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The Big Four

Duke students talk about it informally all the time, but at the Career Center it has a special name. William Wright-Swadel, Fannie Mitchell executive director of career services, and his staff call it “The Big Four”—lawyer, doctor, consultant and banker—the small set of careers that Duke students seem to deem acceptable.

A whopping 24.6 percent of 2011 graduates from Duke pursued finance. Subtract similarly high numbers of pre-med, pre-law and, increasingly, pre-consulting students from the overall Duke student body, and there are not many students left.

The Big Four phenomenon is odd when you consider the overwhelming array of interests, passions and talents exhibited by Duke students. Why would a collection of individuals seem so diverse upon entering a university, but mostly funnel into only four narrow careers upon exiting?

We must examine both sides of the job search process: the desires of the individual student and the options presented to him or her.

First, on the student side, the issue of prestige weighs heavily on our minds. As Wright-Swadel puts it, Duke students never met a contest they did not like. In other words, Duke students are inevitably attracted to jobs that, for whatever reason, are also attractive to other people. “Duke students will enter a competition for a prize they don’t even want,” Wright-Swadel says. It is hard to walk away from the prizes awaiting students at the end of these arduous contests—for example, the long and intense interview process of management consulting, which is occurring this month. The combination of prestige and the “sunk cost” of having already competed for these jobs draws students away from careers not encompassed by the Big Four.

Second, students looks to the Career Center’s career fairs for possible job opportunities, but these career fairs give a limited and distorted impression of the diversity of jobs that exist in the real world. This is the result of a coordination problem. Given the Big Four phenomenon, many non-Big Four employers cannot successfully recruit Duke students. Take an engineering firm, for example, who might consider on-campus recruiting worthwhile for 40 or so graduating mechanical engineers—except half of them have defected to pursue finance and consulting. The remaining 20 mechanical engineers are not worth the company’s time and money to recruit. It is a vicious cycle: The Big Four phenomenon wards off alternative employers—engineering firms, advertising agencies, retail companies and other promising places to launch one’s professional life—from career fairs, which then fools students to thinking these alternative career paths do not even exist.

How does a Duke student navigate the Big Four phenomenon? First, understand that career fairs cannot be your only paradigm to gauge the job landscape, which is large, diverse and constantly evolving. Second, do not let prestige, money or the thrill of winning accolades—none of which are shameful desires—prevent you from choosing an interesting career that encourages you to grow and arcs toward the life you want to lead decades from now. Third, be reflective about your educational and professional goals throughout college, not just in your last year. This last suggestion will be the focus of Thursday’s editorial.