Before college, I didn’t know anything about management consulting or finance. When I started at MIT, I immediately began to hear about firms in these industries frequently. At career fairs, they hand out boutique water bottles and emblazoned clothing like candy. The most selective clubs on campus are consulting or finance-oriented groups, and you can expect dozens of classmates every year to head off to places like McKinsey, Citadel, and Jane Street.
I had an idea of what career directions I was interested in. None involved consulting or finance. Still, I was caught off-guard by these industries’ prevalence and spent some time entertaining their possibilities. At name-brand universities in the US, consulting and finance are ubiquitous yet cryptic. Among Harvard’s class of 2019, 18 percent of students went into consulting and 16 percent into finance. A decade ago, over 60 percent of Princeton graduates entered consulting or finance. Beyond pay and prestige, what drives so many graduates from the world’s top schools to spend their careers there?
A common type of student at top colleges represents but a tiny proportion of the world: people with middle-class upbringings who gained admission largely through “tournament-type distinctions[, including] SAT scores at or near perfection; being a top player on a sports team; gaining master status from chess matches; playing first instrument in state orchestra; earning high rankings in Math Olympiad,” as researcher Dan Wang described in a blog post. This culture, which I’ve mostly only observed, doesn’t prioritize figuring out who you are beyond what is necessary for college applications.
You arrive at university unsure what you truly want to do, so you continue doing what you’re “supposed” to do. You try to differentiate yourself from your classmates through more competitions, striving to be professors’ favorites and club leaders even if those positions don’t actually carry much power. On top of that, American liberal arts colleges provide students significant leeway in selecting a field of study, making them more prone to “intellectual loitering” that fans these flames.
Consulting and finance firms enter the scene, assuring you that joining them will cement you at the top of the ambiguous pyramid you’ve been trained to climb your whole life. For someone without a strong sense of what they want, this is a fantastic deal. In The Economist, psychiatrist Josh Cohen describes a possible outcome of this lifestyle through his client Steve, a former investment banker facing severe burnout: “Steve presents an intriguing paradox: what appears from the outside to have been a life driven by the active pursuit of goals feels to him to be oddly inert, a lifeless slotting-in, as he puts it, to a script he didn’t write.”
How good are these opportunities? Overworking is the norm in finance: Young Money by Kevin Roose follows several junior bankers, chronicling their hundred-hour work weeks and their consequences. Most workers are not solving novel, valuable problems they may have dreamed of. Management consultants reap the most financially by doing keeping their clients’ issues unsolved, so they get called back, resulting in millions of dollars wasted annually on inefficiencies. Recruiting slogans, especially in tech-oriented finance roles, recognize these turnoffs and emphasize individual benefits instead: not “solve problems that move the world forward,” but rather “you get to work with smart people.”
I recognize that it’s a privilege to have companies target your school. They offer stable jobs with networking, mentorship, and skill development, and it would be disingenuous to ignore that. Consulting may be a suitable career if you thrive as a busy networker. Some enjoy the fast pace or mathematical thinking of finance. Many choose to start in consulting to gain knowledge, connections, and experience before pursuing something else. The difference is that those are conscious moves. Consulting and finance recruiting in top colleges provide a “safe path,” drawing many students into a continuation of what they’ve come to expect—an unassailable choice that’s not really a choice. It’s time that we start getting to know ourselves and making intentional decisions.
Thanks to Theo and Linus for discussions and feedback.