Today is the tenth anniversary of Marina Keegan’s "Even Artichokes Have Doubts," a work that ignited a national debate on whether new graduates should chase passions or paychecks. Keegan — a senior when the piece was published in the Yale Daily News — was dismayed that approximately 25% of her employed peers would end up in finance or consulting after graduation. In her words, “In a place as diverse and disparate as Yale, it’s remarkable that such a large percentage of people are doing anything the same — not to mention something as significant as their postgraduate plans.” The anniversary invites us to reflect on what has, and has not, changed in the past decade, as well as contemplate the situation at our own institution.
Here at Penn, evidence indicates that the pull of these two industries is even stronger than it is in New Haven — a full 50% of employed Quakers are likely to work in financial services or consulting upon graduation. My goal is not to argue that this is or is not a desirable outcome. Instead, I seek to understand the factors that contribute to the durability of this outcome, examine the risks of this well-trodden path, and discover what we should consider when deciding on our post-Penn plans.
We first must acknowledge the obvious: The compensation of finance and consulting is attractive. Starting salaries at some firms are $110k — and that is before including the annual bonus. This is a compelling sum, and there are few places willing or able to pay a 22-year-old fresh graduate as handsomely. Beyond the compensation, however, is a more complicated array of potential motivators, some of which may be even more persuasive than the pay.
In his book Young Money, New York Times columnist Kevin Roose notes that, in the 1980s, the “two and out” model was launched in the banking industry, which hires students for a two year analyst program, and then expects most to leave to pursue other careers. The two year program allowed firms “to attract a whole different breed of recruit — smart, ambitious college seniors who weren’t sure what they wanted to be but could be convinced to spend two years at a bank, gaining general business skills and adding a prestigious name to their resumes in preparation for their next moves.”
The optionality that the analyst programs claim to provide — come spend two years with us, and then you can go anywhere – is a seductive pitch to students who haven’t decided what they actually want to do. But, as Harvard Business School professor Mihir A. Desai explains in The Harvard Crimson, seeking to maintain optionality can have serious consequences. Desai observes that students who “postpone their dreams and undertake choices that they think will enable their dreams ... fail to understand that all of these intervening choices will change them fundamentally — and they are, in fact, the sum total of those choices.”
Due to COVID-19, Penn’s current seniors are the only class left on campus that has witnessed a full, in-person recruiting cycle and all that comes with it: firm-wide presentations at the Sheraton, networking events at The Inn at Penn, and information sessions in the largest Huntsman classrooms — frequently with fancy refreshments, always overflowing with Quakers dressed in business formal. At each of these events, the application process, timeline, and what to expect in the interviews is laid out in careful detail. This is tremendously beneficial in helping students understand how they might secure a job at the respective companies; it also stands in stark contrast to the hiring processes of other fields and firm types.
How one might join a political campaign, found a startup, start a restaurant, launch a nonprofit, or pursue basically anything in the creative industry is much less clear. The seamlessness of the process to secure a job at a bank or consulting firm — drop your resume and maybe a transcript on Handshake, write a cover letter if you wish, talk to some current employees, and wait for the interviews to roll in — is a significant consideration for young people who do not know how to get a job. One of Keegan’s classmates remarked about the job search process, “I think the last time that most of us went through something like this was when we were applying to college and we’re conditioned to accept the ready-made established process. The problem is, most places don’t have something like that. It’s messy and confusing and we’re often afraid of dealing with that mess.”
The pervasive pull of the finance and consulting industries on campus is perhaps best embodied by a quote from our former director of career services: “To come to Penn is to, at some point in your undergraduate years, ask yourself the question, ‘Should I think about investment banking?’”
To the first years: Right now is a very special time in your Penn career, for if you ask your peers what they intend to do after graduation, you are unlikely to find more than a handful of bankers and consultants. Remember what your classmates say when discussing future plans; the hopes and dreams you will hear have a way of being pushed aside in favor of more “practical” paths as the years pass. Before long, the same individuals who pitched you their startup ideas, campaign platforms, and other passions over dinner at Hill will be appearing on your LinkedIn feed with “Incoming Summer Analyst” announcements.
With the passing of each mile marker on the journey through Penn, career diversity of the class is lost. During Quaker Days, encountering a Baby Quaker intent on entering finance or consulting would be the rarest of occurrences. The same is true of the Toga Party and the night at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. By Econ Scream, the first years will have been exposed to the finance and consulting clubs and listened to upperclassmen complain about on-campus recruiting, and may have even found their way to a firm-wide presentation. Come U-Night, some in the class will have already signed banking and consulting offers for their sophomore (and even junior) summers. By the time the class marches down Locust for Hey Day, you can swing your cane and be confident that you will hit someone who has signed with a finance or consulting firm. When the class gathers one last time for commencement at Franklin Field, there’s a strong chance that at least one of the people you’re sitting next to is going to become a financier or consultant. Whatever the diversity of the incoming class, there is a whole lot less of it by the time they graduate.
The biggest risk of the finance and consulting path is that you spend some very precious years of life doing something you do not actually enjoy. While these fields are undoubtedly a suitable choice for some students, it seems highly unlikely that only two fields can satiate the passions of half the employed class. For those of us entering the fields because, as Keegan put it, “we’re not sure what else to do and it’s easy to apply to and it will pay us decently and it will make us feel like we’re still successful,” consider how much time we may realistically have left before falling prey to old age and the ailments that accompany it. If we optimistically assume our health span lasts until 72, or a full 50 years after graduation, then a two year analyst program represents 4% of our remaining healthy years! Most Penn students would never dream of sacrificing 4% on a problem set or midterm, but when the stakes are far, far, higher, we seem all too ready to write off 4% as the cost of launching a career. And these are not just any years, but among the most precious of all: prime years in our early twenties, where we still have the energy, enthusiasm, and youthful ignorance necessary to dare to do something truly great. As a former Yale dean said in 2011: “If there was ever a moment to be entrepreneurial and daring — whether in terms of business or social change, and really test yourself, this is it.”
Life and good health, of course, are never guaranteed. Devastating disease could find any of us at any moment, and we are never more than one accident, mistake, or misstep away from the end of it all. Keegan’s time ran out just five days after she graduated from Yale, when she was killed in a tragic automobile accident. Each Uber ride downtown, visit back home, or weekend road trip with friends could very easily be our last. Life is so fragile and so short that it urges us to not delay the pursuit of our dreams and passions until two years from now or even tomorrow. We are so incredibly fortunate as Penn students to have all the choices in the world available to us upon graduation. May we each find the courage to make that choice for ourselves — not for the approval of our peers, parents, or professors — but instead for our pursuit of a meaningful, fulfilling life well lived.
CONNOR GIBSON is a Wharton Senior from Ebensburg, Pa. His email is email@example.com.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.