Consulting our Lack of Options

Dartmouth has a history of shuffling students into consulting and finance jobs post-grad. But are those really the only career paths worthy of consideration?

by Solenne Wolfe | 5/27/21 2:10am

by Julia Siegel / The Dartmouth Staff

Consultant (n.): a person who provides expert advice professionally. 

The word was once unfamiliar to me, and more than that, it was a word I never anticipated encountering in high school, where my primary concern was getting through the piles of homework between me and college. Now, at Dartmouth, the word is the animating force in most conversations about future careers. Many of my peers’ aspirations turned towards career paths with opaque titles like “consultant” and “analyst.” A whole new set of words was added to my vocabulary, all of them sounding intentionally clipped, as if to further muddy their meaning: “PE” (an acronym for Private Equity) is not a sixth period class about kickball, and “quant” is used unironically to describe those who work with numbers. 

These words don’t mean much on their own, but they gesture towards a broader feeling: to say that you want to be a consultant or an analyst, or to be in PE or IB is synonymous with financial security in life. It implies making six figures, being debt-free, content and owning a home. 

When I told one of my friends back home about the popularity of consulting, she asked why so many people needed to be consultants. “Who’s consulting who about what?” she asked. Though she said it jokingly, in a world where it seems like so much of the appeal of these jobs is tied up in what they represent rather than what they are, we must ask the question. It’s less of a job, really, and more of an ideal — many elite higher education institutions have become pre-professional training grounds, teaching us to aspire to wealth disguised as success and productivity.

To be fair, the job sounds interesting: working on Wall Street promises to be dynamic and exciting. It provides a six-figure salary out of college, the chance to travel the world and all of those other things that eighteen year olds usually aspire to. It’s a perfect fit for natural-born problem solvers and students who don’t want to be tied down by one particular field. 

It also makes sense that our generation would look towards finance or consulting as career paths. As children during the 2008 financial crisis, perhaps we experienced the fiscal anxieties of our parents without being entirely old enough to understand what the cause was. Too young to know what subprime meant or how a mortgage worked, we lived through a cultural and financial turning point without being able to describe in our own words what would happen next. It’s hard to blame anyone for fantasizing about a sense of security, desiring to be comfortable or wanting to provide for their family. The problem is that while Wall Street might stand in for a sense of financial security, it is actually a fantasy of wealth. 

Up to a certain threshold, having more money does in fact reduce stress and create security. According to World Gallup Poll data from 1.7 million people in 164 countries, at ninety-five thousand dollars a year, people are able to experience “life satisfaction,” and between sixty thousand and seventy-five thousand dollars a year there is significant evidence that people are able to find “emotional well-being.” The average base pay for an analyst at Goldman Sachs, the third most popular employer for Dartmouth graduates in 2019, is over 95,000 not including bonuses, according to GlassDoor. The idea that a twenty-three year old just out of college would be able to make more than enough money to provide for themselves is appealing, especially for a generation who grew up in unstable financial times. My goal is not to hold the desire to work in consulting or finance against the undergraduates who want to pursue that, but rather to question the motivations and implications of these decisions. 

While a two-year analyst position might seem like a benign stepping stone, it is a shame that the best and brightest of our generation could end up using their education to cut costs for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The idea that consulting is just “crunching numbers” is not benign at all. Some of the most lucrative clients for major consulting firms are organizations that many fresh-faced college grads would claim to condemn: ICE, Purdue Pharma (a major opioid distributor) and even the Saudi government, to name a few. 

The idea of the so-called future leaders of America being completely disconnected from what their labor entails — lost jobs, price gouging at supermarkets, forced deportations — is antithetical to a liberal arts education. The idea that a good employee should aspire to meet their client’s goals at any cost is terrifying. 

And yet, the allure of financial security is so pervasive that Dartmouth students are content to pin their hopes and dreams on validation from a set of firms and a couple of recruitment cycles. It’s not that these jobs don’t teach people things, or aren’t legitimate, but that it often feels there are few other viable options, especially in the more “elite” institutions of American higher education. 

That almost half of Dartmouth’s graduating class is entering these fields shows the monopoly that institutions like Deloitte, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and Bain & Company have on high-achieving college students. In some ways, it makes sense — students most motivated to rack up extracurricular achievements and grind for all As in school are the same students who want the best for themselves in the workforce. But why is the best synonymous with the most money?

I wonder what the liberal arts means in my life as I struggle through my engineering prerequisites. It seems like the structure of our courses is meant to give us room to explore for the first two years of college, without committing. Yet, almost all of my freshman friends have a vision for their undergraduate years and their first job out of college, and most have built out their life plans far beyond that. It’s difficult to explore and feel free to do so when the growing pressure to make money looms overhead like a cloud waiting to rain on my idealistic, liberal arts dreams. I feel like I have to commit to something, or else I will become the stereotype of the humanities student reading books and frolicking in fields for four years just to end up unemployed. It makes me sad to think about how intelligent and thoughtful all of my classmates are, and how somehow we have all bought into the fantasy that there are only four to five viable jobs postgrad. Give me your most promising students and four years, and I will give you a boxed set of future lawyers, consultants, investment bankers, doctors and engineers. 

It makes sense that we would be inclined to plan our careers as choruses of older people impress the importance of our generation “saving the world” from the environmental and political catastrophes already unfolding. Still, it doesn’t seem right that the institutions designed to teach students how to learn are becoming pre-professional black boxes that take bright-eyed freshmen and turn them into seniors who think they have only a handful of options to choose from in order to live a productive life. 

The reason that Dartmouth does not have a business major is because students are supposed to study an intellectual field like government or economics rather than learning only the skills required to work in Excel spreadsheets. When we discuss our classes, we should be able to talk about what blew our minds or puzzled us instead of how an interviewer might question our grade in the course years down the line. 

The truth is that even with the sticker of approval by an elite consulting firm or law school or med school, we will still have to live with ourselves at the end of the day. Our bodies will still breathe, our cells will still reproduce, the world will continue spinning no matter what the LSAT or GRE or MCAT says. Without denying the anxieties we face, is there any way to take some time to be present with ourselves and each other by being honest about not knowing what the job market will look like, not knowing what our title will be, and not knowing if we have chosen the “right” path? Can we take some of the pressure off and rest easy knowing that there likely is no right path, and that we have only exposed ourselves to a fraction of the available paths in the first place?