Consulting Fever

Photo by Alice Li

Photo by Alice Li

Recently there has been news of the flu pandemic. Apparently hospitals are being filled to the brim. While I advise people to wash their hands, I can’t help but note that there has been another raging pandemic going on at Harvard (and no doubt other colleges) for  some time now. Starting around junior year, consulting fever spreads like wildfire among undergraduates, and it continues to burn throughout their senior year.

At Harvard, we have our supposedly useful OCS (Office of Career Services) that is meant to aid students find internships and jobs. But anyone who has gone there knows well that their services are biased. OCS will indeed help you, but only if you are aiming for a lucrative, pragmatic job. A philosophy friend of mine went in last year and spoke of perhaps pursuing a PhD in philosophy and was promptly advised to consider law school. If their clear stance on humanities isn’t frustrating enough, they offer a specific specialized program to help you get hired by consulting and bank firms, called OCI (the On-Campus Interview Program). Kids line up in their suits and pencil skirts, armed with shining resumes and white smiles, in hopes of getting interviews and ultimately an internship or job. A fellow friend of mine applied to about sixty firms and made it out with two offers for a junior summer internship that ended with a job offer waiting for him once he graduated.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the allure of a cushiony job with the prestige of succeeding the way you had hoped from Harvard. I understand very well the desire to have secured a job before you graduate. I get why so many students feel pressured to pursue this course of action, because frankly it often seems like it’s the only one available. A fellow senior friend of mine has been freaking out about jobs since the beginning of this year – if not earlier. After realizing she didn’t want to go to law school, she started having a quarter-life crisis. Her mom literally told her that she was wasting her Harvard degree – that she could have gone anywhere else for college. My friend is currently on anti-anxiety pills, but seems to be doing better after interviewing with a couple of places. She loves her part-time job selling delicious cupcakes, but is wrecked with worry over how much money she should be making.

Found this gem on a consulting firm’s site. The title was “Consulting Hero.” Yes, let’s all point and look intelligent, hmm…

I admit, when I look at some of the literary jobs of my field, I am discouraged by their low salaries and their grueling career ladders. But then I try to keep my head straight. My parents pinched pennies to make ends meet as new immigrants and whatever “low” income I would make would be far greater than the work they are forced to do. And then there are my fellow bachelor degree holders (non-Ivy League) who are still struggling to find employment of any kind. I remember again how privileged and sheltered I’ve been in my ivy-laden walls (actually, there isn’t really ivy because it is really destructive for buildings).

I personally have never considered consulting because I don’t want to sell my soul. I’m sure there are people who genuinely love consulting and not the big pay check, but it is not for me. When I asked a seasoned consultant what he did, he replied that he once adjusted the data to make it look like the work his firm had done had actually had some impact on the company they were advising. I’m sure this isn’t what they always do, but it sounds dishearteningly like bullshitting. What I find frustrating about this consulting culture at Harvard is how it seems to reward those aiming for money, not those who dream of other things. For a school that calls upon its students to take up more humanity-related majors, it does little to help us in a world that seems less concerned that people cannot spell or punctuate correctly and more with whether they know calculus and statistics. Don’t the creatively inclined have it hard enough?


2 thoughts on “Consulting Fever

  1. Carla says:

    Thank you for writing this! It’s true that lots of folk have difficult financial burdens to deal with after college and I understand how consulting seems like a sweet ticket to paying those debts. However, there simply has to be a better way to make money. Consulting is essentially taking the art of bullshitting and rewarding it with a huge paycheck. How can anyone as a fresh grad feel cocky enough to walk into a company and decide whose jobs to cut, oftentimes of folks who have been working there for decades? Again, I don’t want to criticize those who go into consulting out of pure financial necessity and I don’t want to impose my idea of what it means to live “a good life.” But personally, I would go crazy if I didn’t feel my job were in some way being a help and not a harm to society. I, too, never once considered consulting. The importance of a stable job cannot be underestimated, but I’d rather have an okay salary and know that each day I am doing something productive that genuinely helps others.

    Also, thank you for noting how difficult it can be to get career advice if you are not on track to a “prestigious” job. Everyone at Harvard is encouraged to become a doctor, lawyer, or go into consulting/finance. While I was fortunate enough to find a great adviser to help me with applying to grad schools in education, that was pretty much a lucky case. There is certainly none of the infrastructure set up at Harvard to help folks who do not want to pursue one of the three job routes I mentioned, which can make it frustrating for folks who already are having a hard enough time justifying their academic and career choices to their family and friends. But enough with the justification! Let’s stop pretending that these are choices meant to be justified instead of celebrated! Folks who don’t go into consulting– take a moment today and be proud of yourselves. Find your passion, even if takes a whole lot of searching and rough times. It’s out there and while I can’t tell you what it is, I’m pretty sure that it won’t be found in a consulting job.

    Again, I still feel the need to apologize to those who really go into consulting out of need. I don’t think they deserve criticism in that particular situation. But those who *choose* consulting when many other options are available. Yes, I do blame those folks for messing up an already messed up system and receiving engorged salaries to do soul-selling work. There’s no way around it, and while other “prestigious” jobs like that of a doctor and a lawyer actually really do valuable and helpful things for society, I’ve yet to see what genuine good consulting does. At any rate, whatever good it has done is not proportional to the amount of prestige and “merit” the profession is given.


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