kuzava,who is majoring in psychology and would like to go into developmental psychology, ended up withdrawing her application because she realized that she could better prepare herself for graduate school by doing research.
Also, during Kuzava’s first-round interview, she was slightly put off by TFA’s misplaced priorities. “I have quite a bit of experience working with children and it’s pretty heavily featured on my resume. But I wasn’t asked about any of it during the phone interview,” Kuzava says in an email. “ The interviewer only asked about less important extracurriculars, the few I had listed that didn’t involve children. I came away from the interview with a sense that my enthusiasm and experience with kids and ultimate career goals didn’t really matter, and I found that to be a bit disillusioning.”
The high turnover rate of TFA teachers in schools, is often attacked by people who believe education should be viewed as a long-term career goal as opposed to a two-year stepping stone.
On a blog called The Assailed Teacher, an anonymous NYC public school teacher discusses his or her experience working with a variety of TFA teachers over the past 12 years. While many TFA teachers were effective in the classroom, the teacher complains that the TFA teachers do not take the profession seriously, seeing it as a temporary job.
An Assailed Teacher blogger criticizes one student who is thinking about joining TFA to be professional writer: “You want to write, so you are going to teach? It shouldn’t work that way. Children are not subjects for your next book or an excuse for you to say ‘I taught poor kids for a few years.’
The impression that TFA does not expect participants to pursue careers in education beyond the two-year commitment comes partly from the fact that TFA partners with employers from Goldman Sachs to Google. Goldman Sachs, for example, will grant two-year deferrals for students who have received offers from TFA.
Furthermore, many TFA participants feel that they are unprepared for the responsibilities that they are taking on. For example, they can assign students to subjects that they have not studied in years. I am an English literature and philosophy double major. Yet I was assigned to teach middle or high school mathematics.
Kristi Eaton, a graduate of Arizona State University, wrote an article in 2008 called “Teach for America Dropouts” for the website Campus Progress. The article features Lauren Baideme, a 2008 New York University graduate who joined TFA.
Baideme told Eaton that TFA’s training program left her struggling: “[I was] absolutely not as prepared as I should have felt, in my opinion. I had some resources, some management skills, [and] some contacts. But really, in my heart, I felt that I had no idea what I was doing.”
It is not uncommon for TFA teachers to be overwhelmed and unhappy during their two-year commitment, especially during the first year. Being faced with struggling kids in underperforming schools is not an easy task—especially if you know next to nothing about teaching.
Certain Paths, Uncertain Students
Columbia prides itself on being a liberal arts institution that teaches its students how to think critically rather than learn skills directly related to a profession. But, in reality, when students are faced with finding internships or jobs, they are left with confusion and insecurity—what does one really do in the world with a major in classics? Or philosophy? Or even engineering?
Su studies financial engineering and plans to intern at JPMorgan Chase this summer in sales and trading. He says that he is going into finance because he does not know what else to do with his degree. “I don’t see myself doing something in pure engineering, so what else can I do?” Su says. “I came into college knowing nothing about finance, and it’s there for the taking,” he adds.
One thing financial firms, consulting firms, and TFA have in common is that they do not care about a student’s choice of major. Investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan proudly advertise on their websites that they accept students from all educational backgrounds.
Piela, who is going to work in finance and who majored in philosophy at Columbia, is an example. “I don’t regret doing philosophy, I think it’s made me a much better critical thinker than other people,” he says. Furthermore, he adds that no major, not even a seemingly practical one like engineering, really prepares you for a job. “Things you are going to learn at work will always be different from the things you learn at school,” Piela says.
In fact, people’s motivations for pursuing a job at Goldman Sachs or Boston Consulting Group seem similar to their motivations for pursuing an undergraduate degree in philosophy. Both serve as good preparation for the future while simultaneously leaving students’ options open.
Piela decided against a Ph.D. in philosophy after graduating because he felt it would limit his long-term options. “For the longest time, since day one at Columbia, I thought I would go ahead and do a Ph.D. in philosophy,” Piela says. Eventually, however, he realized that “once you go into the Ph.D. program, it’s rigid. It’s the only thing you can do. Who’s going to hire a Ph.D. in philosophy?”
After coming to this realization junior year, Piela added a concentration in economics and applied to internships in finance. He landed an internship at JPMorgan Chase and now plans to return there for a full-time job in asset management after graduation. Piela feels that after he works as an analyst at JPMorgan Chase, many paths will still be open to him. “In some sense, all the easier decisions defer the big decision, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’” Piela says. “When you don’t know what to do with your life, why wouldn’t you take a good job offer from Goldman?”
Ultimately, many students I talked to say that they do not know what they would have pursued if they had not chosen one of these paths. Many don’t see the resources available that would make another possibility easily attainable.
Lim says, “Development and civic-centric work … is always something I’ve wanted to do, and even when I did consulting internships, I kept thinking about how much more I wanted to do development work.”
However, when Lim tried to use campus resources to pursue international development, she had trouble finding resources that would be useful to her. “If CCE truly felt like they had to address the need for more diverse post-graduation options or cultivate an interest in alternative fields, I’d expect that we should have seen them pursue more intensive programming for other industries beside banks, consulting, law, and TFA, which I believe already come to Columbia on their own accord because the demand already exists,” Lim says.
“Other industries should be more visible,” Su agrees. “It’s unfortunate that you have to look so hard to go into something else.”
Katherine Bell, a senior in SEAS who is studying mechanical engineering and plans to work in operations at JPMorgan Chase after graduation, says she turned to finance because she wasn’t confident she could secure a job in engineering, partially due to what she perceives as Columbia’s lack of relationships with engineering firms. “You can’t just apply through a black box,” Bell says. “Your résumé looks the same as every other in the nation.”
“I think a lot of people end up going into it [finance] because they couldn’t get another job,” Bell says.
Changing the trend
Spuler, however, insists that Columbia does have relationships with other industries, although those employers do not come to campus. “Just because students don’t see jobs through on-campus recruiting, it doesn’t mean we don’t have relationships with them,” he says. CCE hosts a range of events with employers from other industries each year, he adds.
Furthermore, many students and administrators on campus are attempting to include other possible industries in the campus discussion. Last week, CCE held the first startup career fair at Columbia in response to the student interest they’ve seen in startups. “We are seeing that conversation happen on campus, so we know students are interested in it,” Spuler says.
Delta GDP, the Growth and Development Project at Columbia University, is planning an event to highlight development consulting, which they believe is “an innovative, relatively unknown branch and potentially attractive for specialists in economics, finance, engineering and other areas,” says Joachim Mowinckel, a student in GS and secretary of Delta GDP. The event will feature Eric Hansen, the president of Economic Transformations Group, who plans to speak about the industry and his company. Bell says the Society of Women Engineers is attempting to build more relationships with engineering firms.
According to Spuler, LionSHARE—CCE’s job search engine—features a plethora of jobs that are not finance-related. Indeed, the industry with the most postings on LionSHARE is philanthropy and nonprofit work, while the second is public relations, advertising, and marketing. The third is finance.
Sharma says that students should not think that finance is the only path. “If it’s for you, that’s great. If it’s not, there are plenty of things you could do,” she says. “I’m passionate about people pursuing their passions.”
Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard, spoke out against the current trend of students working on Wall Street in a speech to graduating seniors in 2008. “As I have listened to you talk about the choices ahead of you, I have heard you articulate your worries about the relationship of success and happiness—perhaps, more accurately, how to define success so that it yields and encompasses real happiness, not just money and prestige. The most remunerative choice, you fear, may not be the most meaningful and the most satisfying.”
“But if you don’t try to do what you love—whether it is painting or biology or finance—if you don’t pursue what you think will be most meaningful, you will regret it. Life is long. There is always time for Plan B. But don’t begin with it,” she said.
However, in my conversations, I’ve learned that many students are unsure how to follow this advice. They are still grappling with what they want to do and are trying to define who they are. They are constantly overcome by the high expectations they face as Columbia students and are often forced to conduct their job searches while also under intense pressure from their academic and extracurricular lives. As a result, following the mainstream path has become desirable because, in many ways, it is much less risky. But in the end, Columbia students will have to decide if, after so many years of hard work, they are really willing to settle.
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