As a kid, I cycled through a number of dream professions: firefighter, paleontologist, park ranger, firefighter again. As I got older and more boring, doctor, judge, and economist topped the list. But it was not until Columbia that I started to imagine life as a consultant or investment banker.
After graduating—and maybe a month of vacation in Thailand or a year of Teach For America—most of us will follow one of a few professional paths. According to CCE, about 25 percent of employed CC and SEAS students who graduated in 2015 entered finance, roughly 14 percent pursued a career in tech or engineering,10 percent headed into consulting, and 18 percent immediately began graduate studies, presumably in law and medicine.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons for this career homogenization. One is genuine interest: The mechanics of capital flows really do fascinate some finance types (improbable though this may seem); many pre-meds are pursuing medicine to ease pain and suffering; and plenty of pre-laws are deeply committed to the pursuit of equal justice. On the pragmatic side, following one of these paths offers a clear route to conventional success, financial stability, and visa benefits for international students.
Yet these paths, for all their benefits, share a common and regrettable tendency to imbue their followers with pre-professional zeal. With prestige valued above all else, pre-professionalism leads us to focus exclusively on the future to the detriment of the present.
In college, this means that many of us are more concerned with GPAs than with taking interesting or enlightening classes, or are more inclined to join clubs that promise us insider tips and a résumé boost than ones that allow us to pursue new or existing interests. College becomes a vocational exercise, a four-year credentialing process that allows us to pass successfully and painlessly into the next stage. It is a hurdle or an obstacle, and ultimately little more than the top section of a résumé.
This focus on the future doesn’t begin in college and doesn’t end with graduation. An entry-level position or admission to a top graduate program becomes another stepping stone, as does the next position or internship or residency, and so on as our careers progress. We require perpetual forward motion to be satisfied, and along the way, we subordinate our personal lives to our professional ones. Life, we conclude, is to be lived only on the weekends.
The primary response to pre-professionalism from those who claim to know better has been a rather tepid entreaty to “follow your passions.” This advice hits us first in high school and is then repeated periodically, with less and less conviction, as we continue our path through college. The implication is that a passion is a unitary, job-ready interest that springs forth fully formed from within and guides us through the travails of finding a meaningful career; it is a sort of professional Patronus that escorts us through dark forests and protects us from soul-sucking careers.
For me, at least, this type of passion has not yet emerged. I care and am interested in any number of issues—environmental justice, domestic and international poverty, and land conservation, to name a few—but I don’t know which, if any, will form the basis of my career.
Finding professional passion seems to me more a process of cultivation and personal development than an epiphany. In the meantime, our ability to resist pre-professional pressures seems to rely on a sense of personal integrity—that is, the ability to stay true to one’s own values and interests regardless of what classmates and friends are doing. It also requires a sense of balance and perspective: keeping in mind the importance of the present as well as the future and the personal as well as the professional.
In a concrete sense, what does this mean? For me, it has meant spending more time outdoors and in New York City, quitting pre-professional clubs and joining ones that truly interest me, and taking a class in American fiction as an economics major. More generally, it means treating college as an end unto itself and, in the process, defining my self-worth as something more than prestige.
On a sunny Saturday morning last October, I woke up early to head upstate for a hike with friends. When I checked my phone, I noticed an email from a consulting firm—a last-minute invitation to a coffee chat. After some early morning angst, I picked the hike over the chat, and I haven’t regretted it at all.
Ben Swanson is a Columbia College junior studying economics. His favorite dog breed is the noble labrador retriever, but he’s partial to big dogs of all types. He’s not on Twitter, but hit him up at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like. Urban Bushwhacking runs alternate Thursdays.
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