Two of my girlfriends and I often tease our other friends in the economics and ORFE departments, letting them know that they may have to take us in in the future. Undoubtedly, their lucrative jobs would be enough to support us as we worked at our respective nonprofits and paid off debt from graduate school. Like all good jokes, this one has a modicum of truth to it. As my friends and I have begun to accept jobs and fellowships for the upcoming year, that hypothetical discrepancy of earnings has become a reality.
I couldn’t say I was disappointed with the fellowship that I accepted. Just the opposite: I called all my family and friends back home, excited to share the news, but when my roommates and I realized that some of our friends would be making double, even triple our salaries, I could not help but wonder if I had made the right choices, both academically and professionally.
More than anything else, I was disappointed to be asking myself these questions. The root of my concerns was not whether my earnings would be enough to live comfortably. Instead, I worried that my salary did not resemble what it should as a Princeton graduate.
I have never been explicitly pressured to pursue a career based on its starting salary. From a young age, my parents have encouraged me to follow my dreams. Like most, these interests have transformed over time and continue to do so— from law and education policy to immigration and journalism. Despite this diversity, none of my professional interests have been in particularly high-paying fields.
While committing myself to service after graduation may not have the highest payoff financially, my time at Princeton has shown how invaluable these experiences are in other ways. As a part of the Pace Center for Civic Engagement and advocacy groups such as the Princeton Hidden Minority Council, I have made civic engagement a cornerstone of my undergraduate career.
Still, the reality remains that money is not only a marker of success, but also the most common measurement of achievement. Capitalism demands this. Princeton itself is an institution of wealth and prestige, which are crucial factors in its ability to rein in thousands of applications every year. The University works to provide students with several post-graduate career options, but most campus talks, networking events and TigerTreks focus on internships and jobs in technology, finance or consulting — all popular fields with an indecipherable blend of status, power and wealth.
I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong in pursuing these particular fields. Some people are genuinely interested in matters such as programming and private equity. There are also students who are not truly invested in these professions but enter them anyway. Some people from wealthy backgrounds may feel pressure to maintain their financial status quo. Students from low-income backgrounds may go into lucrative fields in order to provide financial security for themselves and their families. For better or for worse, money is more important for some than others.
That is not to say that money doesn’t matter to everyone. It does, and it should. Money provides us with a sense of security. It gives us the ability to buy necessities as well as material desires. Perhaps most importantly, money provides us with agency. But there are also things that money cannot do. It cannot measure the value of my experiences at Princeton. It does not reflect my level of commitment here or in whatever profession I ultimately pursue. It will not define my happiness — which I think is a better way to measure my success. I cannot honestly say money is the last thing on my mind. But I am fortunate enough to say it is not the first.
Lea Trusty is a politics major from Saint Rose, La. She can be reached at email@example.com.