Chun: Students to Water

by Steven Chun | 5/30/16 5:30pm

I have a friend from home who just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. He is especially reflective and keen to proffer advice. Just a few months before he entered the real world, he sent me an article from Sociology of Education titled “Career Funneling: How Elite Students Learn to Define and Desire ‘Prestigious’Jobs.” Of everything he’s ever told me, from “don’t take dumb classes freshman year” to “don’t worry, you’re at Dartmouth — you can always sell out,” this article was the single most enlightening piece of information.

The gist of it is that kids at elite schools — here defined as the Ivy League and comparable schools — go into the finance, consulting and now technology industries at alarmingly high rates. Of Harvard University’s Class of 2014, 31 percent went into finance or consulting. But this is nothing new, especially at Dartmouth. What was fascinating was the analysis of why these fields are so coveted. But before I jump into the myriad of social machinations that make elite students dream of sugarplums and Goldman Sachs, I want to emphasize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with these jobs. Dartmouth’s biting self-awareness has already, often humorously, done plenty to point out this trend. But financial markets are necessary for any developed country and incredibly important in driving economic growth (and occasionally crashing it). Tech is driving huge advances in essentially every single field you can think of from agriculture to rocketry. Consulting…does something. I’m still not sure exactly what it is, but it’s probably important.

But then again, these jobs are not significantly different from any of the prestigious jobs that generations past aspired to. The article notes the fact that in the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department were the top destinations for elite students. Years later, in the 1970s and 1980s, the desired jobs were in the triumvirate of law, medicine and corporate business. However, it’s not really the specific jobs that we’re curious about: it’s the reason why elite students consistently gravitate towards such a narrow field.

The article found that all the factors that influence this narrowing of perceived “prestigious jobs” had a commonality: they all occur on the college campus. Firstly, college career centers and recruiting services are heavily skewed towards finance and consulting, primarily due to the high fees these sectors are willing to pay to have access to the student body. Secondly, the very instinct that led many of us here to Dartmouth also drives a competitive desire for acceptance into prestigious jobs and internships. Finance and consulting have very formalized recruitment processes. In an interview, a Stanford University student described it by saying, “As soon as you enter the more senior courses, [consulting] is what everyone is talking about. And it sort of becomes this affirmation for how you rank with respect to your peers… It sucks a lot of people in.”

The fact is, these jobs are prestigious because we, as students, have decided that they are prestigious. Even though we are exposed to diverse career opportunities, a combination of intensive recruiting and a cultural emphasis on these sectors has significantly narrowed our considerations for the future. Pursuing these fields helps us satisfy common insecurities — the need to do something “impressive” with our degree and to provide some financial security so we can “move onto something bigger and better.” The existence of these factors isn’t a reason not to pursue finance, consulting or tech if those fields excite you but, rather, I beg you to remain conscious of the forces that can make these fields seem like the only option. It’s a tragedy if an aspiring academic or public servant shorts themselves for the security of a six-figure paycheck and a big name.

Prestige is a curious thing. It really only holds value when we’re looking for validation from others. For a high school student, prestigious awards are valuable because that student will soon be evaluated by colleges. For college students, prestigious degrees are valuable because we will soon be evaluated by companies or graduate schools. But after that, the value of external validation sharply declines. At some point, we will — or at least should — be living our lives to satisfy ourselves — not some external evaluator. At that point, prestige is worthless. As such, it’s important to know how and why we are led to the holy pool of exalted jobs, and it’s also important to know that we don’t have to drink from it.