Passion Versus Paycheck

Do students need new ways to think about their career choices?

Occupational Therapy

Last week, a Harvard senior—let’s call her Sofia—was having coffee with two friends who had just accepted their summer job offers at big companies in New York. She wants to work in theater or arts management, and one friend noticed the worried look that darkened Sofia’s face when her friends mentioned their jobs.

“Don’t worry,” Sofia remembered her soon to be high-paid friend saying. “You’re following your passion!

Sofia isn’t the only one who’s told me stories like this. Dozens of students I’ve talked with describe the challenges of senior fall in these terms. “Is doing recruiting selling out?” wondered one senior English concentrator who has also considered trying to get a reporting job at a magazine. “I’m worried the lucrative stuff is going to feel really substanceless,” a government concentrator told me. Over and over, students I’ve interviewed describe their thinking in these terms: they feel that can follow either their passions or a big paycheck.

But is “passion versus paycheck” the best way for Harvard students to be thinking about career choices? And why is it that many students seem to accept this binary?

I want to be clear from the start about the limitations of these reflections: I’m writing at Harvard, about Harvard. This may not apply to all; for students who need to support their families or who face other substantial financial burdens, these questions may simply not matter. And in national terms, Harvard students are extraordinarily lucky even to be able to entertain these kinds of ideas.

But this good fortune also brings a heightened responsibility. Because Harvard students often have choices, we also have to think about making the right choices for the lives we will lead—and, in particular, about the way that our context may shape how we make our decisions.

The 2008 financial crisis profoundly shook confidence in many of the forces that had shaped how Harvard students made decisions about jobs. The extremely negative public perception of the financial services industry after the crisis, combined with the fall in hiring because of a weakened economy, have complicated the “paycheck” side of the binary. Indeed, the number of graduating seniors taking jobs in financial services and consulting has fallen from 47 percent in 2007 to only around 20 percent in 2012.

In that lost world where so-called generalists were hired on a massive scale at sprawling service-oriented firms, that time of ready money and ready answers, a paycheck may well have seemed substitute for a passion. But now? These changes in how students are being employed make the “passion or paycheck” binary seem less obviously relevant: many of the jobs that students want fall on a spectrum between the two would-be poles.

The disruptive effect of technology on traditional business provides an excellent example. If you are passionate about fashion, you have more options than working the floor at Bloomingdale’s—there are Internet companies like Gilt Groupe, the online luxury sale site. If you are passionate about giving voice to ordinary people, there’s Twitter. And the list goes on.

But this excitement can seem overwhelming, too, because these options demand new personal frameworks in which to make decisions, without reducing the world to premade categories that may not apply. Our first career choice begins to define our post-college identity and our community contribution. Rather than falling into a way of thinking that makes less and less sense at this historical moment, we should push ourselves to find new approaches to understanding our choices and making career decisions.

Over the course of the semester, I will be looking at individual students’ stories and investigating several possible frameworks in an attempt to start this conversation. Subsequent columns will examine the ways that students think about skill acquisition (how they will develop a flexible twenty-first century professional skill set) and other professional goals. Most importantly, I will emphasize students’ growing desire to have public-impact careers—broadly defined as careers that allow individuals to have a positive social impact through their work—and show how students use this criterion to assess new jobs in technology, media, health, and other sectors. This series will pay particular attention to efforts that extracurricular organizations and University support systems like the Office of Career Services are making to facilitate innovative thinking on these issues.

Talking about these choices and changes can be uncomfortable, even embarrassing. Many of us like to keep these things to ourselves—but we can benefit from opening the dialogue. The potential reward is significant: to break out of the artificially delimiting “passion versus paycheck” mentality and to find alternative ways of thinking about our careers and our futures.

Julian B. Gewirtz ’13 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.