September 2, 2013

HENRY: Philosophy and Investment Banking: Same, But Different

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This summer, I did something that I never thought I’d do.

After years of non-profit and public sector internships — and indeed, two weeks prior to starting a job for a Senator on the Hill — I had sold out and done the unthinkable.

I took a job at an investment bank.

Following my December decision to accept the offer, I felt almost embarrassed telling people. Instead of the pride that getting a job should normally merit, I hedged my news with qualifications: “Oh, I’m going to learn so much,” or “I just want to understand that WORLD, you know?” Maybe these qualifications were largely a product of my own inhibitions about my choice, but I didn’t simply imagine the judgment of many friends and professors who had supported me through earlier career decisions on the non-profit and public sector tracks.  People who knew me remarked that it was an “unusual” choice, or showed their ambivalence by asking: “Are you sure that’s the right next step?” Going into work that summer, I saw myself as the Rocky of investment banking interns.

As I got to know my colleagues at the bank, I realized that my high-on-my-horse assertion that I was unique in the finance world because of my background was insensitive and untrue. I grew up in a finance-minded family with access to plenty of resources — educational and otherwise. I am a philosophy major, not a financial industry unicorn.

As much as I still tried to flavor my experience with my perspective (which is a little different from many of the individuals working at the bank if still informed by a similar upbringing), I learned that real diversity of perspective comes from people with totally different backgrounds. I was not the person in the office whose views were influenced by a different paradigm. People laughed when they heard I was a philosophy major, but no one was particularly surprised or thought it gave me some kind of underdog status. With friends and co-workers who had cold-called their way to their desks with good grades and without any on-campus recruiting, or overcome seemingly insurmountable financial obstacles to get from Detroit to New York, my status as “the person you’d never think would join an investment bank” felt hollow and false.

What is it about campus culture here, then, that created auto-surprise on every student and professor’s face when I told them about my summer internship?  It could be that I had never previously discussed my interest in investment banking with anyone — but then again, junior fall is a pretty typical time to develop new professional aspirations.  Instead, I’m more inclined to conclude that people were caught up in the face-value discord between my qualitative, normatively-concerned academic interests and my very profit-oriented job. My internship didn’t seem to “fit’ my academic interests, and people were perturbed.

We have this idea that demands a direct substantive correlation between our academic aspirations, our work in our third summer of college and our early career choices in our twenties. With a distinctly unimaginative take on this thought, I’ll go ahead and dub this mindset “pre-professionalism,” a term that people always use but never define. If this is pre-professionalism, then I’ll come out and say this: I hate it.

College should be a time when it’s acceptable to shift and morph and stretch to test ourselves and our interests. I don’t buy into the idea that there has to be a direct correlation between what I study and what career path I choose in my twenties. In fact, I’m not sure that most people would buy into that idea if they stopped and thought about it for a few minutes. Even those in relatively specialized programs like engineering or hotel administration display an astounding diversity in terms of post-graduation career choices.

What we learn in our summer jobs should be interesting. It should develop an acute sense of self-awareness in the professional arena. At the end of the summer, we may or may not end up wanting to turn our internships into careers. Essentially, this is a time for developing a sense of professionalism and skills that are widely applicable. On the whole, as incoming seniors, our summer jobs give us the ability to develop those softer skills (leadership, communication, teamwork) but have little of the real responsibility that would “set us up” in a career track with a single summer. With this in mind, we shouldn’t have to justify our summer job choices to the tune of our academic interests.

It is the Cornell community’s insistence on a relationship between major choice and professional development that really inhibits us, more so than our prospective employers.  Strict pre-professionalism dictates that our careers start with day one of classes freshman year. My experience in investment banking shows me that I could or could not have geared my class choices towards my summer job. But what I accomplished and learned this summer had much less to do with my academic qualifications and much more to do with my love for fast-paced, intense environments and desire to gain a new understanding of a field with a steep learning curve. It turns out I adapted pretty well and enjoyed a lot of what I did (hours notwithstanding).

I didn’t lose something this summer. I didn’t waste my time by not working on policy or public speaking or non-profit work. I developed a whole new skill set that boosted my creativity and willingness to try new ways of getting work done. The same would go for a finance major working in a non-profit. We strive to be interdisciplinary in our studies — why wouldn’t we apply this same attitude to our professional development?

Campus culture encourages some people to apply to certain jobs and some people not to. Instead, we should encourage people to consider making radical choices about how to interpret their qualifications and studies professionally. That’s the only way that we can go out there and be impactful in whatever jobs we choose, while still studying what makes us happy.

Maggie Henry is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry