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Jason Laboy

One day, not long after competing in the USA Mathematical Olympiad, thirteen-year-old Greg received a letter from a premier New York trading firm moving $8 billion in equities a day. They had noticed his excellent performance at the Olympiad, and wanted the middle school student to keep their name in mind. Included with the letter were a Frisbee and a deck of cards.

Five years later, the summer after his freshman year at Princeton, Greg (who, like the others quoted in this article, preferred I not use his real name) entered the firm’s offices on the southern tip of Manhattan. The firm, having a long memory, had hired him as a summer intern. Having a large bank account, they were also paying him approximately $30,000 for three months of work. Though the money was certainly a draw, it wasn’t Greg’s initial reason for working there. “I applied for the internship because they sent me that letter,” he told me. “They seemed cool.”

Though Greg may have gotten a head start on the process, his path is remarkably similar to those of the large numbers of Princeton students who come in with no concrete career plans and leave to jobs on Wall Street. These companies target students early on, while they are still unsure of what career they want, and become the obvious post-graduation destination. In my discussions with them, many confessed that Princeton’s focus on finance made jobs in that sector seem not just plausible, nor merely appealing, but inevitable.

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I am the only male in the room not wearing a suit. It’s the first Goldman Sachs information session of the year, and hosting the panel are six recent Princeton grads, including a token black student, a token woman, and a token liberal arts major (the last two conveniently happen to be the same person). The woman sitting next to me turns to the young man sitting on her other side, who turns out to be a freshman. “Impressive,” she says. Or maybe depressing. It’s a bit hard to hear, since the panel has started its discussion.

The Goldman Sachs employees on stage cheerily describe their twelve-hour work days, but mention that it’s easy to maintain a work-life balance. “We’re given at least a day off every week,” one boasts, apparently sincere.

They go on to describe their various summer internships with Goldman. One of them, the woman, was an analyst during the 2013 protests in Egypt. Much of her time was spent examining the possible effects of these protests on various stocks. She remembers the internship fondly, since it showed her that “you can really have an impact on the world,” presumably by creating market reports and not, say, protesting.

One panelist mentions the strong Princeton alumni presence at Goldman, prompting the other five to nod vigorously. Most of them agree that they probably wouldn’t have gone to Goldman if other Princeton alumni working there had not reached out to them. One mentions that it’s as if the “invisible hand of Princeton” pushed him towards finance.

After the discussion ends, there is minor chaos as students mob the panelists, attempting to get within handshake range. I step out into the lobby to speak with other students who escaped the fray. Many of them express similar sentiments about being pushed towards finance by Princeton. Kevin, for example, entered Princeton as a pre-med student and found the course load “crazy difficult.” He quickly realized that Princeton “allows me to be complacent about my employment. I can come here and know that, through my connections, somehow I can find a job in finance.” Now he’s looking for a job that is “the least soulless as possible,” although he would be “willing to take a soulless one if it pays very well.”

Other students echo this. Anna tells me: “I’m going to need money if I’m going to live the kind of life I want to,” which includes “travel and going to nice restaurants.” Or as the panelists put it, “work-life balance.” Michelle tells me the money is for more practical purposes. She plans to go into finance, “make a hell of a lot of money, get out in two years, take my money and run to Harvard Law.”

But for most students I talk to, it’s not about the money. At least, not primarily. Choosing a job in finance is more a form of financially sound procrastination, a way to build up funds while figuring out a next move.  Anna, for example, is unsure of what career she wants to end up in, but plans on spending “two years at an investment bank and figuring out where to go from there. It’s the safe way to go.”

Indeed, of all the students I speak with, only Greg plans to remain in finance permanently. For the rest, Wall Street is merely a way to avoid answering the question that has been following them all their lives: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

And on a campus where, according to Career Services data, nearly 36% of graduates take jobs in finance (the number was 46% prior to the recession), there is a certain sense that finance is a default, a place to go if you don’t know your answer yet. Moreover, since finance companies begin recruitment months before other companies do, and are often given extra access to students by Career Services, they are continually able to present themselves as the obvious choice for Princeton students. Add in the prestige and the salary, and it’s no wonder so many graduates end up in finance. “Princeton students feel obligated to go there,” economics major Jared told me.

Of course, there are some students who have an actual interest in the subject. Brian, a sophomore ORFE major, has wanted to go into finance since he was a child, when his dad would talk with him about the day’s exchange rates. Moreover, he sees it as a way “to bring value to the world,” given that he’s not a skilled artist or engineer. (Or as he put it: “I don’t know how to make stuff that people would want to buy.”) Though even he has ulterior motives: he “likes good suits as much as anyone.”

But it seems that many students intending on going into finance do so for lack of a better alternative. And though most of them plan on staying for no more than a few years, some will undoubtedly end up spending most of their adult lives working in finance, because of money, or comfort, or sheer inertia.

Given that there is a clearly a certain ingrained antipathy towards the finance world (the word “soulless” came up a lot), it may be in Princeton’s interest to offer up other alternatives. Certainly wealthy alumni might be more inclined to donate. But with $18 billion in reserve (i.e. just a little more than what a Wall Street firm trades in a day), why not fund initiatives to turn students towards public service, or the arts? The notion that a student attends college for the purpose of self-discovery may sound hackneyed, but if there is any truth to it, then the University has a responsibility to assist students in that process, to help them figure out what they’re passionate about and pursue it.

But at least for the foreseeable future, Princeton will continue to churn out Wall Streeters just as fast as it can acceptance letters. Maybe, some decades from now, disgruntled former students still stuck in the finance job they said would last “two, three years tops,” will feel just enough resentment not to give that annual donation. And maybe then the University will actually fight the culture that leads students not to the best jobs, but the most obvious ones. Maybe the University will live up to its unofficial motto. But for now, print the brochures. “In the investment bank’s service and in the service of all investment banks.”