Beware prestigious careers

Opinion by Nick Pether
Oct. 26, 2016, 1:00 a.m.

As a new senior, I am currently hitting that exciting, stressful time in which I have to start thinking about my life after Stanford and, the horror, my career. Job postings and programming challenges clog my email, career fairs clog my calendar, and while my professors and TAs aren’t at liberty to actually excuse my lackluster attendance over the past few weeks with regard to my grades, I am sure that deep in their heart of hearts, they understand. I am certain my fellow seniors do. So as a gesture of solidarity toward all of you, I offer you this friendly warning: Stay the hell away from prestigious career tracks.

Let me be more specific. Avoid pursuing a career in finance, professional sports, music, showbiz, academia or law. Each of these careers is a trap.

At first glance these seem pretty different fields. However, they share a set of incentives that are ideally suited to create a perfect storm of dehumanization, oppression and self-loathing for their all-too-willing victims. The top positions in these fields are, for many, the stuff of fantasy: high salaries, autonomy, glamour or cultural clout. This means that while only a handful of these positions are ever available, there is always a steady oversupply of eager and talented people competing for them. These ambitious aspirers are often willing to forgo financial security, control over their hours or just the chance of being treated like a human in pursuit of these dreams. These industries are aware of this fact, and take merciless advantage of it.

Tenured professors get to live the life of the mind pursuing important research of their own. Adjuncts get to live out of their cars.

The term ‘senior investment banker’ is basically a synonym for ‘one percenter’. Meanwhile, over the summer my flatmate would regularly burst into tears after another brutal fourteen hour day at her finance internship. On Saturday.

Quickly think over the lifestyle differences between broadway stars, NBA players, concert pianists, partners at law firms and everyone who doesn’t quite make it to that level. You see my point.

The best thing about a career path that makes you suffer is that you can choose to quit. Unfortunately, there are some powerful psychological factors at play that keep people in these fields a lot longer than they need to be. The most obvious one is something called the ‘sunk-costs fallacy.’  It is much harder to give up on something we’ve put a lot of emotional investment into. If you’ve suffered for years in pursuit of a particular career (or relationship or goal), then the prospect of abandoning that becomes a lot harder. This is really worth watching out for, because the truth is that if a career is going to make you miserable, then that is true regardless of whether or not you spent the last four years working towards it.

I suspect that if you already have your heart truly set on a particular career path then nothing I write will dissuade you. Perhaps being an athlete or musician or academic or lawyer feels like an important part of your identity, or something that you have to at least try. Fine. Try it out. You might even succeed and enjoy yourself. Just remember that changing your plan doesn’t mean you failed; indeed, it is to be expected. Most people don’t actually end up in a job related to their major. It is also just a good idea, because it’s hard to predict what work you’ll be good at or find meaningful without trying things out first. Most of all, remember that as a Stanford grad there are a lot of options available to you, many of which can offer all of meaningful work that will make the world better, a decent salary AND an environment that treats you like a human being.

One of the many careers I plan to try out is software engineering. If my employer ever demands I work an eighty hour week, I will laugh at them and find someplace saner.


Contact Nick Pether at npether ‘at’

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