Today, the process of choosing a career for young adults is not a linear path, but instead a complex process influenced by a myriad of internal and external factors. At elite colleges, high prestige jobs are most appealing as students strive to occupy a position of power and resources and live up to their institution's reputation. In the current environment of high or uncertain unemployment, increased competition for jobs and increasingly rising college costs, the steps young adults take to determine goals and means can become confused. All too frequently, ambient university culture emphasizes the importance of finding a certain kind of job rather than thinking through where passions lie and which jobs might be most meaningful and well fitting over the long haul.
In this study, we explore the issues of career choice among a small group of Harvard seniors,identifying the factors that have the most significant influence on the decision-making process. Specifically, we interviewed 40 Harvard seniors about their college experiences, formative influences, and decision-making processes regarding career choices. Twenty-two females and 18 males participated, coming from a range of concentrations, though the most prevalent majors were English, History, and Social Studies. Students were recruited using list serves at residential houses and the Office of Career Services. Our primary focus was to identify why and how students make decisions about the careers they pursue. We also focused on why some students seem driven to take jobs in finance and consulting, while others pursue paths of public service.
Our findings suggest the presence of a "funnel effect." Though students enter college with a diverse set of interests, by senior year, most of them seem to focus on a narrow set of jobs. The culture at Harvard seems to be dominated by the pursuit of high earning, prestigious jobs, especially in the finance and consulting industries. Interestingly, there is a notable disconnect between students' proclaimed passions and interests and the jobs they pursue. According to the Office of Career Services at Harvard, only 22% of the student body accepts jobs in these industries (2011 OCS Student Report). Nonetheless, seniors feel pressured to enter into the fall recruiting cycle in order to procure a job that "lives up to their Harvard degree." Those who express interest in public service jobs appear to forge this path without the help of university structures, often networking and researching online to find out about potential opportunities. Many students feel that finding public service careers is a challenge at Harvard. Unlike the finance, consulting, technology and marketing sectors, few recruiters for public service jobs come to campus. Students appear to be "risk averse," a stance that ultimately seems to impact career choice upon graduation. Our results pinpoint factors that support and explain those students who make choices counter to the prevailing trends -- namely extracurricular activities, study abroad programs, and students' longstanding passions and beliefs.