If you’re ever visiting an arctic region, and the weather conditions are just right, then you might have the chance to see what you normally couldn’t — things that are just out of sight over the horizon. The Inuit, indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic, witness the sun weeks before it should be visible and see mountain ranges hidden across an ocean. This is what’s referred to as the Novaya Zemlya effect — a polar mirage caused by a precise layering of cold and hot air that presents an image of things obscured over the horizon as if they were directly in sight. The Novaya Zemlya effect is unique to polar regions and, I would argue, the University of Pennsylvania.
As Penn students, we are constantly concerned about our future — our postgrad employment and our graduate school opportunities — as if this future were not on the horizon, but instead directly in front of us. In other words, we too experience the Novaya Zemlya effect. But instead of it being an awe-inspiring feature of the natural world, we experience it as a constant preoccupation with pursuing Penn’s most popular career paths: finance and consulting.
There’s nothing innately adverse about having a forward-looking perspective and yet it continues to fuel a sense of anxiety among Penn students. The focus we place on our futures often manifests itself as an unhealthy preoccupation with getting competitive internships and stuffing our resumes. Penn is filled with ambitious students who pressure themselves to succeed, and that’s one source of our mental strain. But we also feel anxious because the future we envision for ourselves is perverted by the dominance of finance and consulting at Penn.
When we lament our university’s pre-professional culture, it’s not because this culture makes us career-oriented, but rather because it orients us toward certain careers. Working at a bank is just one of many possible jobs that Penn students can pursue, and yet it feels like a possibility that we’re all pressed to consider, regardless of our true passions. It is by no means unusual, for example, to meet someone studying psychology or even English who says they’re going to work as an analyst at American Express after graduation. At Penn, all paths lead to finance and consulting.
Of course, that’s not to say that humanities students shouldn’t pursue a job in finance if that’s what they’re passionate about. But I have trouble believing that genuine interest accounts for the fact that nearly half of all 2016 Penn graduates went to work in finance and consulting. I worry that when we consider our potential careers, when we peer over that horizon, it is not with an open mind, amenable to any opportunity that suits our passions, but rather with a perspective influenced by the dominance of those two career fields.
Even as someone who’s instinctively averse to working in finance, I have felt that attending Penn has made this feel like a real option for me. Before coming to Penn, when I envisioned my future career, titles like analyst or financial advisor never crossed my mind. But the fact that Penn’s career recruiting platform, Handshake, lists positions at Deloitte and J.P. Morgan as popular among English majors has made the idea seem more acceptable. And as a current senior who’s concerned about even being able to find a job after graduation, I feel it is wrongheaded to neglect the recruitment emails in my inbox, even if they’re only offering financial advisor positions.
Ultimately, I’m sure that I won’t follow that path. Those suggested jobs on Handshake just aren’t for me. But I’m confident that there are other students at Penn who are also not meant for these professions but may end up exploring them anyway.
Of course there are worse things in life than working at Deloitte and J.P. Morgan, even if they don’t fit your interests. But there is a real danger in allowing the dominant culture at Penn to dictate our future careers. For while it may seem that an internship at one of the top banks is the be-all end-all of the Penn experience, the path toward that internship may be unnecessarily anxiety-inducing and the attaining of that internship ultimately unsatisfying.
There’s nothing innately wrong with focusing on one’s future, but at Penn, the one we envision is often a reflection of the one we’ve seen others pursue. The Novaya Zemlya effect can allow us to see what’s over the horizon but the image it produces is often distorted. And so too are our perspectives of the future distorted by the value our community places on finance and consulting.
Penn students are extraordinarily career-driven and that’s often a good thing. But we shouldn’t let that same drive lead us astray from our passions.
CAMERON DICHTER is a College senior from Philadelphia, studying English. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Real Talk” usually appears every other Monday.
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