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Why finance jobs are popular

Ezra Klein just made an argument I've been making since sophomore year of college.

Finance and consulting jobs are popular among elite college students because they give a predictable path to professional life for liberal arts students who have no idea what to do with their educations.  Top banks and consulting firms come to colleges and offer a structured, competitive application process, not too different from the process of applying to college.  They offer on-the-job training.  They present themselves as a "a low-risk, high-return opportunity that they can try for a few years and, whether they like it or hate it, use to acquire real skills to build careers ... a practical graduate school that pays students handsomely to attend."  It's these reasons, more than just the high salaries, that attract college students to finance -- they also flock to Teach For America, which doesn't pay well but has the same kind of structured application process and promise of on-the-job training.

Ezra Klein sees this as a lesson for schools -- if you don't want all your students going into finance (and college administrations often don't) you need to do a better job of preparing students for employment.  Wall Street is taking advantage of a crop of bright, conscientious kids with absolutely no plans for the future.

I would draw a few other lessons, in other directions.

First, for students.  It's easy for young people, especially if we're bright and sheltered, to fall into the trap of only doing things that are pre-prepared for us. In high school, we took honors classes and did math team or debate, and we applied to the best schools -- but most of us didn't get a part-time job at a real newspaper or start a lawn-mowing business.  In other words, we did things designed for high-schoolers and didn't step out of that box.  In college, we did things designed for college students, and didn't think to socialize with "adults" or do "adult" things.  (The exceptions -- college kids who ran for town council, or got on the executive committee of a nonprofit -- are memorable).  So when it's time to get a job, it's easy to just unthinkingly apply for the job that seems "designed" for Princeton kids, the one whose recruiters show up to campus.  If you practice having more imagination and initiative early on, you can counteract that bias -- if finance is the right choice for you after all, that's great, but you shouldn't be living your life on default settings.

Second, for employers.  Take a leaf out of Teach For America's book -- you can attract young people not with higher salaries, but with highly visible on-campus recruitment, and the promise of prestige through a competitive application process.  If you can find a way to train liberal arts students with no work experience, and convince them that you're giving them a valuable resume item, you can get grueling labor out of some very smart, energetic people.

Third, for my personal obsession, job search.  Ivy League students don't find jobs on Monster.com because that's a leap into the unknown.  They often have no idea what they want to do for a living; they just want to be in the professional class, and the obvious way to do that is to apply to the handful of finance and consulting firms that recruit on campus.  But if there were a job search tool that had more of an exploratory function -- that gave you, not just a list of local jobs, but match results that took into account your interests, skills, and personality -- and (crucially) if there was adequate filtering for prestige to counteract the fear of taking "some random" job -- then my demographic might actually use it.  The concentration of college grads in finance seems like a symptom of lack of exploratory tools.  It's choosing the familiar over the unknown. 

And recommendations technology is largely about making the "unknown" accessible.  A restaurant you've never been to, or a book you've never read, is a risk -- but Yelp reviews or Amazon recommendations make it a lot less risky.  A stranger is a mystery -- unless he has a Facebook profile, a blog, and an OkCupid account, in which case he's a lot less mysterious.  When we're uninformed, we stick to the tried and true; given more information, we can afford to be more adventurous.  I don't think we've yet created the tools that will let job seekers be more adventurous.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 19th, 2012 10:52 pm (UTC)
This is a pretty awesome post. Is there a reason it's friends-locked? :)
Feb. 19th, 2012 11:03 pm (UTC)
I friends-lock everything. Someday I'll have a public blog or website, but probably not until I have a more consistent idea of who I am professionally.
Ben Schwyn
May. 9th, 2012 06:08 pm (UTC)
I am just a random bloke on the internet who came here from a link. (Hello, and thanks for the articles! I've enjoyed reading them.)

However, I'm not sure if was not meant to see this.
Sep. 18th, 2012 07:30 pm (UTC)
Didn't they all go into computer science at the peak of the .com bubble?
And now you're reporting they're all going into finance? And in 10 years, it'll be something else. They'll all probably be going to into geology so they can work for resource extraction companies or going into crop science, because commodities and resource extraction is where it's at. Or maybe it'll be the Dark Ages all over again and everyone will be going into convents and monasteries to meditate. Who knows.

I'm being cynical, but people tend to go where the jobs are, at least if they have a fresh start in life. Or at least where it's easy to get jobs.

Have to keep in mind that getting your foot in the door as a college grad is a pretty tough and scary thing - and if there's someone saying "Hey, it isn't that scary, here's how you get your foot in the door", I don't blame a soon-to-be college grad for listening to that person, as long as they're not a complete scammer.
Mar. 20th, 2019 07:34 am (UTC)
Nice Post
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )