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Material world, material career?

As the frenzy of fall job recruiting grips campus, throngs of suit-clad, portfolio-armed Duke students have become a familiar sight. Behind the scenes, students spend hours perfecting resumes, polishing interview answers and diligently networking with company employees. The targets of these all-consuming efforts are coveted job opportunities with a handful of elite firms—predominantly within the consulting and finance industries—that recruit extensively at Duke every year.

The intense affinity for finance and consulting jobs among Duke students has become something of an enduring professional trend on campus; in 2015, 7.7 percent of the graduating class went into consulting and 13.6 percent went into finance. The high number of Duke students going into consulting and finance can be explained by a number of different factors. For students across the socioeconomic spectrum, the pressure to achieve upward mobility and yield high returns on their families’ investments in a costly Duke education may weigh heavily in their post-graduation career choices. Consulting and finance are also marketed as “challenging” environments for smart, analytical thinkers—qualities that many Duke students clearly possess. Moreover, the most selective firms usually handpick only a few out of hundreds of applicants across only a limited number of so called “target schools.” In many ways, they mirror the same type of highly elite, rigorous milieus Duke students are naturally drawn towards. The perceptions of peers and the examples set by upperclassman mentors can serve as an additional motivator. Undoubtedly, entry-level jobs in consulting and finance also come with intrinsic benefits, providing opportunities for growth and exploration and serving as launch pads into other careers.

However, other pressures can lead students to make hasty or under-informed decisions to pursue consulting or finance without fully considering other options or where their genuine interests lie. As recruiting schedules are pushed increasingly earlier into the school year, juniors, many of whom have declared their majors only months earlier, are swept up into a flurry of consulting and finance recruiting events within days of settling back onto campus. Without sufficient time to fully develop their academic and professional interests, students may see consulting and finance as the safest “default” options. Another unfortunate reason that students pursue these careers at such disproportionate rates is simply the “availability heuristic”—consulting and finance are the most visible career options on campus, and the costs and inconvenience of gathering information about lesser-known careers are too high. Elite firms can invest enormous amounts of resources into maintaining high profiles and wooing students, from flying out their employees for on-campus outreach events to renting glitzy venues like the Washington Duke Inn. In contrast, start-ups, public sector and nonprofit companies may lack the resources to dominate the job recruitment market. 

Given this skewed information environment, Duke should make an effort to compensate for the disparities in accessing information concerning different career paths. The Career Center can hold information sessions during the spring to expose students to alternative career paths like graduate school, public and social sector work, and lesser-known opportunities in the commercial sector, before the onset of the hectic fall recruiting season. The Embark program is one example of a potential remedy, providing robust resources to help students navigate opportunities and network to find career paths in policy related areas. Programs like these can expand students’ awareness of the full realm of opportunities and possibilities beyond Duke, and facilitate better-informed decision-making in mapping their passions to fulfilling career paths.

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