Tuesday, June 24, 2008

the best and the brightest (aka you're not special)

a recent new york times article sent me on a journey of mental self-discovery - mostly made up of complaining to anyone who would sit still about how pissed off i was about the whole affair. so maybe "self-discovery" is a bit of a stretch. even so.

the topic: a so-called 'elite' education, and what that means to the individuals who go to schools such as harvard and yale. the times article asks the question "why are so many ivy-league graduates going to wall street?" the article fails to really answer that question because, like so many articles in the times of late, it is poorly-researched and has little to no structure. too harsh? suck it, times. teach your writers to use this crazy thing i call a "transition." research would also not hurt, while you're at it. the writers basically selected seemingly at random a handful of harvard seniors whose main similarity seems to have something to do with how much they enjoy hearing themselves talk to, shockingly enough, talk about their struggles to do something different from the hedge funds and i-banking all of their friends are going into. the writers did not, of course, interview anyone from any of the public service organizations on campus. one of the students in the audio slideshow segment actually had, as his plans for the coming year, NOTHING. i think that was supposed to inspire me to be bold like him and not sweat the whole 'job' thing, but i'm guessing he has someone else paying his rent while he does the whole "i'm too deep to be corporate and too rich to get a job like you commoners" thing.

i digress. i'm not actually here to rant about what a shitty job the times does of researching for articles, or the questionable merit of their interview subjects. the basic question still stands, and i think a few other people have done a better job of answering it than the times did, so i'd like to share some thoughts with you.

William Deresiewicz, in a better article (admittedly long, but i think worth it) starts out a bit awkward with an attempt to blame his own lack of social skills on yale, but goes on to turn that uncomfortable anecdote into a pretty interesting analysis. he talks about the constant repetition that you are the best and the brightest, the elitism at every turn, the vast amount of support you get from the institutions, and the notion of "entitled mediocrity." read the article for the nuance, but the main points i think are twofold:

1) entitlement: going to a school like harvard teaches you that you DESERVE to do a shitty job and still get an A, you DESERVE a six-digit starting salary your first year out of college, and you DESERVE all the praise you get. even more, you deserve those things because of something innate within yourself - that you got where you are because you really are the best, and not because of any privileges you may have had along the way. and most people, by the time second semester of freshman year rolls around, have begun to completely take every benefit they get for granted to the point that they would readily argue that an A- in a class they worked hard in proves there is no grade inflation, and that 3-week extension they got on a paper because they got sick is in no way out of the ordinary. by the time you graduate, your grip on reality has a 3.5 year head start, and you'll probably never recapture it.

2) expectations: harvard grads, and the parents of harvard grads, seem to expect not so much the development of the mind, as Deresiewicz puts it, but of the career. specifically, a high-paying corporate career. Deresiewicz calls it a lost opportunity, barack obama calls it a 'poverty of ambition.' it all amounts to the same thing: in a part of the world where you can afford to do pretty much whatever you want and still live a comfortable life, the "best and the brightest" don't consider 'anything you want' to be within the realm of acceptable careers. i know literally one person who did the teaching certification program through harvard, even though i knew tons of people who loved teaching and wanted to teach - my theory: you don't want to look as though you're "wasting" your ivy-league education on something you could have learned for less money. you don't want to look as though you failed to be all you can be. and while you're trying so hard not to fail, you're failing to realize that you're wasting your education instead on a career path that only requires you go through the motions: take test prep classes and AP classes in high school, get into an ivy league school, take uninteresting but easy classes to keep your gpa up, do e-recruiting for a major consulting firm, start in on a career you had never even heard of before you got to college, and that requires absolutely none of the education you had available to you but probably didn't take advantage of in your four years of college. talk about failure.

in the context of this discussion, jk rowling's recent commencement address seems pretty relevant. in her speech, on "the fringe benefits of failure," she explained that if she had not failed to succeed on the path chosen for her by parents, school, etc., she would never have had the courage to try doing what it was she actually wanted to do. and to me, that's the real answer to the question posed by the times. why are so many ivy-leaguers going to wall st? because it's ridiculously easy. you can get an entry-level job at an investment bank or a consulting firm with literally no knowledge at all, they'll train you on the job, and then pay you an absurd amount of money to just continue on the path they've set you on. once you're in, it's difficult to fail. whereas not taking that job forces you to think about what you actually might want to do, and in the process of trying to figure that out, more likely than not you'll realize your harvard education didn't prepare you for it (either that or you wasted your harvard education trying to fit in with future i-bankers and now its too late to go back and take that class at the school of public health), and you're no better-equipped to live your dream than you would be if you had gone to a different school. basically, you're not special, you're young, and you have a lot to learn. and coming hard on the heels of "you're the best and the brightest," "you're not special" just doesn't have that same magical ring. most people don't want to hear it.

so they don't hear it, they go get that i-banking job they've never dreamed of, and if they take the time to read shit like my blog, they get indignant because they have about 25 ready-made rationalizations for why i-banking was the career that made the most sense to them (and strangely enough, everyone they know). poverty of ambition is actually the perfect term for this. if i ever meet barack, i'll have to thank him for that.

anyways, to end this needlessly long post on a happy note, big shout out to all my people who are doing, or in the process of finding, whatever it is they want to do. there's a lot of those people too, and no one ever writes an article about them. dag.


emily0 said...

Thank you for writing that.

I think the other part of the problem is about background: did you work a crappy job trying to pay your way through? Did you take as many courses as humanly possible to make every bit of your money count?

So many people I knew had Harvard as playtime.

emily2 said...

"why are so many ivy-leaguers going to wall st?"

answer: student loans.

but yeah... ten years out, i don't really know a lot of people who stuck with i-banking as a "career." most just did it as a means to an end, i.e. to pay off their loans. some people i know are now on their second and third careers, making films or writing, for example. banking/consulting allowed them to obtain a financial cushion so they could pursue what they really loved.

it's the same reason why people go to large law firms. only the truly psychotic try to make partner at these firms. most people are there just to pay off their $150k in loans and then take an in house or non-profit job afterwards. a friend of mine just moved out west to work in alternative energy after toiling at a large firm to pay off her loans.

hope is not lost, young ones. :)

Juanita said...

Good post. I too read the NYTimes article and the other article. Too many people do go into those professions. It sucks but I think for many its just a way to generate some cash quickly before going onto bigger and better things. Also the connections that you make at these places are insane. It's like Harvard part 2. Also, don't forget that Harvard is not a cake walk for the sciences. There are no extensions on p-sets and exams! If it were so, I would have enjoyed my time MUCH more!

emily2 said...

juanita, yes. most people go into banking/consulting temporarily to generate cash quickly so that they can pursue something "bigger and better" (or at least more fun) down the road. and yes, the connections people make are pretty solid. i know (of) a group of people (friends of friends) - former bankers - who opened a restaurant/bar last year.

rather than "sucking," it seems practical and wise in my opinion. :)

kaya said...

all valid points. lets face it though - a lot of the people graduating harvard in this and future classes aren't exactly going to have "a ton" of loans to pay off. so the loan argument may quickly fly out the window with the way a lot of top-tier schools are re-vamping their financial aid. my bet is that won't much change the numbers of people going into banking/consulting etc, but we'll see.

emily2 said...

a lot of the people graduating harvard in this and future classes aren't exactly going to have "a ton" of loans to pay off.

boy was i born in the wrong decade... :) i'm still paying mine off. whoo!

anyway, assuming that the loan issue goes away, why is it so bothersome that some of your classmates may be taking a job that you may find unappealing? shouldn't the choices of other people be given extraordinarily little thought? i mean, i don't really prefer swiss cheese, but if my roommate likes swiss cheese, even for stupid reasons, why should it bother me?

i guess my point is... why is someone else's decision to go into banking or consulting even being questioned or analyzed? and why do people who go into these jobs often end up being pressured to feel guilty or apologetic? it's so silly.

kaya said...

i think there are a lot of reasons this question is being brought up. the main one raised in the longer article i linked to is that the lack of diversity in career choice out of college indicates an emphasis on career that may be undermining some of the learning potential at these institutions. other possible reasons its being brought up include a desire to see the incredible resources of these institutions leveraged towards something besides the united states economy, a desire to see a broader range of options presented to students so that they can make better-informed decisions about their next steps, and just plain curiosity.

Giselle Brianceschi said...

Quote: "ten years out, i don't really know a lot of people who stuck with i-banking as a "career." most just did it as a means to an end, i.e. to pay off their loans."

I-banking isn't meant to be a career for 99% of the people who go into it. That's how the system works. These firms want a steady flow of graduates from prestigious schools who they can grind up and spit out by the age of 35, pleasing their investors along the way. I think everything Kaya said in this essay is quite astute and I'd add that it's not always a happy ending for the kids who make this choice, and that's part of why we should care. The sense of failure, of not living up to all that "potential" everybody said you had, hits some of those 35-year-olds pretty hard I imagine.

The "cushion" myth is interesting. It's the same reason lots of law school graduates say they'll work for a firm for a short time, and then go pursue "what they really love," happily toting financial security along with them. But the vast majority of people don't really do that. Once people get accustomed to the lifestyle of an I-banker, they become mighty reluctant to trade down to the salary of a public school teacher.

emily2 said...

"[I]t's not always a happy ending for the kids who make this choice, and that's part of why we should care."

So you know what's best for them? Really?

As someone who has just gone to her 10th year reunion (from the same undergrad institution), I only ask that you let your contemporaries make their own life choices and not judge them. It's not your place.

And the cushion "myth" is not a myth. I've actually seen - yes WITNESSED - my classmates go into public interest law and other do-gooder law after leaving their large corporate law firms. I've actually WITNESSED former bankers go to design school (which they can now afford).

And what if they don't? Are they lesser people if they choose to continue i-banking? That's awfully presumptuous, don't you think? And why do you assume that people who choose to do i-banking really would be better off somewhere else?

Furthermore, nothing will guarantee happiness. I know just as many people who embarked on what they thought that they loved and realized a few years in that it wasn't for them. I was one of those people. Now all I want is a nice high paying job that will allow me to pay off my loans and do things like put down roots and start a family. This is something I never thought that I would want ten years ago.

Nothing in life is guaranteed. Your wants, desires, politics, needs... they change. Everything changes.

I ask that you please stop being maternalistic/paternalistic about your classmates.

lizz said...

Whoa, I don't think this has to get hostile. I'm not interested in judging any particular individual's decision, and I don't think that's what anyone is trying to do here - we're talking about aggregate behavior.

I think that we should all definitely keep in mind that old social analysis adage: the plural of anecdote is not data. I'm sure most of us know people who did/didn't get a lucrative financial services job out of college, or who did/didn't stay on that track after a few years, or who did/didn't have tons of debt to pay off.

Whatever choices individuals make, for whatever reasons, will contribute to some overall aggregate behavior. So it would be great to have answers to questions about that behavior: What percentage of graduates are still in the finance/consulting sectors after 5, 10, 25 years? How do improvements in financial aid affect the percentage of graduates taking lucrative jobs? Are students with more loan debt more likely to go into high-paying jobs? Does the percentage of grads going into finance/consulting correlate well with the increasing presence of recruiters on campus?

I tried to track down the Crimson survey mentioned in the Times article, and I found this:


I don't know anything about the methodology, but assuming it's solid, this survey says a few interesting things. First of all, the percentage of 2008 graduates going into the finance/consulting sectors is 39%. (That's down from 47% - !!! - a year ago, presumably because the finance sector is in trouble right now.) When asked to set financial concerns aside, only 20% said they would stay in those sectors.

But it's unclear what setting financial concerns aside means, since the survey also found that: "Students on financial aid are far less likely to go into fields like investment banking, opting instead for lower-paying sectors like public service." Presumably it's students on financial aid who have more "financial concerns" than those who don't. (Of course students on financial aid are a socioeconomically diverse group, since Harvard offers a lot of financial aid; maybe debt at graduation would be a better metric for evaluating the "cushion" argument.) But this does show that that students who presumably have no debt at all (since they didn't qualify for *any* aid) are going into lucrative jobs in large numbers - and they are highly unlikely to need a cushion.

In any case, it seems pretty clear that for whatever reasons, Harvard is sending a plurality of its new grads into the finance/consulting sector, and I think it's certainly worth asking why that is, and what Harvard might be doing to tip the scales. (I seriously doubt that 39% of the class of 2008 wrote that they were interested in management consulting/banking/etc in their college applications.)

Like Kaya, I was really struck by how *easy* Harvard makes it to go through the recruiting process. I thought it was interesting that the only non-profit organization that recruits in a similar way (Teach for America) gets a pretty large number of applicants - 9 percent of the class, so approximately 150 students. It's much easier to go through a well-defined application process (at least for Harvard students, who by definition are good at that kind of thing) than it is to strike out on your own.

Maybe Harvard should reconsider devoting so many resources at the Office of Career Services to e-recruiting, or maybe it should consider improving the other kinds of career counseling that it offers.

Finally, why *should* we care what Harvard grads are choosing to do after graduation? Well, if they're truly the best and the brightest, don't we want them in fields like government and public service, where there are such major issues to be addressed? Even if many of them leave the financial sector after a few years, why should Harvard exist to give Wall Street its yearly crop of associates? That's certainly not the purpose and the image of itself that Harvard projects to the world, so I think it's worth questioning. It certainly seems more important than cheese preference.

So thanks, Kaya, for a very thought-provoking post, and sorry to go on this long.

emily2 said...

yeah, sorry i got a little aggro. by reading the comments it seems that i'm just coming from a different place. for example, i disagree with this:

"Well, if they're truly the best and the brightest, don't we want them in fields like government and public service, where there are such major issues to be addressed?"

government and entities in the private sector are both run by people. they rise or fall based on the quality of people running them. government isn't always good (see the last eight years), and corporations aren't always bad (see, google). both are just systems operated by human beings.

and i'd say google has benefited the public a lot more than the bush administration, just to make a very obvious comparison. and to work for business development at a place like google, a stint at wall street is a way in.

furthermore, investment bankers help - for example - to find funding for geeks who create useful software systems, etc. that benefits the public.

so, in closing, i just want to say that (1) we want our graduates to be the best at what they decide to do, whatever it is, (2) that we shouldn't guilt them into deciding one thing over another, and (3) if they really wanted to do something different, they would - give them some credit.

B said...

I just read this. And given the place I'm in it made me both sad and hopeful. I'm calling you later. Love.

icarus said...

I just read the article that Lizz posted, and a few main things hit me. The first is that *two out of five* students really seems like a lot, especially if so many of them were not pursuing the career they said they would prefer.

The second is that "the average employed senior will earn a base salary of $45,425." That is higher than anyone in my family has made - and guess what? We have a house, land, (somewhat fairly decent) health insurance and enough to eat. I feel like this goes back to my original point - I find it hard to believe that most students graduating from Harvard now will have a difficult time finding a job that pays enough to live on - even if that job isn't ibanking. We seem to be generally quite employable, often just because of where we went to school, and less and less of us are graduating with significant debt.

I think the difference between students on and not on financial aid is interesting, and I will be interested to see the effects of the new program, with aid for families up to $180,000 (and sometimes even higher, depending on family situation). Since the "student debt" argument will soon be basically moot, I wonder if that will change people's career choices and so on.

Sorry, not a particular coherent comment, but I did think that story was very interesting.

bm said...

This is just a small comment but it annoys me when students/former students constantly talk about the average GPA at Harvard and other elite universities. Remembering lessons from second grade, an average is a sum of all numbers divided by the number in the list. Thus, a GPA of 3.4 does not mean that most people have a 3.4--it means that when such a sum is taken, the average falls at 3.4. So it may be the case that people are doing either really well or really poorly (not so exaggerated) at these schools. I also read the article you cited in your blog post (about an elite education) and it, like your post, was mostly bs. I'm sure classes do not curve to an A-. And the suffering you and the author of that paper have incurred from being Ivy League graduates might just be a problem with your own character and not the education. You (and the author) probably thought you were the sh*t to begin with.