I remember standing in the January evening cold my junior year, feeling like a caricature as I tried to look at home in a suit I hadn’t worn in months. I was waiting to play pretend at being grown-up with five dozen of my classmates—more or less the lot of the year’s econ and associated majors—a conscientious 15 minutes early to a Credit Suisse reception in the Faculty House, and wondering what the hell I was doing there. I didn’t particularly want to go into finance, but email after weekly email from the economics department, the Center for Career Education, and the PR department at every big-name firm in the business—as well as a vague sense of everyone-else-is-doing-it had me standing there all the same. Somewhere along the line, they’d hooked me, and I found myself coveting a job I didn’t really care about because I thought I was supposed to.
To the upperclassmen who intend to bank, I’m sure this sounds familiar. To the underclassmen for whom this doesn’t sound familiar, rest assured it will. Come mid-year, the i-bank recruitment circus begins its yearly show, and scores of newly hopeful undergrads will jostle for interview slots with the bulge-brackets. These are not born wanna-be bankers, mind you. These are economics majors, statistics majors, political science majors, and engineers, and most of them did not come to Columbia with the express intent of ending up as bankers. Why, then, are these jobs so magnetic, and why do they become so prized somewhere between NSOP and graduation?
The most common rationalization is, of course, the money, but it’s a flawed, or at least an incomplete one. It’s about security and certainty: Follow our formulaic application track and you’ll land a “real” job. In the dauntingly uncertain world of post-grad plans, the genius of the finance firms’ recruiting strategies is the ritualistic predictability. No other field’s recruitment machine comes close in systematization and structure—interview round one, interview round two, internships in the summer, and offers in the fall. If it all sounds generic, especially in contrast to the crapshoot that is getting hired almost anywhere else (with the possible exception of finance’s next-door neighbor, consulting), that’s because it was meant to be. Such a clear-cut path to a desk with a title and a paycheck, all of which can anchor you safely on this side of post-graduate oblivion (and let you stay in New York), can be immensely alluring. The process shucks the uncertainty of actual real life and instead mirrors, by design, one we’re proven successes at: getting into college.
The breadth and depth of this recruitment strategy’s success cannot be overstated. For me, it was a strategy that managed to turn the promise of 100-hour weeks spent slaving over mind-numbingly uninteresting pitch-books (this is a dressy word for combination Excel/Powerpoint presentations) into one of the most desirable jobs of the bunch. It’s a strategy that nets a substantial chunk of the most driven and qualified students each year—students who could be doing something, anything else if not for the siren song of first-year finance. It’s a strategy that works, and because of it a generation’s worth of sharp-minds have done … not all that much, actually.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Columbia students can do better than this. If we want to go on trumpeting our characteristic independence, we need to stop being seduced en masse by schmoozy cocktail hours and cheaply fattened paychecks. Peer-inertia and a recruitment system precisely calibrated by Goldman and friends after decades of going after the same 20-year-olds for the same jobs add up to a current that can be hard to resist, and as the uncertainty of post-grad life begins to loom, it only gets harder. But anxiety is a bad reason on which to found a career choice, and ill-considered crowd-sense is an even worse one. By all means, bank if you want to, but don’t do it just because it’s there.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in mathematics.