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Why Did Most of Dartmouth’s Valedictorians Become Investment Bankers and Consultants? The Need for a Deeper Vocabulary of Career Aspiration

The Brain Drain

My alma mater, Dartmouth College, graduated five (!) valedictorians this year. The majority are moving on to jobs in finance or management consulting.

Dartmouth, of course, is not alone in sending a disproportionate number of its best and brightest to these narrow sectors. In recent years, to name an oft-cited example, Princeton sent 36% of its students to finance jobs while Harvard sent 17%.

There are many reasons proposed for this brain drain (whether or not this is really a “drain” is a different debate, though I tend to agree it is), including: prestige, money, the need to pass a new competitive admissions process to signal value, and psychologically-astute recruiting tactics.

I’m particularly interested, however, in an explanation offered by David Brooks in a recent column:

“Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options.”

According to Brooks, elite students assume their choices are limited to: (a) making lots of money in finance and consulting, or (b) saving the world by working for a boots-on-the-ground non-profit. [Stanford students, Brooks notes, get an extra option less popular on the East Coast: (c) starting a tech company.]

This rings true.

A Stunted Career Vocabulary

Something I noticed time and again when out talking about SO GOOD is that the current generation of college students has a stunted vocabulary when it comes to discussing career aspirations.

I’m not exactly sure why, though I hypothesize it’s some combination of the character-crushing competitive college admissions process (which most students don’t understand) and the dulling effect of the “follow your passion” culture. When college graduation looms, these students realize that they lack the mental models needed to develop a sophisticated vision of the role work can play in a life well-lived. So they fall back on simplistic heuristics.

What we need is more career conversations, started much earlier, handled with significantly more subtlety and intelligence than most 19 year-olds, or the career advice industry that caters to them, seem willing to pursue.

A Deeper Career Vocabulary

In an effort to begin a transition toward a richer vocabulary of career aspirations, I’ve listed below three issues relevant to career choice that any ambitious college student, confused about life after graduation, should spend more time trying to understand…

  1. The Value of Craftsmanship. There’s a deep sense of satisfaction in the process of mastering a craft that produces things that the world values. There’s an even deeper satisfaction in subsequently applying this craft and receiving recognition for your competence. For millennia, human culture has understood and revered this value. Many different career paths can provide this return — if you know what you’re looking for.
  2. The Importance of Lifestyle. What traits define, to you, a good life? Autonomy? Time affluence? Mobility and adventure? Connection? Influence? Impact? Students tend to place too much importance on the specifics of a job, as if there was a specific knowledge work pursuit hardwired in their genes. It is instead the general traits of their lifestyle that tend to bring people satisfaction — not specific jobs. How deeply do you understand what general traits resonate with you? This understanding brings great clarity to your path through the working world.
  3. A Personal Ethic. Identifying your core values is important. But equally important is translating these values into an actionable ethic. As Brooks mentions in the column I cited earlier, too many students seem stuck with a watered down, college admission-style model of ethics, where doing volunteer work is sufficient to label your life as moral. Ethics run deeper. If, for example, you’re talented enough to graduate at the top of an Ivy League class, you need to ask: What is my responsibility to the world? What legacy do I want to leave behind? This doesn’t mean you must aspire to become the next Paul Farmer. On the other hand, it might mean that helping a hedge fund make a small number of wealthy people slightly more wealthy does not make the cut. (See Clayton Christensen’s recent book for interesting thoughts on this topic.)

 To summarize, what you do for a living is important. When you face this decision for the first (though certainly not last) time, you need to approach it with more than a slogan and a handful of cliches. This is a topic that deserves a deeper and more nuanced conversation.

46 thoughts on “Why Did Most of Dartmouth’s Valedictorians Become Investment Bankers and Consultants? The Need for a Deeper Vocabulary of Career Aspiration”

  1. This article brings up a great topic and it’s something I never put too much thought into. As a 19-year old myself, I will confirm that yes our “career vocabulary” is very limited. I’m surrounded by people who go into specific careers but without putting too much thought into it and it saddens me because I haven’t gone, “Whoa, that is interesting!” in such a long time. I’ve heard all these career choices before and it’s repeated again and again. Job security and the paycheck are the only two things that are usually thought of when it comes to career options which could explain the lack of diversity.

    I’ll be honest and say I still don’t know what I want either. In the past 6 months alone, I’ve explored the possibility of being a full-time SEO, content marketer, full-time writer, and a few other things. I’m a bit closer to finding what I want but I’m still narrowing down on the sort of lifestyle I want. Autonomy is a huge factor since I’ve already had such a large taste of it I can’t even imagine a career without it.

    What scares me is that I don’t know anyone else my age who is doing what I’m doing. I’m spending time exploring different options to make sure they’re right for me. I’m testing things that I thought may have made me happy to find out that they wouldn’t have. Everyone else is majoring in things hoping for the best.

  2. Great post Cal! I graduated from a top college last year and many of my classmates wanted to work at a top consulting or banking firm for the social validation. It seems sad that so many of the smartest people in the country are giving up their dreams (like playing music, acting, or writing) so they can impress other people with a prestigious job title.

    I’m glad you wrote this article so the next wave of college grads will have better advice than what my classmates and I got.

  3. Thanks for a great post, Cal – possibly one of your best yet. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your considerations for a deeper career vocabulary. It’s really about being a lot more conscious about your life choices, to live with integrity. I shared it with my friends on Facebook (many of whom have only considered becoming doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers and accountants), and hope that it enlightens at least some of them to a different way of thinking about careers and about life!

  4. It has a lot to do with the “bubble” they are in. I graduated HS in 2000. Everything was about being either in IT or business admin. Then being a lawyer was the big deal, now is finance or pharmaceuticals.

    The importance of mastering a craft is more for people a few years out of school be it HS or college. Applying things that they already have learn and seeing others learn, fail, and succeed is a big part of gaining the insight for the need of the list that you have posted.

    Its hard to convince students and their family that supports them in this tough economy that being the best artist will mean anything tangible. Especially with so many social media “artist”

  5. Thanks for this article, Cal. However, please note that there are different motivations for going into banking. I will finish my PhD in Statistics next year and will probably work in this sector, not only because of the money (even though I admit that this is not unimportant to me), but because I have a genuine interest in finance. In fact I have been following the markets since I was 10 years old and everyone who knows me agrees that talking about the markets makes me really passionate.
    Also, I think that at least in quantitative finance you can apply the craftmansmanship principle very well, since there is a variety of skills you need to master very well.
    I also disagree that going into finance means contributing to the “brain drain”. Of course there are certain fields of finance of questionable use for society but I guess that everyone agrees that we need strong banks and most people also understand that investment banking services and products are vital for our economy.

  6. It seems sad that so many of the smartest people in the country are giving up their dreams (like playing music, acting, or writing) so they can impress other people with a prestigious job title.

    I should be careful to note that the alternative to simply choosing from a small menu of default options is not follow “dreams.” My last book attacks that idea. The alternative I’m suggesting is to build up a much more nuanced vocabulary of how you think about work and make this decision.

    It’s really about being a lot more conscious about your life choices, to live with integrity.

    I like this way of putting it.

    I will finish my PhD in Statistics next year and will probably work in this sector, not only because of the money (even though I admit that this is not unimportant to me), but because I have a genuine interest in finance. In fact I have been following the markets since I was 10 years old and everyone who knows me agrees that talking about the markets makes me really passionate.

    I agree that we need bankers. But we don’t need 36% of Princeton’s graduating class becoming bankers. It should be a small number of people like you, who have studied a skill specific to quantitative finance and who finds it interesting, who move to that industry, not a third of a graduating class. In other words, it should be one of many different paths people explore for many different reasons — not a default for smart people who are not willing to think deeply about their life.

  7. Yeah, PhDHacker, and I think it is Very important at this time that we as a society will clearly delineate the difference between ‘finance’ which is necessary for the function of business and fraud. Fraudsters have given economics and finance and capitalism generally a bad name. Bright minds that go into finance so as to run the big scams are a drain, for sure. But I think many smart minds do end up in finance and inadvertently end up supporting the big scams because of the love and prestige (and money) that goes along with it. Look at Alan Greenspan. The same man who wrote “Gold and Economic Freedom” back in the ’60’s later became one of the primary enablers of the big scam. Just be careful if you find a formula or statistical observation that seems to indicate that there is something for nothing available in the universe. Oh, and like I said the other day to an undergrad that intends on pursuing a phd in economics – the world is going to need an army of honest economists and finance guys to fix the quadrillion dollar derivatives bomb after it goes off…

  8. I think that what your saying is correct for the most part, but I still think there are a lot of factors that your missing. I think that a lot of these students go into consulting/banking not because they want social validation or money, but because they simply have no idea yet what skills they want to develop and bring to the real world.

    Take consulting for example. For someone who has no idea how they should develop their career capital, consulting seems like a pretty good option. In that job, they are constantly tackling different problems, (theoretically) learning a lot, and get to see how a lot of different industries work. I think these young consultants hope that this kind of experience will enable them to see what is interesting to them and what kinds of skills/people the world needs.
    As a student at a top school, I don’t think my peers who choose to go into consulting do it because they want to be consultants for the rest of their lives. For someone who just received an undergraduate degree, consulting just seems like a good option compared to other kinds of opportunities.

    However, I also think your idea about the desire for college acceptance validation leading to prestigious job offer validation is very true as well.

    Another interesting thing I wonder is if high tuition rates also affect these trends. I have a friend who is a really brilliant English/Art major who is interested in taking a corporate job. When I asked him why, he said that he felt like he had to be a return on his parents $200k+ investment on his education and that doing something english/art related was probably not going to be lucrative enough to get him there. Whether this kind of thinking is reasonable is a different question, but the fact that he had that opinion is worth mentioning.

  9. Such a good article. As an engineer who graduated from an elite university, but has been working as a nuts-and-bolts engineer for many years now, the notion of a craft is totally underrated. Great article.

  10. I am currently reading the book “A Whole New Mind” and it discusses how many people feel that the “good” jobs are in finance or other left brain directed careers. But there is a shift occurring where more Right brain directed thinking is becoming relevant for exceptional careers. I personally feel that universities focus on left brain thinking which is why the school’s brightest are tending to go into left brain careers. Great article, it definitely got me thinking.

  11. I agree. And yet…. To kind of play the devil’s advocate:

    Financial security is very, very important, and middle-class security is slipping away in America. There is an ever-narrowing range of occupations that provide financial security, and if you don’t have quantitative skills, the range is narrower still.

    I have a couple of Ivy degrees, including a PhD, and I’m now a tenure-track humanities professor, and barely hanging onto a spot the lower middle class financially. (We get paid much, much less than law/business profs, about as much as top high school teachers.) Throughout school, I focused entirely on intrinsic satisfaction and love of the material. If I had it to do over again, I would place a much higher emphasis on financial security.

    Again, I basically agree with most of what you say, but we must remember that there are very few options for a humanities major who wants to achieve financial security.

  12. Great post, great blog, thanks for your work. Your write-up of factor 3, personal ethic, didn’t contain links to any other posts. Would love to hear (read) what yours is.

  13. You’re at your best when devising and refining procedures. I’d leave the ethical prescription and cultural critique to more qualified authors, lest you come off as another self-help guru. Surely an advocate of “deep learning” would appreciate this point.

  14. Great post, Cal!

    One thing that I think is interesting (and perhaps unfortunate) is that this pattern isn’t limited to Ivy-League schools. I go to a small, highly ranked tech school, where not many graduates enter finance. But it seems like the “default” track upon graduation (especially for the CS major) is to join a large company like Google or Microsoft, earning a 6-figure salary in the process.

    Though I think a lot of the work done at these companies is awesome, it’s disconcerting that this appears to be the “default track” for a lot of graduates.

  15. Thanks for a very insightful article. As a Dartmouth grad, myself, I’ve been trying for years to puzzle out why I STILL don’t fit in there or with my fellow classmates. In many ways, this article hits on exactly my issues with my Dartmouth education. And as a parent of a new college grad (who did not go to Dartmouth) I’m very interested in this whole career/passion discussion. I’m happy to report that my son is far ahead of where I was when I graduated and is very intentional and thoughtful about the kind of work and life he wants to live. I do think his college, Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, MN, gets a lot of credit for teaching my son and all its students to think deeply about these questions. Dartmouth could sure learn a thing or two from Gustavus.

  16. Great minds like Charlie Munger, Bill Gates, and Salman Khan have often spoken about this “brain drain” phenomena. However, I don’t think it has much to do with a stunted career vocabulary as it does perverse financial incentives. So long as people are rewarded with high salaries, these sectors will never be at a shortage of highly talented and intelligent individuals. I have a friend who graduated at the top of his MIT electrical engineering class and was doing cutting edge research on neuroprosthetics. Within less than 2 years, he switched his career in research and joined McKinsey Consulting because of two reasons: (1) timeframe of becoming a director of research [minimum of at least 10 years of research–without a guarantee of such a position] and (2) financial incentives weren’t sufficient when compared with other career options. And he’s just one of many I know who have acted in such a manner. Until these incentives are addressed adequately, no amount of moral suasion for doing otherwise will fix this phenomena.

  17. Hi Cal,

    I would love to read your response to Pseudonym’s post.

    My question would be, why do the financial incentives of large salaries and bonuses still attract people to those jobs?

    Is it because of the status of earning more money than others?

    Is it because more money enables them to buy a greater number of expensive things?

    Or is it because it will mean that they will have greater financial security in their old age?

    Granted, it’s probably a combination of all those factors, but I would like to see how much each factor contributes to the incentive chasing mindset.

  18. Great article. However, as some mentioned, it is very hard to think about those questions when financial security is on the line.

    I majored in a liberal arts (urban planning) and have thought a lot about the questions posed above. However, the job market and salaries have shown me the opposite (although the economy is getting better now). It’s hard to consider a career like this if your employment options can seem limited, and you need to be able to pay the bills.

    I love what I’ve studied, and definitely am open to continuing it as a career; however, I think your blog posts, should consider trying to teach us how to market ourselves in a competitive job market where jobs are scarce, because this will appeal to a wider audience than just focusing on “career capital”.

    I definitely do agree with something you said: what you majored in college doesn’t really matter that much in the long run more than your impact to your community. But for many people graduating after college, this actually matters a great deal

  19. Ok. I agree with most of it BUT the question still remains: How can you start your “career journey” if you still an undergrad or recently graduated?
    I’m very clear about the kind of lifestyle I want in the future and my main values in life BUT even with these filters I still have plenty of options (and I’m sure I’m aware of only about 50-65% of all possible) to choose from. How do I go from there to finally dig deep into something?


  20. You hit the nail on the head, Cal. A number of my classmates had an “epiphany” senior year spring about their career prospects, and somehow, consulting almost always made the cut… even for kids who spent the last four years dreaming of being biotech researchers and working dutifully toward that goal. This isn’t surprising, though – the Big 4 firms have been promoting their consulting practice on campus for ages, and when most college kids are faced with the idea of picking what to do, it’s a lot easier to sign up for an interview and accept a job from the nice lady that came to campus than go out and research a potential Dream Job in a limited time frame.

    I disagree with you that going into consulting or finance in swarms signals a brain drain, though. I’ve been thinking about consulting since freshman year, mostly because a number of people I talked to mentioned how McKinsey might be a good fit for me, not just in terms of the work, but culturally, too. It sounds like what you’re describing is a mismatch between skills, aspirations, and the actual job. “Wait, consultants need to know Excel and be able to talk to people?” says the awkward, right-brained new grad on his first day at Deloitte. “I don’t want to do those things…” Then, he becomes disillusioned and quits to follow his “dream,” much like Thomas in SO GOOD.

  21. I was watching Ac’s questions and I think if it’s not only the financial incentives that attracts most of the people in those type of careers,then it’s the perceived mental competition against their peers.People usually wants to make at least the same amount of money as their classmates.

    Also as a culture,as far as I saw,most(not all) Ivy leaguers are quite enthusiastic about hyper-achieving.What happens with hyper-achievement is that a person needs to be terribly focused on all the external things except himself.And then they lack the emotional knowledge,or more like the sensitivity to understand what kind of things they actually want.Constant achievement without introspection is worthless in my opinion(even though it’s at least effective enough to get money…joking).

    I don’t think they are terrible or greedy people,rather the problem is they never really learnt to think for themselves.If a person wants to be individualistic enough to create a whole new career path for himself by adding value in the life of others,it usually means that said person have maintained a level of common sense and refinement in their minds even when he was doing the exact same things as super-achievers.There’s no substitution for a hard-core thinking in this part.Experimenting has got it’s place,that trying out different things to understand what career path is best or not,but there are so many career choices right now(Not that most of them are effective.),but it’s seriously not enough.People seriously need a certain amount of solitude or maintain a level of individualism in their adult lives to constantly understand themselves or what they want,or more like what are the options they can do for other people with the set amount of skills they have already earned.

    My parents seem to drill that in my head pretty early,fortunately.Apparently as they say it,all of the lives has got it’s legacy or an end,and unless I want to be a qualified moron in recent future,I’m better off thinking about that right now,considering I’m a fairly egoistic person and wouldn’t want to die without leaving one behind,however small or interesting that becomes that’s a pure different story.

    Seriously speaking,most people don’t really want to make decisions,and for some reason,they are most disinterested in making career decisions.I understand,that it is tough.Because there are lots of mental components those are related with career decisions,such as fear,responsibility towards family,need for money,lack of security,but I’m not sure if the would be investment bankers would suffer from the same level of fear as normal graduates.If they do,they seriously need to get rid of that.

    At this moment I’ve been seriously asking myself,why and how does my being a next generation graduate in software engineering benefits people around me.(aka if I pass…).Obviously it’ll benefit me and my family,but I don’t want that to be the end.It might be clear after I gain some skills.At least I’d be able to generate more ideas then on what to do.And if everything else fails,then hedge fund is right there(cause media said so..).

  22. As someone a little older with a JD/MBA here’s my perspective. Consultant’s, Lawyers, and Bankers don’t add anything useful to society; they make all the products you use a little bit more expensive. Consultants make huge ppt decks full of jargon like the ubiquitous “value add”, Bankers fiddle around with Excel all day, and Lawyers red line on Word all day. So, if you are hell bent on one of these professions, think which MS Office program you like the most and go for it. I think Cal was astute to pont out the lack people wanting to perfect a craft and make something useful. Imagine if 36% of Princeton’s class wanted to become the next Steve Jobs and build something new?

  23. I don’t agree with your premise that we are losing our “best and brightest” to fiance industries. Maybe Dartmouth graduates are not the “best and brightest” and these industries are a good fit for them. If they are the “best and brightest” how is it possible that they have a “a Stunted Career Vocabulary”?

    I do agree with your three points.

  24. Great piece. I’m a career counselor at Middlebury, and work with students almost daily as they grapple through these issues. Really looking forward to your visit to our campus next spring and continuing the dialogue.

  25. Thanks for your artical.

    I am from Peking Univeristy,the top university in China.I have deeply suffered the shortages of educatianal system in China.We have few chances to decide to major what we are interested in. Most of us are suffering the limited choices because we are divided into different colleges by the score of the University Entrance Exam.

    In China, finance seems to be the mort riveting profession.But only the students who have higher scores can choose to major in ecnomics and finance in the same university.So, it’s really a big problem but its solution is hard to find for such a country of 1.4 billion population.

    The misunderstanding of career should be ameliorated in China.Your career vocabulary opinion is quite useful and I have recommended it to my friends.But the circumstance is not too optimistic and I hope Chinese can find what they really pursue.

  26. Very good article. As a student, I believe many of my peers have the same narrow-minded vision solely because we do not know the amount of attainable and realistic options there are available.

  27. Great post, Cal!

    I agree, there’s a lot more subtlety and nuance to choosing a career than most 20 year olds (like myself) are apparently willing to pursue, though in reality I suspect the technical difficulty of making a decent choice tailored to your own interests and basket of capabilities is likely lower than that of an average undergraduate class. It just requires a lot more introspection and honesty.

    Increasingly, however, I’m drawn to the suggestions of Give Well and 80000 hours, which have a lot of intuitive appeal for me: While being an investment banker or actuary just for the sake of getting a large car or a huge house feels so aesthetically displeasing, and doing a dirt poor volunteer “job” isn’t actually going to help the world all that much, if somebody actually cares about society, they should work in jobs that either a)have high social impact or b)pay extremely well so that they can use most of the monies to FUND jobs and efficient charities that can make a difference in the world.

    Still trying to decide between academia and finance, but I think that working in a hedge-fund so I can divert a small portion of the useless capital into something more meaningful seems worthwhile. What do you think?

  28. I think one of the problems is the limited major options at many elite undergraduate programs. The schools typically do not focus on, and rather avoid, building skills and knowledge relevant to specific careers. This leaves students with fewer choices after graduating. One glaring example is the accounting profession, which is practically foreclosed to elite undergraduate students, but which forms the foundation of many successful and varied business careers.

  29. I really enjoyed this post. Several months ago, I was listening to an interview with author Paul Tough, that spoke about the same concept. He cited the high proportion of students from selective schools that go into finance. His reasoning is well formulated, and you might want to read the book ‘How Children Succeed’ (if you haven’t already). I think both of your arguments are highly insightful and significant.

  30. Melissa, you are partly right, but…

    Few graduates actually follow through on their subjects and then take a career path directly related to what they studied – OK, with the exception of medicine. Even lawyers don’t always do law at college. For example on a news broadcast on the BBC, the question of relevancy of some subjects was raised – was a degree in media studies really needed to enter the field? The interviewee went to great lengths to prove it was – John Humphries the interviewer then asked across the studio (about 7 people running the program) who had a media studies degreee? The answer trumped the interviewee – nobody! It seems it is the study process at the best university you can muster, that is the asset you gain.

    Secondly, how would you ever get to a point wheree commercial skills would be addressed through a university course – what would you study if you wanted to join BMW or Boeing? Engineering in some form may or maybe not the answer.

    And your point about accountancy is extremely interesting. KPMG have a non-graduate training programme that takes recruits straight into studying for their accountancy exams at the highest levels. They have real problems recruiting the right candidates because parents are insisting their children do a university based degree first (and incure all those costs instead of being an ’employee’ at KPMG.)

    There is a whole World of bad career advice out there, but Cals work seems to help create a real routemap to competence based sucess.

  31. Cal. I really like the general idea of your book and your thoughts in general about passion and finding what matters to you. What I’m not so crazy about is how you then continually interject your own personal opinions about which careers are good and which aren’t. When I was reading your book, I loved it until I read the bit about you being offered all these finance jobs and you not taking them because ‘they don’t contribute to society’. Even if they offered autonomy and all the other characteristics. That is an incredibly subjective opinion..which you treat as fact for all your readers!! Are you seriously saying an iPhone game, any kind of sales job, jobs in the luxury goods sector etc contribute more to society than finance? It seems that your general logic is ‘Stick with what you’re doing and master it, and you’ll learn to love it, whatever it is (Oh, except for professions A, B and C which I personally believe are useless). It’s a shame because I was really enjoying your book, was telling a lot of people about it and it was giving me a lot of hope (about to work in finance myself, and actually find it interesting) but then I got to that part and vowed never to pick it up again. Shame. You may think that being an author contributes a lot to society, but your book in the end didn’t contribute much to me at all. Maybe give finance another shot?

  32. I’ve graduated and am in my third year of post university work. I’ve worked in finance and now I’m back in tech, even now I’m stunted by the question, what are my options? Sure I have a list of maybe 10-11 but they don’t seem particularly appealing, I imagine the edge cases would interest me more, the rare, niche skills you talk of….but how do you find these rare niche jobs if you don’t know what they are?

  33. A really great article. Thanks! for sharing this , Cal.

    I like your thoughts over the three issues relevant to the career choice and yes, one must spend some time to understand it.

    If someone is aspiring a career in finance domain and has high aim towards growth & developing skills then, investment banking is a very good option.

    Investment banking industry is where you develop an in-depth knowledge of finance and investment banking and gain valuable experiences in managing complex products and business initiatives, build your influence and response to operational, market and product risks, be a part of a highly skilled integrated global team that works alongside all areas of complex, fast-moving businesses and understand every facet of the bank – products, technology, trading desks or global management.


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