Our generation is famous for setting sky-high self-expectations, chasing an ever-more glamorous #FOMO-inspired lifestyle, and sending legions of young graduates to Wall Street.

At Princeton, finance has long dominated as the largest industry employer of students – attracting 46% of full-time employed graduates in 2006, 24% of members of the Class of 2013 - followed closely by other traditionally Princeton career paths such as consulting and Big Tech. Together, these three sectors employed nearly half of full-time employed graduates of the Class of 2013.1 Six months ago, I walked out Fitz-Randolph Gate myself, arm-in-arm with my friends and classmates of four years, headed off to conquer a smattering of jobs roughly distributed among the aforementioned proportions. “Were we on the right path?” we wondered – were we ready to take on the question: “What will we do with our lives?”

While we were still figuring that out, the machinery was set in motion for our peers in the Class of 2015. And this year, as an Alumna in the Real World (currently working for a management consulting firm), I started receiving frantic phone calls and questions laden with despair:

“I didn’t like banking, but what else would I do?”

“Should I do consulting or tech?”

“Something just didn’t feel right about [Big Tech Firm] to me…”

“Such-and-such consulting firm was my dream job, I can’t think of any other job to do.”

I was shocked. How could so many of my extremely talented classmates find themselves feeling utterly trapped, limited career-wise to just a handful of traditionally recruited positions?

A Well-Known, Unsolved Problem

To me, the problem wasn't students going into finance in and of itself (or consulting, or Big Tech, or medical school…). I believe that investment banking offers significant exposure, training, and acceleration towards a career in private equity and other areas in finance for students so inclined; ditto for many other “traditional” paths and professional end goals one might take. But how could it be that for a quarter of Princeton students (and at one point, nearly half), finance was the BEST career path?

And if not finance, then what? The prevailing wisdom today seems to be: “Skip the bank, join a startup”. I love the tech community and I am encouraged by the rise in popularity and feasibility of entrepreneurship as a career path and a mindset (in fact, @sama’s “Why to Start a Startup” lecture is one of the reasons we were inspired to start “Not By Default”)2 – but I don’t think “startups!” are the answer to everything.

As startups become increasingly known and applauded as a desirable alternative to finance, I have to wonder, how many students are pursuing this path simply because it is the new “thing to do,” rather than the path that results from conscious choice, from independent thinking – one that truly suits them? The socially-acceptable decision path that begins with “Finance is no longer cool” and leads immediately to “Join a startup!” is, in my mind, just as problematic as heading without a thought to Wall Street in the first place.

Yet this is the problem we face today: students “defaulting” into traditional careers - prestigious, heavily-recruited, socially approved jobs - that aren’t right for them.

To clarify, we (the team at Not By Default) have no problem with traditional careers or with the Googles and Goldman Sachs of the world. There’s nothing wrong with using external validation as a heuristic for seeking suitable career tracks – as long as you pause to evaluate whether the heuristic produced the right answer for you. When you don’t, you likely end up in a situation where:

  1. You will not perform your best nor derive happiness from a job misaligned with your skills and interests,
  2. your employer suffers from having an employee who may not be the best fit nor the most committed to the company, and
  3. taken in combination, you arrive at a suboptimal outcome for yourself, your company, and society.3

Our Hypothesis

So why are students “defaulting” into traditional careers rather than throwing out the bowlines and sailing off on their own? Here are our top three hypotheses:

1: A Lack of Knowledge About Job Options Outside the Default Paths

Investment banks boast a huge on-campus presence at Princeton during junior summer and senior full-time recruiting. In recent years, Career Services has branched out to hold job fairs featuring STEM professions and startups, while also offering a variety of smaller events featuring careers from marketing to film to nonprofits.4 Several academic departments and student groups do the same. But at the end of the day, the recruiting machinery of big banks, consulting firms, and tech companies provide a structure and a comfort that is alluring to our eager, wide-eyed younger selves. Thus, not only is it difficult for students to see or think of jobs outside the default options, but it may also be hard to imagine how to obtain such jobs when there are fewer postings on the Princeton Career Services jobs board or on-campus recruiters ready to answer your every question.

2: Peer Pressure and the Stickiness of Default Paths, a.k.a. the “Summer Internship Fallacy”

Even if you aren’t totally sold on the default options, when you see your peers going to company information sessions, landing interviews, and locking up summer internships and full-time jobs neatly months in advance, you feel the pressure of falling behind.

So you go to the info sessions too. And once you start exploring the default path, it becomes very easy to buy into the summer internship value proposition: e.g. “Try banking, see if you like it, at the very least walk away with a set of new skills; at best, land your dream job and enjoy senior year!”

The fallacy lies in the unspoken stickiness of these internships. If all goes well and, at the end of your internship, you get the full-time job, congratulations! Now you have a ticking time bomb on your hands: an offer letter promising job security, familiarity, and external validation – wonderful if this is truly the job you want, but dangerous if you’re not sure. It’s much harder to throw out the bowlines in search of the Promised Land when you’re standing on a nice, cozy island looking out into the vast Unknown.

Figure 1: Internship Island

Thus, you have the Summer Internship Fallacy: “Try it and see if you like it” implies you can as easily stay if you like the job as leave if you don’t like it. However, what’s unsaid is how much harder the latter actually is once you’ve tasted job security; the decision is more like “Stay if you like it, or leave if you don’t like it AND are so confident in your ability to land a better job that you aren’t entrapped by the allure of job security.” Which leads us back to hypothesis #1: if you don’t know what job options exist outside of the default path or don’t have a clue how to obtain them, it’s very hard to feel confident in your ability to do so.

3: A Lack of Role Models and Peer Support to Forge One’s Own Path

When you look around and see (or perceive) all your peers following societally-approved, well-structured default paths, it is very hard to imagine a totally different, independent and uniquely “you” path (that doesn’t end in unemployment…). Even if you imagined the job that perfectly encapsulates your passions and preferences, you might be afraid to pursue it, deterred by the uncertainty and unknown of stepping off the beaten road.

Figure 2: Default Road

In fact, lacking the support and camaraderie of fellow off-path explorers, one might perceive certain non-default options as riskier or trickier to attain than they actually are. My co-founder Collin put this well: startups are inherently riskier than large companies if your objective is to join a long-lasting organization; however, startups as a first job are not necessarily riskier than joining a large company if your objective is a successful career, depending on what your ideal career looks like. Consider: if you want to be an entrepreneur in industry X someday and join a startup in industry X that fails after 1 year, you’re out of a job, but you probably learned something about how and why your company failed, sharpened your hustle or your programming skills, and hopefully plugged yourself deeper into the industry X community where you are well-positioned to hunt around for your next gig. Meanwhile, if you join an investment bank or Big Tech company not exactly aligned with your industry of interest, you will hopefully learn transferrable skills, but also risk enslavement by the golden handcuffs: a well-paying, cushy job that creates inertia much like that of the Summer Internship Fallacy. What kind of risk do you want to take? If you choose the latter route, you could easily find yourself, three years later, at the same company, in a very similar role to that where you started – safe, with a steady income, but not much closer to your dream career.

Imagine instead, if you were surrounded by friends and classmates who eschewed the default paths – maybe they tried finance, big tech, hospital internship, whatever – didn’t like it, and had no problem saying no to job security, for now, to take more time and liberty in exploring uncharted careers. Or maybe they weren’t satisfied with the existing options on offer via the campus jobs board and wanted to pursue a unique academic or side interest a bit further. What if you all wanted to explore different roads – taking independent paths, but embarking on the journey towards self-discovery together? Surrounded and supported by a community of non-default explorers.

Figure 3: Off the Default Road

Suddenly the off-the-road option doesn’t look so scary.

The Experiment

So we thought, how could we create that community? What might the MVP look like?

We believed that yes, students needed exposure to a wider variety of jobs, an understanding of how to obtain them, and an earlier start to get off the default path, but above all, we needed to create a community of role models and peers seeking careers with intention– fellow journeymen and women with whom to explore independent paths, together.

And so the cohort was born.

Figure 4: The Cohort

Could we take a group of 6 students trying to “figure it all out” – some on a default path but unsure about it, others rejecting the default but unsure of how to find a better fit – and apply a model of peer accountability, guided self-reflection and job discovery to help them find the right career for each individual? By scouring the web for stories of inspiration and tactical advice on job attainment, by pushing, encouraging, and being there for each other, could we go beyond the default?

And with what we learn there, could we inspire a wider community of students everywhere to forge independent paths – together?

Stay tuned, and welcome to the community. :)

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Footnotes

  1. The proportion of Princeton full-time employed graduates entering finance professions reached a peak of 46% for the Class of 2006, down to 24% for the Class of 2013. “Professional, scientific, and technical services” (including consulting firms and several tech companies such as Dropbox, Palantir, and Yext) and “Information” industries employed another 24% and 10%, respectively, of Princeton’s Class of 2013. Industry categories are based on the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). Further detail on the employment and post-graduation choices of Princeton’s Class of 2013 (and prior years) can be found on Princeton’s Career Services website.

  2. You can check out Sam Altman’s lecture, “Why to Start a Startup” here. I highly recommend the entire YC/Stanford University lecture series if you’re interested in starting a company. I’ve only watched a few so far, but found several of them quite interesting, particularly the first couple.

  3. I also want to acknowledge that we’re debating a very lucky problem to have – anybody asking him or herself, “What is a job that will truly excite me?” is coming from a place of privilege. I agree with a lot of the sentiment expressed in Miya Tokumitsu’s piece on the “Do What You Love” mantra, published on Slate.com January 16, 2014.

  4. I am a huge fan of Princeton Career Service’s recent initiatives - particularly the Career Life Vision series, reflecting a mindset that I absolutely see as the future of college career counseling (i.e. encouraging exploration of students’ longer-term life purpose, as opposed to an immediate job placement facility).