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Columns

Rosenbloom ’13: Withholding judgment about career choices

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, November 5, 2012

While Brown students tend not to be judgmental in regard to most personal decisions, when it comes to career choices, we can be a very critical group. During the fall recruiting process, I’ve overheard many classmates dismiss careers in consulting and investment banking as morally bankrupt. Such blanket condemnations of these career paths are simply not justified. It is overly simplistic to believe that all students who go into finance or consulting are participating in the so-called “brain drain,” in which our brightest young leaders forsake noble careers in the service of humanity for monetary gain.

Last spring, Herald opinions columnist Rebecca McGoldrick ’12 wrote, “The financial and consulting sectors truly are America’s great ‘brain drain.’ At a time when we need social problem solvers and innovative scientists more than ever, many of our fellow students are entering a field that may be actively harming the stability and sustainability of our society” (“Feeling the brain drain,” April 26).

This condemnation is based on an inaccurate understanding of the nature of the finance and consulting industries, as well as a misunderstanding of how to pursue a career of moral integrity. Like almost every other profession, these careers are neither purely selfish nor purely honorable. They offer opportunities for both noble, community-based work and purely self-interested work.

In her critique of those students who enter consulting or finance, McGoldrick falsely portrays these industries as purely evil. While the excesses of the financial industry deservedly get more attention than do its community outreach programs, the fact remains that investment banks have accomplished many noble goals. Wealth creation has lifted millions of people out of poverty, especially in the developing world. Viewed domestically, the often-vilified Goldman Sachs has also contributed to morally worthy causes. To list but a few examples, the bank invested more than $1 billion in affordable housing projects and is currently financing a recidivism-reduction program in New York City. A career in consulting also provides the opportunity to serve the community. By enhancing productivity and innovation, consultants can increase overall economic well-being.

A frank assessment shows that these industries have been responsible for many of our ills, but also many of our successes. Choosing a career in finance or consulting does not automatically disqualify one from serving humanity and doing noble work. Similarly, choosing a low-paying profession does not ensure that you will serve the world.

In a May 24 New York Times column entitled “The Service Patch,” David Brooks commented on the trend of recent college graduates pursuing careers in finance. This column is a must-read for seniors contemplating different careers and helped to inform my own thinking on the subject. One of Brooks’ more insightful points is that early career choices do not define the entirety of our moral character, as some Brown students seem to believe.

Brown students can positively impact the world in any industry and in any job. The focus should not be on choosing the most noble or morally pure industry, but rather on being the most noble and morally courageous person you can be within your chosen industry.

This tendency to portray some professions as noble and others as immoral is informed by a skewed view of what constitutes a morally responsible career path. No one decision we make when we’re in our early 20s, whether that decision is to forgo high earnings or aggressively seek them, will determine our contribution to the cause of humanity. Our service to the community will be judged by the actions we take on a day-to-day basis in our chosen industry, not by any single decision we made right after graduation.

In addition, the unique personal circumstances of some Brown students make the consulting or investment banking paths more worthwhile. Some students have onerous student loans to pay back, while others have families to support. Other students who pursue these careers may do so in order to address the ethnic or gender imbalances in the leadership of America’s wealthiest companies. Some students use the skills they learned in consulting or finance jobs to make an impact in the non-profit sector later in life. Finally, some students have genuine intellectual passions for such careers.

Only a fool would claim that no student ever pursues these careers solely to make obscene amounts of money. Yet it would be similarly foolish to say that all students pursue these careers for such shallow reasons. We can only responsibly make condemnations of choices on a case-by-case basis.

Many seniors, myself included, have deep insecurities about career decisions. Yet it is imperative that we do not automatically dismiss certain career paths as morally empty, for the truth is far more complicated than that.

 

 

Oliver Rosenbloom ’13 is a history and public policy concentrator from Mill Valley, Calif. He can be reached at oliver_rosenbloom@brown.edu.

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  1. I agree, that consulting and I-banking aren’t morally bankrupt. They’re just lame. Jobs for the unimaginative. They don’t make anything. There’s little if any wealth creation as a consequence of these careers. They’re in place for actual decision makers to justify the decisions they already know they want to make. I don’t see that as satisfying on any level.

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