I never planned on becoming a management consultant or investment banker. When I applied to Wharton, I knew exactly who I wanted to be: an entrepreneur. I’ve always been the girl with 10 business plans in a notebook. My years at Wharton made my firm entrepreneurial ambitions seem more like a side project than an actual career path. I was told to do the “safe thing” and put my entrepreneurial dreams on hold more times than I can remember.
I’ve been bold about my aversion to four-year plans, but when my junior year came around, I wondered if I was progressing enough professionally. My professional excursions — teaching at a summer business program, working as a project manager for a small nonprofit in Brooklyn — did not sound impressive to most. Would I become the one “unsuccessful” Wharton graduate? So when the opportunity came around, I did what everyone else did: I got a cushy internship in management consulting.
When I accepted my internship, I thought that maybe I’d return to this firm and be the person who can boast about a return offer on LinkedIn. Today, I squirm at the thought of trading my ambitions for money. My internship drained my energy. The excel sheets, survey coding, and PowerPoint presentations did not appeal to my creative and adventurous nature. I knew that I wasn’t giving my all and I lacked passion. By the time my internship was over, I made a bold decision: I told the company that I did not want to return. I left money and status on the table. I just wasn’t passionate about the work. I couldn’t lie to them or myself any longer.
I rejected the opportunity to continue working in consulting. I’m a Wharton senior without a job, and I’m fine. I sleep seven hours a day, and I have peace. I want us to change our perception of professional development at Wharton and Penn. Success for me was never about being rich or working for a blue-chip firm. Students need time to make informed decisions about their futures. Between the lack of purposeful career preparation, the pressure to conform to our school’s or major’s expectations, and the pursuit of wealth, some seniors have veered from honoring our core desires. I’d like every senior at Penn who is contemplating returning to that job they hate to read this and reflect.
I always wondered why there was a lack of investment in helping undergraduates find purposeful professions. MBA students have career coaches, why don’t undergraduate students? Being Gen Z is is seeking purposeful careers, at higher rates than former generations. While former generations of students may have solely wanted a profitable career, the times are quickly changing, with students caring about social and environmental impact as well. Your first career choice should be a natural extension of your purpose or your curiosity. I can’t count how many times I heard that someone’s going into consulting to somehow “discover what they want to do.” The problem is, why should you graduate from an Ivy League school with a $20.5 billion endowment, only to have no clue what professional path you are most interested in?
Then there’s the huge issue of wanting to be like those around us, also called the conformity principle. College is a very short four years of your life. The average life expectancy in the United States is 78.7 years. College is 5% of the average lifespan. Hopefully, this isn’t too depressing to think about, but it begs some questions. If you firmly dislike consulting or banking: Are you going to let Penn (5% of your life) pressure you to sign up for years of miserable work? Penn will have a very small role (albeit impactful) in the larger scheme of my life. I won’t allow Penn or Wharton to guilt me into feeling like I “wasted my education” by turning down my return offer.
Do not allow your education or your major to confine your post-graduation options. If anything, we should view our Ivy League education as a huge asset, allowing us to have a safety net in case our latest career excursion doesn’t work out. The Washington Post reported that only 27% of college graduates have a career that aligns with their major. Forbes also published an article entitled “Six Reasons Why Your College Major Doesn’t Matter,” discussing that 93% of employers actually believe that solid critical thinking and problem-solving skills are more important than your field of study. Given that depression after college is quite common, there’s even more reason to pursue what you’re truly interested in.
Some feel pressured to turn down the allure of a meaningful and exciting career because of money. Money can be an important factor in job decision-making, but it should not be the only one. In fact, there is no guarantee that a larger paying job will improve job satisfaction or even emotional wellbeing. In 2010, economist Daniel Kahneman discovered that gains in emotional well-being level off after an income of $75,000. The fact that entrepreneurs can work for months or years on a company that isn’t profitable shows that there are other reasons why we choose to work. For success in the long term, we have to tap into higher ideals for working and building a career, especially when making the leap from college into full-blown adulthood.
It’s time we speak the truth about the larger and broader impacts of choosing a job you dislike. Before you accept your return offer, read this and think about your life. Who do you really want to become? What do you want to be? Listen to yourself, and choose accordingly. The pandemic underscored why we should not waste any time pursuing a path that isn’t our own. In the words of famed poet Mary Oliver, it’s time to consider what you really and truly want to do with “your one wild and precious life.” Senior year is a great time to start.
SURAYYA WALTERS is a Wharton senior studying management and marketing from New Rochelle, N.Y. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.