Opportunity costs

Graphic by Sheiran Phu

“It’s one thing to just live your life without really thinking carefully about what you want to do or why you want to do it,” said Trevor Williams CH ‘18, an Econ-Math major. It’s another to look “at your own life with eyes wide open and actually say, ‘What do I want to do?’”

Williams was referring to the frequency of Yale students entering consulting and finance after graduation—futures into which he claims the university funnels students. “If you go on Symplicity, all the jobs they post there are finance and consulting. Almost all of them. That’s just what Yale is…what the career office has dedicated its energy to. To cultivating those connections.”

Statistically, Williams’ observation—and one shared by many Yale students—is supported. The Office of Career Strategies 2015 First Destination survey reported that 15.7% of the Yale graduating class of 2015 are working in a consulting role, and another 15.7% are working in finance. Total: 31.4%. Compare this to the 16.8% who majored in something related to economics, according to the Yale Office of Institutional Research. Research, which once was the most common post-graduation profession for Yalies, absorbed only 12.8%, while teaching and education took 10%.

Yale is a target school for companies like Goldman Sachs, Bain and Company, and McKinsey, which means that they invest heavily in recruiting students. AJ Ding, BK ’19, an Econ major currently trying to land a summer consulting internship, says: “[Recruiting companies] have info sessions, and at the info sessions they like to portray their firm as intellectually stimulating, glamorous, fun work environments. They come to campus with dozens of representatives. They come and talk to you.”

As finance and consulting firms compete to lure students, pushing their application deadlines earlier and earlier, Yalies have to decide whether to commit their summers or two years of their youth to these jobs at the beginning of the school year, and in some cases, before school even begins. Some view this as an advantageous opportunity to get ahead of the curve, but others read it as a renunciation of everything Yale stands for. In the post-financial crisis era, Yale’s pride in its liberal arts tradition butts heads with the pull of the results-driven world of Wall Street more than ever before.


David Halek, Director of Employer Relations at OCS, denies that the university has given large consulting and finance firms an unfair advantage. “Consulting and finance, as well as other large organizations, can predict their hiring needs a year in advance. They hire greater numbers of new employees and, as a result, their hiring processes may be more refined.”

He says the idea that a disproportionate number of Yalies are entering the field is “a bit of a misperception.” He cites a variety of ways OCS tries to even the playing field between titans of industry and other career options: among them, networking events for smaller, or lesser known, companies, a workshop series for students considering graduate school, and the Common Good & Creative Careers initiative.

Williams contends that a major reason Ivy League students gravitate toward Wall Street is that higher education has not prepared them for the actual job market.“What kind of job can you earn six figures right out of college with no skills? Basically, these jobs.” The result is a heavy demand that Williams—an intern last summer at Macquarie, an investment bank—calls “a rat race.” “A lot of the other interns were very eager to be there, to demonstrate their interest to get a return offer. It was all about getting a return offer. And they just worked really hard…networked really hard…always asked to take on extra projects…. [But] the biggest thing I learned in banking was excel shortcuts.”

After his experience with Macquarie, Williams—a member and former co-president of VITA, a student volunteering group that helps locals fill out tax returns—decided to go to graduate school and find a career in research instead. “I just think there’s more creative things [than banking] that someone with a Yale degree can do…I think that a company like Amazon does a lot more interesting things than a bank. Or Google.” He adds that companies like McKinsey are “the old economy.” The better alternative is to “have an idea about how to do something in a totally different way, and if you’re just a new company with a ton of cash, you’re not really dealing with the same constraints on what you can do or the same types of conventional ideas about how to fix a business. And the fact that you can expand to any kind of product—I mean, you can have a research team at Amazon which will just do artificial intelligence, or drones. Anything. Or something that you can’t even anticipate now.”

Wall Street firms market themselves to Ivy League students as versatile training grounds for students to pick up skills they can later use in their own pursuits. Two other students I interviewed plan to go on to med school and human rights law after a brief stint with finance and consulting. This is common: the average duration that a new employee stays at Goldman Sachs is 1.4 years. Wall Street recognizes that this is a problem, but they have yet to refresh their image and adapt to the post-financial crisis emphasis on startups and innovation, which Silicon Valley has in spades. The Wall Street Journal reports that at Goldman Sachs, “Managing Millennials” has been one of the most popular training sessions for years, with no visible success in retaining young talent.

In 2014, Microsoft was the fifth biggest destination for Yale graduates, behind Yale University, Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and Bain and Company. Perhaps, then, the funnel is already starting to pour elsewhere.


As of this year, consulting and finance are still by far the most visible jobs to apply for on campus. Ding says, “there’s no harm in just making things accessible to people, I think. Personally I’d rather have it early so I can get it over with, otherwise it’s always looming in the back of your head—at least, for people who want to do consulting or finance.”

Ding has known that he was going into consulting since sophomore year, when he joined the Yale Undergraduate Consulting Group—a student organization that takes on real clients and works on projects in teams every semester, and where he now serves as president. He entered Yale as a STEM major, but found the quantitative aspects of economics much more appealing. At Yale, he started to hear about consulting through recruiting and his friends.

“It’s just really interesting,” he says. “It’s a necessary field, just like everyone needs advice to make decisions, and if you have resources to ask people to help you make business decisions, then that’s a societal good. And things get produced. There are definitely corporate decisions that are made through consulting guidance that [are] productive for society…The investment bank is definitely necessary for companies to grow, otherwise they couldn’t finance themselves. Companies would grow at a smaller rate.”

Over the summer Ding interned at Millar Brown Vermeer, working on strategy projects—projects which help the company make marketing or production decisions—for AB InBev, home of Bud Light, Budweiser, and Corona. “The internship was…just doing research, answering questions, learning about different markets…Long hours, but lots of fun.” He adds, “It’s difficult for me to think of arguments why someone wouldn’t want to do consulting.”

Williams might contest that this mentality is influenced by Yale, where “it’s really easy to fall into the day-to-day routine without thinking about what you want to do or why you want to do it, and then when it comes time to apply for jobs and internships…[consulting or finance is] the path of least resistance. You just follow what other people are doing, you just follow what your school is giving to you.”

An EP&E major going into consulting—who has requested anonymity in light of recruiting season—admits, “To be fair, I think [consulting is] only the easy way out, because yes, once you get the job, you will have [money and job security]. But anything else about this career is not easy. It’s not easy getting the job and it’s not easy keeping.”

Ding, for one, believes that “if you’re a pragmatic person, if you like to see ideas in effect, rather than just floating ideas, I think that’s one of the biggest lures of consulting and finance.” There’s an accessibility to it, to seeing “deals being made, actually tangible things being done, based in empirical ideas, or based in strategy.” Ding explains that Yale glorifies academia, but he finds it can sometimes be “selfish,” calling it “intellectual masturbation.”

“You have this education, you’re this brilliant person, and yet you think about things that only one out of fifteen thousand people will ever consider or think about. Which is a waste, I think.”

Graphic by Sheiran Phu

Graphic by Sheiran Phu

The factors that lead Yalies to the gold- and caffeine-paved Wall Street are many and varied, and they take center stage in the struggle of both liberal arts colleges and financial monoliths to stay relevant. Amazon and Google are fierce rising competitors, but it’s perhaps too early to say if they can manage to topple the older systems. Personally, I’d like to invoke a streak of Yale exceptionalism to say that so long as graduates believe in their work, any field that they choose, and society in general, will benefit.

As for the current status quo, even for those who fret over the percentage of Yalies going into finance/consulting, 68.6% of students choose alternative careers. That’s at least more than, say, Harvard.

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