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Confessions of a consultant

It’s not an easy thing to admit. It’s something that is a very big part of who I am, and it’s something that I’ve hidden from all of you for almost eight hours now. Members of the Duke community, I have a confession to make: I am a future consultant. This morning, I signed my offer letter and solidified my status as one of those dirty C-words.

You might be wondering why this is hard for me to admit. You see, I entered this University pre-med. I came to Duke with aspirations to join a profession that is perceived as being prestigious and intellectual, but simultaneously grueling and selfless (or at least it should be). It’s not easy coming to terms with the fact that I’m ultimately joining a profession that people associate with bratty 20-something-year-olds from elite universities with no definitive career aspirations besides making a lot of money.

As much as consulting is a very sought-after industry for students leaving top schools like Duke—there’s a rumor going around campus that Bain & Company received over 600 applications this year from Duke students alone—it simultaneously has a stigma for being overrun by students that choose it for the wrong reason, or for a lack of any reason whatsoever.

Just as there are the Big Three management consultancies—Bain & Company, McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group—at Duke there are the Big Four career paths: doctor, lawyer, banker, consultant. The science-minded become doctors, the humanities-minded become lawyers, the economic-minded become bankers and the rest becoming consultants or “settle” for a less-uppity, inherently inferior industry.

This attitude unfairly creates a divide between the “pre-professionals” and the “others.” The pre-professionals, those pursuing a career in medicine, law or banking, complement themselves on having their lives figured out and maximizing the return on their parents’ Duke investment, while the “others” complement themselves on using college to explore their intellectual curiosities and following their dreams without settling on one of the prototypical careers mentioned above. And then there are the consultants—the ones uncomfortably left somewhere in the middle. We supposedly have the pre-professional aspirations of the former group, but haven’t yet figured out what that profession is. And we are supposed to have the intellectual curiosities of the latter, becoming consultants in a last ditch effort to buy some time in figuring our lives out … while simultaneously telling people more experienced than ourselves what to do.

Let me start by saying that there is some truth to the idea that students who come to liberal arts universities like Duke with their minds already 100 percent made up about their vocations are missing out on some valuable experiences and self-discovery. It is, however, an incredibly privileged perception to believe that every student should come to college purely out of intellectual curiosity and that every student is lucky enough to afford the possibility of leaving school without a well-paying job in reach. Moreover, though, the lines aren’t as clearly defined as “pre-professional” and “other.” As white-collar a profession as medicine may be, there’s a vast difference in the life—and salary—of a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills and an epidemiologist in Africa.

And when it comes to consultants, just because someone works at a generalist firm doesn’t mean he is clueless about his aspirations after that two-year contract is up. Duke students have an unimaginably vast array of vocational interests, and not all of them match up nicely with postings on eRecruiting. Just because I’d like to be the CEO of a pharmaceutical company in 20 years doesn’t mean there are any companies looking to hire me as one today. For me, and for many other students like me, consulting is the best way to step into the industry where we’d ultimately like to see ourselves. For other students who really don’t have a clue what they want to do in five, 10, 20 years from now, consulting may be the best way to step into any number of industries that their life after college may present to them. And that’s OK, too. Any employer will tell you that obtaining a degree from Duke (or any university) doesn’t mean you have the skills to do a job—it just means that you’re “trainable.” You can be trained to be a good doctor, lawyer, banker, consultant, or “other.” At the end of the day, we’re all more similar than we like to think.

The point is: Life at Duke is hard enough. We all worked our a--es off to get into Duke and to make it through. As seniors, we’re all working our a--es off to get job offers anywhere or acceptances to any graduate schools, let alone at the ideal company or the ideal school. Judging each other for our career decisions or indecisions doesn’t make any of it any easier.

Here’s how I see it: Maybe there are students here who only care about making money. And maybe there are students here who have no career aspirations at all. But I haven’t met any of them.

Scott Briggs is a Trinity senior and the editorial page editor. His biweekly column is part of the weekly Editor’s Note feature and runs on alternate Thursdays. Send Scott a message on Twitter @SBriggsChron.


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