Kempis: Northwestern’s hyper-professional atmosphere is detrimental to students’ long-term goals

Nicole Kempis, Opinion Editor

In 2011, Karl Pillemer, a professor at Cornell University, published a six-year research project designed to curate advice from America’s older population. He asked 1,200 Americans aged above 70. “Over the course of your life, what are the most important lessons you would like to pass on to younger people?” The responses were diverse, but there was one recommendation on which almost all participants were insistent: Choose a career that inspires you in the long-term, not one that provides short-term financial gains.

This message is particularly important for liberal arts students at Northwestern. While some people know that they want to go to business school or engineering college, others take longer to develop their interests. I chose liberal arts because I wanted the chance to discover a career that would be fulfilling in the long-term, even if that meant I had to commit to a degree of short-term uncertainty.

At Northwestern and many other elite American universities, following Pillemer’s advice is easier said than done. NU’s pre-professional atmosphere, with its emphasis on professional clubs, CV’s and high-paying internships, encourages students to “sellout” in the short-term instead of searching for a fulfilling career in the long-term.

That said, there are Weinberg students who arrive knowing they want to pursue a well-paid career in finance or consulting. An employment report found that among NU’s class of 2014, one third of undergraduates employed six months after graduation went into business services, finance, investment or consulting. Given NU students’ varied interests, majors and backgrounds, it seems unlikely that such a significant portion truly believe they are destined for a future in the financial sector.

There are a number of reasons NU students may be especially susceptible to this “sellout” culture, the first being the University’s high tuition. Students are either under pressure to find a well-paid job straight out of college to pay back loans or feel the need to provide immediate returns on parental investment in their education.

High paying jobs for liberal arts students are disproportionately concentrated in the financial sector. There are few other jobs that pay as well as quickly, so it makes sense that students under economic pressure pursue careers in finance or consulting. Although the trend that sees liberal arts students funneled into financial careers is unsurprising, its underlying causes and consequences are rarely discussed at NU.

As a result of this trend, NU’s pre-professional counseling, clubs and career fairs are often tailored towards students going into business or consulting. With so much emphasis on financial careers, students may feel like this is the only viable option after graduation. Those who might have otherwise pursued entrepreneurial careers, become activists or just taken time after college to do something strange, compelling and life-changing, can end up feeling like their “success” hinges on a large post-graduation salary.

However, what we do after graduation is only the beginning of our career and life. By taking the well-trodden path into financial sector work that NU maps out for us, we forgo the opportunity to create a life that is uniquely and unashamedly our own.

One could argue that approaching graduation as the beginning of a new life and not an end in itself works both ways. Theoretically, if a student initially chooses to pursue a career for purely financial reasons, that doesn’t mean they will continue to do so. However, choosing to do something for short-term financial gains with the belief that they’ll be able to do what you want later seems like a dangerous game. How many of us would really leave a comfortable, well-paid job to start again, even if it is to do something we once loved?

Though it sounds like something my grandmother would say, if you don’t try you’ll never know. But if there’s one thing Pillemer’s study participants wanted young people to know, it’s that we only get one shot at being young. This is the moment to be uncertain, uncomfortable and afraid. Perhaps it’s idealistic given the financial pressures so many people face, but considering the long-term implications of not doing what you love, this is not the moment to “sellout.” You have the rest of your life to do that.

Nicole Kempis is a Weinberg junior. She can be reached at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.