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What We Wish We Were Doing

By Whan Lee

Why don’t we do what we want to do? Last year the Crimson conducted a “Senior Survey” for the Class of 2012, asking students both what they wish they were doing after graduation and what they were actually doing. The graduating students reported a sizable discrepancy between the industries they planned on entering post-Harvard and the ones they wanted to enter. If we momentarily forget the anomalous education sector, a significant plurality of seniors indicated that they would be working in the finance and consulting sectors, while a similar proportion indicated they would rather work in the arts or in public service. This gap was possibly even larger before the financial crisis, since most investment banks have cut back on recruitment in recent years.

It is a startling thought that for every recent Harvard graduate who is in the line of work of his or her preference, there are several who wish they were doing something entirely different. Harvard was supposed to grant us with vast opportunities to pursue our dreams, but maybe this is not to be the case in real life.

Granted, there are powerful forces at work: Economic realities demand that some students lean towards higher-paying jobs in order to pay off loans or to support their families. But this is not true for most students. There are social pressures too—the social prestige of becoming a Wall Street financier or management consultant often exceeds that of other options, at least on a college campus. Lastly, the corporate recruiting system is both alluring and convenient, as on-campus information sessions and exclusive dinners have proved to be powerful in convincing undergrads to work in certain industries.

Despite the risks associated with choosing to work in more unconventional fields, some students still end up doing what they want. Interestingly, the proportion of students at Harvard who claim to want to work in education is equal to the proportion that ends up teaching in schools. Though an outsized proportion of this pool is likely made up by “corps members” for Teach For America, a two-year program with unfortunately high attrition rates, it is nevertheless a good sign. Unfortunately, this certainly does not extend to most students.

Of course, the problem with some students is that they have no idea what they want. Even for those that do, the perceived risks of pursuing it are often too large. A prestigious corporate job with a two or three-year commitment seems to offer a temporary cushion from worrying about employment as well as a background that could potentially jumpstart a successful career.

But what are the downsides to not immediately pursuing one’s passions? For many, the proverbial “golden handcuffs” of having to stay with a particular job to maintain a certain standard of living become oppressive down the line, and it becomes harder to switch industries as one ages. There is a strong possibility that Harvard students are unnecessarily risk averse, as the rewards of doing something one loves are plenty, and there are hidden costs associated with following the crowd. The only way to ensure you end up doing what you wish to do is to start doing that thing now, not after that two-year program, and certainly not after an established career in a totally unrelated field.

Granted, there are definitely students who truly love finance or consulting, and those are the students who should work in these fields. It isn’t unimaginable to think that an aspiring financier or consultant has had his dreams sidelined by a less-motivated (but ostensibly more qualified) student who took his spot at a firm. These tragedies are perhaps the most unfortunate.

To the students who simply don’t know what they want: Harvard has more resources available to helping you find what you love than potentially any other educational institution in the world. There are plenty of classes, student organizations, job opportunities, and Harvard-funded events that can help. There are alumni who have found success (and more importantly, happiness) in careers that may seem unconventional or strange to the current student or newly minted graduate. An open mind goes a long way in self-discovery.

High school students newly admitted to Harvard often hear that “Harvard opens doors.” This is often true, as the network of Harvard alumni is extraordinary, and the brand name isn’t bad either. This means that we should be able to take more risks than the average person while maintaining a sense of security in our careers. Despite the ocean of possibility we feel when we first receive that acceptance letter, the culture here can perpetuate a convergence of career goals informed by mass risk aversion. The truth is, you have a choice of doors that Harvard can help open, and the choice should be entirely yours. Do what you want, and start early.

Whan Lee ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a neurobiology concentrator in Kirkland House.

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