It’s Not Just Money That Sends Harvard Grads Into Finance

It's also fear of the unknown.


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What does it mean that Harvard graduates are once again flocking to jobs in the financial industry? A survey of the class of 2013 in the Harvard Crimson found that 15 percent of the class planned to work in finance, up from 9 percent the previous year. That’s nowhere near the 47 percent that went to Wall Street (proverbially) in 2007, pre-recession, but nevertheless, the trend line is once again pointed north.

The media watches Harvard graduates’ penchant for finance every year with great interest, seeing it as a sign of Wall Street’s waxing and waning allure among America’s successful students. Quartz’s Zachary Seward and Roberto Ferdman call this year’s uptick a bad omen for the stock market, noting a correlation between high numbers of Harvard grads entering finance and dips in the stock market. They aren’t suggesting causation, just noting that Harvard kids tend to head to Wall Street only after it’s proven that it will make money (and often just before it takes a hit.) “The relationship simply illustrates some hard truths: Harvard graduates like money, choose careers based on salary, and are terrible predictors of the future.”

Not that this writer is in the business of defending Harvard students, but attributing the uptick to simple love of money understates the influence of another big factor: fear of the unknown. To get this one, you’ve got to put yourself in the mindset of an elite college senior, one in which she’s been asked for 22 years to complete a discrete set of tasks in order to advance to the next phase of life. Generally, Harvard students have excelled at that game. To reach its end and be told: “Okay, pick an industry, any industry, go get yourself a job, and make something of yourself,” can be terrifyingly oblique prospect.

Luckily, there are on-campus recruiters to make the decisions much easier. Representatives from financial firms come to schools like Harvard and Yale in droves to host info sessions and conduct interviews. They set out an almost quantitative set of hurdles—write a letter that stands out (but not so much that you seem weird,) buy a suit, study up on the industry and the specific bank and ace an interview—for which there are books and blogs and YouTube channels one can study in order to enhance chances of getting the job. This is putting Harvard seniors back into familiar and comfortable territory. In fact, it feels a lot like the process for getting into Harvard. It’s what they’re good at, and here is a fancy person (often a recent alum grateful for the chance to escape their cubicle and enjoy a cocktail reception) asking them to do it. No one has come to campus and plied them with drinks to ask them to film a documentary or join a non-profit or write for a newspaper. (Someone has come to campus to ask them to join Teach for America, an organization that similarly picks off unsure college seniors, which is partly why 12 percent of the graduating class is going into education.)

You can see how that anxiety affects them by noting that just 5 percent of the survey respondents see themselves working in finance in ten years. That’s a lot of kids going into finance who don’t want to stay there. For many of them, it provides not the fulfillment of a longtime career ambition, but a frictionless transition from college to the working world while they continue to ponder what they actually want to do.

Quartz is right: the fact that more Harvard grads are going into finance shows that Harvard grads like money and they think this is a place where they’ll get it. But it also shows that Harvard grads like stability, concrete goals, and clear career tracks. For a brief time at the end of the last decade, finance looked like it might not offer that. If you graduated from Harvard in 2011, you went to school with—perhaps even knew—classmates who had competitive, lucrative internships and jobs lined up at Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers … until suddenly they didn’t. If you graduated in 2013, the days when a bank analyst job seemed like a risky move almost akin to joining a startup probably seem far, far away.