Wall Street vs. Spring Street

How many students at Williams are worrying about their prospects on Wall Street, either for summer or full-time employment? Conventional wisdom assumes that there are many.

As is often the case, however, conventional wisdom is wrong. According to last year’s senior survey, jobs in teaching and education top the list of sectors that Williams students pursue upon graduation. Yes, jobs in finance and consulting follow close behind, but so do the percentages of those opting for grad school and the very broad category of “other.” If you were a senior at one of this fall’s orientation meetings, you witnessed, by a show of hands, the clear rejection of job options in finance and consulting. An article in last week’s Record on the impact of the bursting Wall Street bubble urged students to expand their searches beyond the big names and beyond finance. That was certainly sage advice.

Let’s, though, spend a bit more time discussing conventional wisdom. Why does the myth of predominant interest in finance continue? Isn’t it time we gave Wall Street a rest anyway? Perhaps we should use this financial disaster to redirect our focus towards all the other options. We’re in the middle of a presidential election season that will be followed by enormous change, no matter who wins the White House. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), more than 70 percent of our senior level civil servants are eligible to retire right now. If all of them simultaneously decided to retire, we’d need more than a bailout; there is a human capital crisis of epic proportions, and government is in dire need of new talent – the sort that Williams students offer.

I met individually with more than 100 students last month. In each case, we explored options based on their interests, priorities, values and aptitudes. In most cases, exploration did not include interviewing with those companies coming to campus. There seemed to be a simple desire to find something fulfilling and fun to do as a first step out of the Purple Bubble. Over the years, according to alumni surveys, approximately 75 percent of all Williams grads enter some kind of advanced degree program within five years of leaving Williamstown. Ultimately, about 80 percent of all Williams alumni have a second degree, according to the same survey. These data suggest that one’s first job will not be one’s last but the first of seven or more different jobs over the course of a career.

Three weekends ago, the Alumni Relations Office sponsored its 25th Career Mentor Weekend, with more than 100 alumni and 80 students in attendance. It was remarkable to hear the stories of these alums illustrating the variety and richness of their careers. Each alumnus had a different story, but there were two themes running throughout: most could not have predicted their current job situation at the time of graduation from Williams, and few career trajectories were linear. Many of these alums encouraged students to not become overly anxious about their first job but to examine, instead, what they value most. The word “passion” kept surfacing. But finding a passion can often be a problem; Williams students are multi-talented and have succeeded in following many paths.

So, how to choose? Getting some perspective is a good way to begin. The best way to do this is to start talking about options – to friends, parents, relatives, faculty mentors, coaches, alumni and the folks at the OCC. Utilize the valuable human resources and networks that Williams offers. Research is also important, but as one student put it the other day, “I don’t want to just look on the Web; I need someone to tell me what to do!”

The Class of 2009 should not be overly anxious about current market conditions. Your investment in a Williams education was a wise one and continues to increase in value despite the current woes on The Street. Whatever the state of the economy, talent is always in demand. It may take a little more work to find the demand, but it’s there, especially for those willing to take the time to find it. Continue to capitalize on your wise investment in Williams College by tapping the resources available. Be confident in your Williams education, and after active searching, continue your good decisions in where to invest next.

John Noble is the director of the Office of Career Counseling.

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