The Examined Life

The Examined Life

What our career choices say about our liberal arts education

Published on February 4, 2015

The first time I felt truly anxious about what I was going to do after college was two years ago, sitting in my uncle’s living room, feeling his imperious gaze as I asked him to co-sign a student loan for me.

“What are you going to do with your degree in American studies?”

It’s a question I’ve never been keen to answer, but that nevertheless gets at the heart of the fundamental tension against which graduates are contending when they have to leave campus and enter the workforce.

The answer in my head, of course, was “anything I want”—so assured was I that the benefit of a liberal arts education is its lack of pre-professionalism—but that certainly wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear. His interest was in knowing whether this education would yield a return on his investment in my future, and, more broadly, whether the money I earn with the help of a Columbia degree might mitigate the cost of getting one. Here, in rather explicit terms, the values of the marketplace—actual dollar amounts—came into contact and conflict with the intangible values of a liberal arts education. As I’m sure my uncle thought, being able to explain the Allegory of the Cave doesn’t pay the rent.

This is the central tension that underlies our choices as we graduate—whether that’s the almost 59 percent of 2013 Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science graduates who have jobs as they file onto Low Plaza, the 20 percent who ended up in graduate school (most at Columbia), or even the 10 percent who continue their job search beyond the gates. That doesn’t include the five percent who take time off and the six percent who aren’t searching for a job.

“That conflict between a liberal education and an instrumental education, and between liberal values and instrumental values, is as old as western culture,” says Roosevelt Montás, director of the Center for the Core Curriculum and a 1995 graduate of Columbia College with a Columbia Ph.D.

To illustrate his point, Montás refers to Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates refuses his friend’s attempts to help him escape his execution.

“A lot of what he talks about is precisely this tension between a life dedicated to the search for truth, to the experience of the beautiful, to the clarification and pursuit of the good—that life—versus another life where most of the energy goes towards instruments of achieving particular goals,” Montás says.

(Wendi Lu)

Montás captures all of the difficulty of entering the world from college: the process of reconciling our liberal education with the instrumental demands placed on us after graduation. There is a pressure to be a productive member of society while still trying to live comfortably or create something singular. Everyone deals with this tension differently, but there are certain pre-made paths that many soon-to-be graduates are keen on following. The reasons that people get into each might speak to a hesitancy to commit to a career path, because they offer up a way to continue the process of becoming that does not end as we move our tassels from one side of our caps to the other.

It’s somewhat comforting to look at the latest data on what graduates get up to after they leave campus. The Center for Career Education sends out surveys through which  graduates can report where they’re working and how much they’re making. And by and large, Columbia graduates are doing well for themselves, according to the most recent numbers covering the class of 2013 (Al Spuler, CCE’s executive director of administration and planning, said in an email that the survey results from the class of 2014 are still being analyzed and will likely be posted by the end of February).

Of the 932 respondents to the CCE’s survey of 2013 graduates, about 55 percent of those who reported that they were employed earned more than $50,000 annually. About a third of respondents were earning more than $70,000 per year. (The median household income in the U.S. in 2013, according to the Census Bureau, was $52,250.) General Studies students were employed in similar numbers (54 percent), and a third of GS graduates also made over $70,000. It should be noted, though, that these are entirely self-reported figures: It’s possible that some creative rounding went into salaries, and those who are living comfortably might be more apt to share that fact.

Consulting and finance claimed a solid 30 percent of graduates from CC and SEAS in 2012 and 2013, not to mention 23 percent of GS students who filled out the CCE survey in 2013, and 35 percent of GS respondents in 2012. That people go into consulting at high numbers isn’t surprising. It’s the unspoken rule of the Ivy League that a solid amount of graduates who might enter college having never heard of McKinsey & Company or Accenture end up working for them for over $65,000 a year—the starting salary for an analyst according to ManagementConsulted.com, a salary comparison site.

But Montás sees the potential rationale for such a choice, pointing out that credentialism can also be seen as an offshoot of money as a measure of success. He describes the ways that liberal education is at odds with popular ways of measuring success.

“We live in a society that’s driven by a market logic, where value is almost invariably monetized, and where success is almost equivalent to wealth, and that logic pervades so much of our activity,” Montás says. “So the education that the Core Curriculum provides goes against that grain, swims against that current. Nonetheless, people, rightly, want to achieve conventional measures of success, and they see an elite education such as the one that’s provided at Columbia and its peer institutions as entitling them to a certain degree of conventional success. … So it makes sense that people would gravitate toward careers and areas that have, or at least are perceived as offering, the greatest degrees of financial security and employability.”

While the connection between consulting, finance, and the Ivy League may be well-known, it is perhaps less common knowledge that CCE lists Teach for America as its largest single hirer in 2013 among CC and SEAS graduates, and that K-12 education, broadly, claimed 7.8 percent of CC and SEAS grads that year.

What, then, drives so many of our peers to the fields of finance, consulting, and education? In what ways do graduates in these fields balance their liberal education with the instrumental need to put food on the table? Finally, how are any of us, especially those who don’t choose one of the Big Three, meant to navigate our lives?

A Well-Worn Path

The link between institutions like Columbia and those like Accenture and Goldman Sachs has been the subject of numerous think pieces and investigative stories. Among critics of the moving walkway to Wall Street is author William Deresiewicz, a 1985 graduate of Columbia College who also holds a master’s degree from the Journalism School and a Columbia Ph.D. His article “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”, adapted from his latest book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, was published in the New Republic last summer.. The book contains criticisms of the popular career paths of recent college grads.

Decrying the statistics of students who enter finance and consulting, Deresiewicz writes, “The irony is that elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things.” But as with all problems whose immediacy can sometimes be taken as novelty, he told me that this phenomenon and a critique of it are hardly new.

“People have been talking about this for a long time. I mean, I’m certainly not the first person to talk about it,” Deresiewicz says. “People have done that for a long time, in some ways as far back as the ’80s when I was in college, because that’s when—due to various changes, not in college, but on Wall Street—you started to have this phenomenon of people going into banking en masse straight out of college.”

It did, indeed, begin in the ’80s. According to a 2010 Washington Post article by Amy J. Binder, Wall Street and consulting firms found a way to appear good to clients by recruiting heavily from the nation’s most reputable schools, creating the gilded ladder that allows graduates to trade in their caps and gowns for power suits.

“Wall Street and the consulting firms … developed business models that relied on the appearance of brainpower in order to win clients. This put a premium on recruiting from a handful of universities with the highest worldwide brand equity,” Binder writes. “Top students from Purdue or University of California, Los Angeles might be just as good, or even better, at putting together spreadsheets. But being able to boast that you have a team of kids from Harvard is important when you are trying to sell high-cost consulting and financial services of uncertain value.”

And while Ivy Leaguers provide a good reputation for these firms, the reciprocal of that—the ability for those employed to say they work at financial institution X or consulting firm Y—also plays a role in the recruiting process, and is part of the focus of Deresiewicz’s critique. He ties the keen interest students seem to acquire for finance and consulting in their last years of college to what he calls “credentialism”—the tendency for the types of students who end up in the Ivy League to collect experiences, titles, and honors with the goal of looking accomplished. For him, that is sometimes students’ motivation to enter these fields, despite their explicit reasons being different.

“It seems to me that—and obviously I haven’t done a survey—that this is a very big part of it. And we’re talking about credentials, but that’s a slight misnomer here, because we’re really talking about prestige,” Deresiewicz says. “You’ve been striving to be the best and being the best means having your name associated with a highly prestigious institution. Right now it’s Columbia; so what’s the next one? It’s about self-worth, it’s about how you’ve been taught to measure your self-worth.”

For Deresiewicz, the decision to choose the well-worn path to a job with a brand-name bank or consulting firm is one that people justify with many reasons, all of which hide the desire for prestige. Certainly it’s not something that people are eager to cop to and maybe aren’t necessarily conscious of, but it might be difficult to find someone who was willing to do the same type and amount of work demanded of first-year analysts—sometimes 90 hours a week—for $30,000 a year.

For Kunal Mehta, a Columbia College senior majoring in economics who will be working at a well-known consulting firm come May, the path to management consulting was never really a given. Past internships he had done were focused on public policy, most recently at the American Civil Liberties Union over the past summer. But he sees consulting as a way to make a measurable impact in a short period of time.

“After spending a few internships looking at this kind of stuff, I think I was frustrated by the pace of change in the policy world and also realized that not a lot of ideas that happen in the policy and government sphere end up actually being enacted,” Mehta says. “I think I saw consulting as a way in which you can really work on making things more efficient in the public and private sector, and it seems like just a much more concrete way of making that happen by having assignments where it’s very much objective driven.”

Mehta also doesn’t see his impending job as something he will necessarily do in the long term. According to him, the assumption among incoming analysts is that they’ll stick around for about two years, and then the world is once again their oyster—graduate school, business school, more consulting, or even perhaps a move over to the policy side of things. The flexibility that the job allows for is what drew Mehta to the field.

“It’s almost as if I feel that I’m prolonging college for two more years, because, right now, I don’t have to make any decisions,” Mehta says. “I think that a lot of students at Columbia live with the idea that they don’t necessarily know what they have to do right out of college, and I think consulting is one of the progressions where you’re allowed to live that kind of ideal for another two years and think, ‘Well I’m gonna try out all of these things and I have some more time to decide what I want to do.’”

As for the long hours, though, they aren’t something he’s necessarily looking forward to; his hope is that he will be invested enough in the work to power through the inevitable blurring of the line between the work week and the rest of the week.

“It’s always good to want to have more free time, but the sense I get from the people I’ve spoke to that have done the work … they find a lot of what they do engaging, and they really don’t mind being in the office. And if my work is like that, then I don’t mind. I think, be grateful for work that’s engaging, even if it takes up a lot of my time.”

(Ellorine Carle)

The Corps Curriculum

Perhaps equally time-consuming, but considerably less well-paid, is the work of a first-year teacher, whose average national salary in 2013 was $36,141 (or close to half of the starting salary for an analyst). But the profession still managed to claim almost 8 percent of graduating SEAS and CC students in 2013.

Teachers are all too aware of the gap between their salaries and that of the finance crowd. “Often in my head, I’ll compare the hours that I put in to finance or consulting, and then I’ll compare the salary that I’d be making there as well. But I will say that when I come home at night … sometimes I’m ready to burst into tears, because something didn’t go well … but the good moments are really worth it,” says Sarina Bhandari, a 2014 graduate of Columbia College who is working for Teach for America in east San Jose, California. “And it’s rewarding in a sense not just that it’s a joy to teach, but that when you put in the effort, the results matter. And I’m not sure if I would’ve had that in finance or in consulting. When I put in the effort, the result would have probably been monetary gain. But would I have been able to appreciate what my effort set forth? I don’t know.”

In Excellent Sheep, Deresiewicz argues that joining an organization like Teach for America is in part informed by the idea that students who hail from schools like Columbia see themselves as more equipped to fix issues in the educational system, simply by dint of having graduated from one of the top schools in the country. But it’s hard to say that the choice to take a job that pays $24,000 to $51,000 annually based on cost of living is done entirely out of arrogance.

(Wendi Lu)

Bhandari acknowledges that she isn’t necessarily fixing the systemic issues of the education system, but her interest in teaching came less from a desire to put off figuring out what she wanted to do than entering a field where she would be working to alleviate what she sees as a pressing problem. In doing so, she sees herself as learning more about inequality while filling a position that might otherwise be filled by a long-term substitute. And from her experience, the training provided over the summer—which she admits is short, but the teaching profession is sink or swim anyway—spoke to a changing ethos of the organization: training sessions on topics like institutional racism and overcoming unconscious prejudices.

“While I think these are all valid critiques, I think they were valid of TFA three years ago,” Bhandari says. “I think what people forget is that TFA listens, and it’s very dynamic, and it changes, and … it has good values, and they have not always in the past carried out those values correctly. I do think the critiques have been correct. We don’t want people from privileged backgrounds moving down and thinking ‘I went to the Ivy League; I can fix these kids.’ … They’re trying to make us … well-educated in the sense of not being that person who’s like ‘I’m gonna go save the kids, because I’m white or whatever.’”

Teach for America has also been criticized, because graduates “Choose More” as the flyers say, for the same reason that people like Mehta might go into consulting—because it allows them a fixed period of time during which they’re working toward a goal with tangible results, while still ‘working’ on themselves. But the difference in pay offered suggests that there’s something else at play, that the results are more important and have higher human stakes than perhaps another job would.

“When your kid gets an A on something and they thought that they were a C student or an F student, that is incredibly exciting for you as a teacher as much as it might be for the kid,” she says. And feeling those highs is accompanied by equally hard lows. “Compared to finance or consulting, when you have a really bad day, you have a lot of money. You don’t feel like you’ve let another human down as much.”

As for the potential for people to see TFA in the same way that Mehta views consulting—two more years in an incubator of sorts, with endless options at the other end—Bhandari admits that it’s hard to see beyond the immediate future and figure out what will come after her two years at TFA are up.

“My world is so day-to-day right now that it’s hard to see the things beyond the trees. … For me, when I think about my future, I’m thinking about how I’m going to get my essays graded by tomorrow—that’s about as far as I can see,” Bhandari says, adding that whatever her plans are, they aren’t self-serving in a way that would undermine the work she’s doing.

“I checked out my reasons for doing it,” she says. “I’m not doing it for the résumé boost, because I don’t even know what I’d want to do with it. I’m not doing it because I have a ‘save the world’ complex. I’m just doing it because I care about these issues.”

Beyond The Big Three

But let’s be real. People who go into finance, consulting and teaching only make up about 40 percent of graduates, and though many engineering students go into specialized fields like computer software and the like, that still leaves about 50 percent of graduates who do something—anything—else.

The fact of the matter is that many of us entering the workforce might end up at jobs that don’t sound stellar on paper, for practical and personal reasons. Many of us will be working in cubicles for a couple of years, not entirely enthused by what we’ve chosen to do. Sometimes the practical reality of working to support yourself in a profession that doesn’t pay consulting money can mean that you end up doing something you don’t love initially, which can be an anxiety-inducing possibility. But Montás isn’t convinced that doing so has to be as terrifying or entirely at odds with the liberal values of self-discovery at the heart of the Core.

“This notion that you should have a five-year and a 10-year and a 15-year plan of goals, and that your every activity now should be guided by a sense of what goal it is going to meet in a given period of time. I think that framework can be soul-crushing and that framework can be the opposite of lifegiving and incredibly dangerous,” Montás says. “I do think that there is a tremendous stigma to not having set goals, to not defining yourself around very specific achievements that you are working towards, and that that framework is, in most cases, misguided.”

For Bhandari, it seems that no matter what a person chooses, or is forced, to do after graduation is going to be met with criticism.

“I had this sense when I was leaving Columbia that everything that you do was judged. It felt like I faced a lot of judgment for choosing to do TFA because of all the critiques against it,” she said. “Everything comes under fire. People who graduate without a job come under fire; people who go into finance and consulting go under fire. It’s not bad to have a critical lens, but I do think the critical lens can really apply to anything that anyone chooses to do.”

What seems to matter most at the end of the day for the person doing the job is the reasons they get into; Mehta and Bhandari have given thought to what they’re doing and are sure it’s the best choice for them right now. And what embarking into the “real world” ideally does is continue the process of figuring out who we are and what we like.

“Developing yourself is … fundamentally about figuring out what you care about, and I think if you want to have a satisfying life and do satisfying work, you need to figure out what you care about and try to turn that into a vocation—again, that’s going to involve compromise,” Deresiewicz says. “It may be difficult—it will be difficult—but that’s the point. You want to develop a self because you want your work to have something to do with who you are.”

We still have potential, and part of having potential is figuring out what you don’t want to waste it on. For some people, that process involves waiting tables; for others, it involves assisting in a company’s IPO or telling a corporation which employees are unnecessary or teaching fifth-graders in rural Kentucky. The hope is that the disparity between potential and reality is temporary, that after a few years the waiter or the teacher or the analyst ends up doing something fulfilling (if it, indeed, is unfulfilling to begin with). It’s all just a matter of how difficult the process of discovery becomes in terms of the work we’re doing and the money we earn (which aren’t always entirely a choice).

“In some ways, it’s easy to just go from one situation at school where you’re given assignments and tasks that you have to fulfill to another situation where somebody else tells you, ‘These are the new sets of tasks, these are the new sets of deadlines, these are the new things that you need to do, and I’m going to pay you well for it,’” Montás says. “In some ways that is easy, in some ways that is comforting, and it evades some important existential questions. But one simply can’t generalize that.

“What I do feel comfortable generalizing about and saying is that not choosing one of those defined career paths is courageous and puts one in a kind of discomfort that can be extraordinarily productive for one as an individual,” he says. “That is, you can discover things about yourself, you can create authentic modes of enacting yourself that maximize your potential in ways that may not be available to you in conventional beaten tracks of careers.”

*  *  *

Abraham Lincoln ends his address at Cooper Union by imploring his audience to “have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” If we return momentarily to Plato’s Apology, we’re given an idea of what that means: We each choose the paths that we’re convinced are right for us—and sometimes that conception changes.

Certainly few people marched through the gates during NSOP wanting to be a consultant. But for people like Mehta—who is interested in it, perhaps as a secure and prestigious occupation, but also as a vehicle for him to figure out where his life is headed—that’s their duty to themselves as they understand it. Though, let’s not forget that Lincoln and Socrates are interested in a larger duty, which is also a factor in students’ postgraduate decisions.

The tension between what our education taught us to value and what our society values won’t resolve itself overnight. It might not even resolve in a few years for some of us. It can be almost impossible figuring out what to do, and the doubt may never go away. But doubt is evidence of an examined life, to borrow again from the Apology. It’s what we do with it that will define us and the lives we’ve yet to live.

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