Hoards of blazer-clad students shuffling nervously through upperclassmen dorms marks the beginning of job-application season. It’s often a time of disappointment, frustration, and hits to students’ self confidence as peers compete for specific and limited positions.
I would describe the typical Princeton student as ambitious, self-motivated, and intellectually curious, but despite all this praise, I would also add risk-averse. We’re drawn to career opportunities that are obviously “good:” positions at high-profile, widely regarded, well-established companies.
I am constantly impressed by the diversity of passionate interests of my peers. Students dedicate time on campus carving a niche, whether it be academic, artistic, civic-service focused, adventurous, or athletic. But during the summer internship application season, I am surprised by the way these passions tend to funnel into a set of perceived ideal careers, mostly in finance and consulting. The University offers a variety of research, internship, and fellowship options that encourage students to pursue their unique interests, but these opportunities seem to serve a small percentage of students. Fellowships present an opportunity to develop an independent interest with the security of financial support and framework. These opportunities support the University’s mission, so more resources should be allocated to providing this sort of personalized “niche” summer experience that the University provides to students during the year.
This issue of risk aversion among undergraduates is not limited to Princeton’s campus. Of the Princeton Class of 2016, 14.1 percent pursued a career in finance according to Career Services’ annual report. This number does not differ significantly from the national percentage of undergraduates pursuing these types of careers, which is 11.6 percent. But from personal experience, the career-focused culture here can be toxic to the blossoming of independent personal interests. The ideal summer pursuits of my peers do not reflect their diversity and ambitions but rather an obsession with aligning themselves with traditional definitions of success. Princeton students often feel they have much to lose after the unique opportunity to study at this University. Rather than exploring options that best apply their expertise, students hover around options that promise to validate their years here monetarily.
Career Services claims a purpose to “help Princetonians reflect on their values and strengths, pursue opportunities that match their unique interests and design personalized plans to achieve their goals.” Despite advising students toward a variety of diverse career paths, the student culture on campus still compresses students into a narrow definition of success and expectations. Especially with interests that do not offer popular or accessible internship opportunities, like law or history, students often feel pressured to enter the world of finance or banking as a dependable marker of success. By no means is the entry easy or the work light in these fields, but they do provide a direct and secure path post-graduation. Many undergraduates came through a high school pipeline to college and crave that stability moving forward beyond Princeton.
Princeton offers diverse summer experiences both domestically and abroad that stretch students intellectually beyond specific career functions. The Office of International Programs claims the mission to “provide transformative experiences that enable participants to be agents of positive change in their communities and beyond,” through their fellowships, scholarships, and other programs.
But especially in our junior and senior year, these options seem secondary to the elusive brand name internships coming to campus and attracting applications and distributing rejections left and right. These established summer experiences promise stability and widely regarded “success.”
But fellowships provide alternative stability and credit as well while allowing students flexibility to use the summer for self development and exploration of their passions. Because Princeton students tend to crave structure and repute from their summer pursuits, the University should work to allocate more resources to fellowships as well as promoting these programs so students view them as viable and worthy alternatives to traditional internships.
Career services provides strong and personalized support for the job search, often recommending a variety of options to explore, not pushing students in a specific direction. But because the affinity for reputable companies exists as a cultural token on campus, the University should do more to promote alternatives. For example, professors and department heads could emphasize the array of related fellowships available to their particular students.
The summer hiatus from classes offers students an opportunity to truly embody Princeton’s motto, “In the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” We have the time to travel and to immerse ourselves in culture and independent work. But the current career-driven, goal-oriented, and risk-averse dynamics on campus lend themselves to playing it safe and pursuing popular and well-traversed options. In a campus brimming with diverse interests and independence, our summers should reflect and foster these ambitions.
Jessica Nyquist is a junior in Computer Science from Houston, Tex. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.