“Finance bros,” “sell outs" and “snakes”—these colloquial terms have found homes in our vocabulary, and we regularly make memes of these stereotypes in mockery. Yet, after the laughter dies down, we still find ourselves applying to these jobs in finance and consulting.
Despite accusations of McKinsey encouraging bribery and supporting authoritarian governments or Facebook placing our democracy at stake, year after year I hear of my peers signing offers to join these same firms. And while it’s true that social good or social impact departments within these companies exist, if you even need a specific department labeled as “social good,” what does that say about the company overall?
The most common justification for working at these firms that I’ve heard is that it is a foolproof way to build important skills, from problem-solving to teamwork. People describe to me only short-term plans to stay in this rigorous and grueling industry, in order to arm themselves with an arsenal of skills before switching out to something else. These well-paying jobs can often be a treated as a way to afford true passions or hobbies, whether it’s checking out new restaurants on the weekend or if it’s financially supporting a grassroots organization that you care about. But when people often leave this industry unhappy after a short two-year tenure, perhaps the ends do not justify the means.
Let me be quick to hop off of any moral high horse that it may seem like I’m on. In fact, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no angel either—a quick LinkedIn stalking of me will reveal that I’ve worked for a financial company in my past too. But this is in part what has contributed to my current belief that the ends do not necessarily justify the means with respect to professional choices.
So why, then, did I sign an offer for last summer to work for one of these firms, when I knew it did not align with my true passions and values?
It’s especially off-putting when I realize that when I was a freshman, none of my friends even knew what consulting or investment banking really entailed. Yet, according to Duke’s Senior Survey in 2018, the two industries of finance and consulting alone accounted for 21 percent of jobs for new Duke graduates. Add in the tech industry, and that number jumps to almost 38 percent.
Perhaps these statistics seems normal if you think about how finance, consulting and tech really do make up the meat of the American economy… other jobs arguably lie in the margins. Regardless, these industries employ recruitment strategies that attract not only economics majors, but also students from seemingly unrelated fields like sociology and English.
Wall Street’s classic “two-and-out” program structure, in which new employees join firms for just two years, makes it an appealing temporary home for recent college graduates looking for a sense of stability without commitment. In his book "Young Money," Kevin Roose describes a scene that we are all too familiar with—big name companies wining and dining impressionable students, handing out free swag, and offering massive paychecks. With all of these incentives, it’s easy to find ourselves competing for jobs that we had either never heard of before or had thought of as “dull and lacking much social purpose.”
A study from sociologist Amy J. Binder of Harvard undergraduates reached the same conclusion—that “the vast presence of on-campus, structured recruitment every fall for finance and consulting gets students’ attention, plays on their competitiveness, and leads them to apply to jobs that, only a year or two earlier, they had never heard of.”
I logged in to Duke CareerConnection’s “Employer Hosted Events” front page to see how accessible finance and consulting is on campus. Of the 15 events on the first page, 12 were from companies in the finance or consulting industries. There’s no doubt that Duke has a proclivity for the pre-professional, but the question at hand is: Is Duke as an institution actively encouraging students to enter these industries over exploring other fields, or is it simply responding to a pre-existing demand?
Outside of Duke’s campus, it’s reasonable to attribute this whole dilemma of students flocking to finance and consulting as a product of capitalism. Financial firms, tech companies and similar businesses tend to pay incredibly well, and college kids enjoy spending their summers in big cities. Perhaps it’s natural that we gravitate towards these high-paying jobs (that just so happen to not be the most morally clean).
In the same vein, the way that capitalism has prioritized these industries means that “pursuing one’s true passions” is very much an act of privilege. Not everyone has parents that can subsidize summer housing or relieve other financial burdens, and I can’t expect someone to be willing to work on a $13/hour salary when I don’t know their background or what they are financially supporting. For some, the high income that these firms provide is a necessity.
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But outside of these special cases, and especially when 69 percent of Duke students come from the top 20 percent of America in terms of income, the flocking to consulting info sessions that happens every year just doesn’t sit right with me. Even though the careers that may align better with our real passions aren’t as accessible on campus as finance and consulting, we should still put in the time and effort to seek them—even if it means turning away from the path of least resistance.
I often ask my friends the question, “When you were younger, what did you want to be?” The way this question is framed seems to imply the career as a state of being, an intimate role tied to who you are as a person. If this is true, we ought to hold our professional choices to the same standards that we hold ourselves to as people.
Emily Liu is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.