Last week officially marked the first day of classes and, unofficially, the beginning of the senior class’s job search.
Most graduating students feel that they face a binary decision between private sector and public interest work paths: “making money” or “doing good.”
But this understanding is flawed — the two paths are by no means mutually exclusive. Many professionals in the corporate world spend plenty of time on public interest projects. Unfortunately, few students — including myself over the past few years — know about these people, in part due to the University’s failure to emphasize them.
I first started to ponder this binary job choice at Geoffrey Canada’s 2012 commencement address. He invited graduating seniors to join his “losing team” that fights to reduce poverty and violence and to improve education, offering only “challenge and struggle” in return. He insisted on doing this instead of the alternative: “money, power, luxury cars, vacation homes and stock options.”
Then I read a viral Yale Daily News piece, “Even artichokes have doubts,” that questioned the career decisions so many students were making (25 percent of Yale’s graduating class goes into consulting or finance; at Penn 50 percent does), reinforcing the dual-option occupational choice Mr. Canada had described.
Since then, this discussion has seemed to reappear daily among peers, increasing alongside the reality of entering the job market. So I struggled with this decision while trying to procrastinate making a choice, all the while not realizing that the decision itself isn’t necessary. This is for two reasons.
First is that — as we are often comfortingly told — there will be ample time to try different things. Settling on a career is actually a very fluid process. Indeed, many of the most successful people I’ve met or read about started out in a totally different industry.
Second is that professionals are not strictly bound by their day jobs and can make time to pursue other passions. Many members of Mr. Canada’s “winning team” sit on boards or volunteer in various positions. I’ve encountered this assurance far less frequently than the first, but it is equally as important.
Paul Pineau, a recent Harvard Law School graduate, moved from a corporate law firm to the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office — an example of career choice fluidity.
Despite very long hours at both jobs, he assured me that the “opportunity to do good, public interest work” always exists. It’s “just about how you prioritize time in your life.”
In the rare time not spent working, Mr. Pineau described sitting on the board of a drug addiction treatment facility and volunteering with the Incentive Mentoring Program (a groundbreaking program that provides for underperforming high school students) by driving a student to school each day, for example.
Knowledge that such a balance even exists will prove valuable for students worrying about abandoning aspirations in public service for more lucrative opportunities. It will be especially comforting to students who require more money than the public sector can offer — for example, those with looming student-loan debts. It may even encourage students with little experience in public interest work to expand their post-grad horizons.
But the University is failing to make this clear, and there are a number of things it could do to change that.
Penn should host recent graduates who have been able to maintain both a successful private sector job and side-projects in the public sector. Essentially, these would be information sessions about a certain type of career and lifestyle.
In addition to in-the-flesh examples, the University ought to provide data. Similarly to how it surveys recent graduates on the specifics of their jobs, it could provide statistics on what recent graduates have been doing outside of work.
Finally, it should organize a day of service for undergraduates. This would demonstrate, for future reference, how simple public service can be. The University could even make this mandatory for freshmen, the way it already requires a reading project and various college-life sketches.
As the job search continues, surely the anxieties will too. But with changes like these, at least students can have a more realistic — and less daunting — understanding of their career choices.
Ryan Daniels is a College senior from Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. “Daniels, Straight Up” appears every Wednesday.
Nick Moncy (art) is a College sophomore from North Miami, Fla. His email address is email@example.com.
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