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The noble career post-Princeton

You’re a Princetonian. You’re about to graduate. Do you take that offer with Goldman, hoping to make millions, or do you go with a nonprofit, making a few thousand but likely doing better for the world? Are you going to sell out?

Princeton, like all Ivy League schools, is highly selective. It’s elite. There is a startling amount of resources thrown into this establishment, from money to human capital. For many people, an Ivy is the best place to get an education. Yet in societal terms, there is a serious question to be answered. What are the nation’s “best and brightest” doing with this education? There is a responsibility or a duty to the nation and the world which comes with receiving these resources and opportunities. We should not be selfish and view these pools of resources as merely for our exploitation; we are morally obligated, by duty and responsibility, to create real value for the world. Another ten million in Goldman’s portfolio is not adding real value. This real value we add should be in terms of human development, service, philanthropy. All of us should have this goal.

There is a common conception that a career path at Princeton is divided along two lines: to go into service, and to go into business. These are considered mutually exclusive. Finance is the archetype for lucrative but soulless. And that’s exactly how we phrase our choice: It’s a choice of whether or not to “sell out.” It’s a choice between having a human soul and doing good for the world, and making money. We all face this choice at some point or another. But it’s not a real choice. We should not view our careers as binary.

One way to think about non-binary career goals is through the perspective of Princeton’s own Professor Peter Singer. As Singer has noted, "My view is that for some people, with a particular skill set and character, going to Wall Street to earn a lot and donate a lot may be the best thing they can do to make the world a better place.” This is a fairly common view. People can go to Wall Street for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are actively passionate about finance. Some have important personal reasons to seek out wealth, for themselves or their families. One dimension of making a fortune on Wall Street can be the desire to give back, as Singer told me, “One of my Princeton students did that a few years ago, and has been able to donate six-figure sums to highly effective charities every year since graduation.” Singer’s argument can thus be read as the following: We can make our lucrative pursuits philanthropic, and we ought to do so if possible.

Singer’s emphasis on “effective” is telling and important. If we are to pursue valuable projects for humanity in our lives, we ought to do the best job that we can. Can donating money provide that? If one goes to Wall Street, does donating money outweigh the opportunity cost of, say, being a Wilson School major, specializing in education policy, and going to run a school district? Mark Zuckerberg famously donated $100 million to Newark schools, which did absolutely nothing. There is a principled argument to be made that Princetonians and other highly educated, intelligent, and skilled people offer certain organizational or conceptual skills that outweigh any monetary effects. Singer does acknowledge this: “Some people may have even better options, if they have a different skillset,” he said. Certain sites like 80,000 Hours are also available for people to examine the impact their careers have.

But it is not enough to say that only those people who make a lot of money or those who go into service should be obligated to give back. All of us should pursue personal goals and try to align ourselves with our values. To further explore this idea, I spoke with Pulin Sanghvi, Executive Director of Career Services, and Evangeline Kubu, Director of Career Services. Sanghvi and Kubu said that “careers are not binary: we want every student to think about things in terms of themes and portfolios they believe in.” They argue that students should try to view their careers not as a single line, but as a set of stages, where each career stage serves some purpose to an ultimate vision or mission.

Even if it is not obviously the case that you are making the world a better place, keep in mind that this is one of your goals and responsibilities as an Ivy League student. Utilize your career to pursue opportunities to further this goal. At the beginning of a career in consulting, you may not have the skills, network, or capital to create value for the world. But in some years, you may have the skills, network, and capital to create a non-profit that gives back. Sanghvi in particular wanted to emphasize that “private life isn’t necessarily selling out: you can learn, meet people, create a platform, help support your goals.” Sanghvi and Kubu argue that student interests are diversifying, and that a student’s priority should be “to make connections to a broad range of opportunities and passion for purpose.” We should continue to allow our interests to diversify, and follow paths that allow us to achieve our personal projects and do more soulful work. And the choice to do soulful work is exactly that: a choice. By viewing our careers as vehicles for us to drive, and for us to work towards our goals, we can make the choice to do good things.

Princetonians should add value to the world. Given our career paths, we will all have the ability to move toward this goal if we are actively looking for opportunities to do so. A synthesis of Singer and Career Services emphasizes that, ultimately, a student should be aware of their skillset and aim to pursue what aligns with their personal sense of self, abilities, and mission. Careers are flexible and provide us with options to give back, even if on the surface they seem like they don’t. Princetonians should be aware that their individual choices and career paths can be aligned with their own personal values. As our seniors move out, juniors move into their senior year, and sophomores continue to choose their academic concentrations, we should all of us think about how to put ourselves in the nation’s service, and in the service of all humanity.

Ryan Born is a sophomore from Washington, Mich. He can be reached at rcborn@princeton.edu.

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