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Profits and Bridges

There’s a scene in the new film “Margin Call”—a fictionalized retelling of the first 24 hours of the 2008 financial crisis—in which a recently-fired risk analyst sits on his front porch and reflects on his life’s work. As his thoughts float back through time, it’s not his contributions to the investment bank where he was employed that come to mind; instead it’s his work as an engineer prior to joining the firm when he built a bridge that saved commuters countless hours of travel time each day. That’s what the analyst lacked in his work at the investment bank: It didn’t allow him to create anything.

Watching the scene and reflecting on my own undergraduate education, I realized that it has instilled in me, above all else, a desire to create something. I remember the moment when this desire began to crystallize in me; it was during freshman year when I met with a professor during office hours who pushed me to consider the logical implications of an argument I was making. When she finally drew out an unexpected repercussion, the thrill of discovery hit us both. I expect that many other students have had similar experiences and it seems that many of us emerge from Harvard with this creative instinct intact—we want to make something that will contribute to the world in a concrete way.

It is somewhat surprising therefore, that around this time every year we see countless students recruiting for jobs at consulting and finance firms. These are often the same students whose original ideas impressed us in class—some of our most creative, intelligent, and accomplished peers. It’s also the time of year when we see a backlash against many of these students. This year, the backlash is embodied in the Occupy Harvard movement, which (among other claims) argues that Harvard graduates in the financial sector have contributed to growing economic inequality in the United States.

These attacks on individuals entering the financial industry are rarely constructive. The more intriguing question is why students—many of whom, like me, were inspired to create during their years at Harvard—eschew careers in the more “creative” professions and pursue work in the financial world. Why are we creating profits instead of bridges?

I think that much of the answer has to do with the resources devoted to career counseling for students whose interests point them toward occupations outside the world of finance and consulting. Certainly some students enter this world because of the financial benefits, but for others it’s simply the most visible and defined career path after graduation. Students can meet with recruiters and interview on campus; the Office of Career Services provides extensive counseling for undergraduates pursuing finance or consulting careers. Many students work in internships during the summer after their junior year; by the end of the summer some have job offers in hand and can go through senior year with defined post-graduation plans while their friends frantically search for job listings and interview opportunities.

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Searching for a career outside finance or consulting often comes with more uncertainty than searching for a career within this profession. As a result, students often need to be counseled extensively when searching for opportunities in non-finance fields. Opportunities for such counseling currently exist at Harvard, but they often aren’t advertised extensively and can be overshadowed by the highly visible recruiters who descend on campus each year. The OCS could more effectively highlight its counseling opportunities for students interested in engineering, politics, or academia and could more aggressively reach out to students interested in these fields. Currently, OCS’s extensive finance career counseling services are not an example of a response to students’ demand for careers in these fields; instead, the supply of these services inflates demand for careers that might not otherwise be as attractive to students.

As seniors near their thesis deadlines and eventually their graduation dates, thoughts of post-college plans inevitably hang over their heads. Right now, the ease of enter the consulting and finance fields means that students with diverse interests and creative impulses are streamlined into these professions, even if they’re more willing—and more suited—to entering other occupations. So why are we creating profits instead of bridges? It’s not because we’re uncreative; it’s because profits—and the careers associated with them—simply come easier.

Peter M. Bozzo ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Eliot House.

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