Getting A Career In Oxford: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Banks

It’s internship season. Many of my friends and I are currently sniffing the internet for the elusive summer placement to hone the edge of a CV that, fingers crossed, will slay the job market for years to come. Whilst I’m looking for something to fill my second summer as a student at Oxford, in a place of ruthless achievers it’s probably true that careers are on the mind of everyone at all stages of their degree. The friend who keeps you updated on their twenty job applications, the yawning prospect of a summer that thus far is as empty as your eyes scrolling for placements at 2am; our present is stained with the pressure of securing our future. It feels like not achieving a good placement or graduate job is doubly wrong at Oxford; if the Oxford brand doesn’t save you then there must be something particularly wrong with your skillset.

And in the midst of this confusion, even the greatest idealists among us start to become tempted by the dark side: to go corporate. The vultures of JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup feast on the dead carcass of our morality as we turn up to insight days, apply to spring weeks and go to Capitox events. Of the top six undergraduate destinations for Oxford graduates, three are in what could be called ‘corporate’ sectors (Banking and Investment; Consultancy; Accountancy, Insurance and Financial Services) with Health and Social Care inflated to the second most common destination only because, naturally, 97.2% of people doing Medical Sciences end up in the industry. So essentially, of the jobs people from a wide variety of degrees go into, corporate sectors make up a large chunk. Yet the fact that the very idea of ‘selling out’ exists shows that innately, we are all somewhat wary of going into these types of jobs. Irrespective of whether this guilt is justified, something I’ll come to later, why is it then that we feel drawn to finance, consultancy and other corporate sectors despite the stigma they hold?

The vultures of JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup feast on the dead carcass of our morality as we turn up to insight days, apply to spring weeks and go to Capitox events.

The answer seems obvious – money. But I do believe it’s more complicated than that. Of course money is a big factor, but the way banks advertise their job opportunities plays a part also. Whilst obviously difficult to get into, the actual pathway to a job in the banking industry is relatively linear and straight forward. JP Morgan advertise their 2020 ‘Spring into J.P. Morgan’ Spring Week with the tantalising offer that ‘we recruit many of our interns and subsequent full-time analysts through our pre-internship programs’. The implication is clear: a spring week or indeed even an insight day is just the first stage in an inexorable conveyor belt to your financial destiny. The progression from insight day, to spring week, to summer internship, to graduate placement is a clear one that characterises the recruitment of many in the finance sector. In comparison to the messiness of having to network and chat to the right person to get into a certain think tank or NGO that rarely advertise internships, the Faustian pact with the finance industry seems relatively convenient.

And then there’s the fact that they’re just literally everywhere. Financial job opportunities are lot like the cookies in your kitchen: you know you’re not meant to take them, but if you see them every day it does become a bit hard to resist. It’s unfair to say that Oxford doesn’t provide us with career opportunities outside of these traditional corporate sectors, but it certainly feels true that our consciousness is bombarded with opportunities to enter the finance or consulting industry on a different level to the publishing industry for example. From society events, to careers fairs, to careers guides, if the finance opportunities aren’t the only jobs on offer they certainly aren’t hard to miss. This is not necessarily Oxford’s fault. Of course, companies that make billions rather than millions of profit per year will have the extra resources to seek out the best and brightest to work for them.

But the eternal question remains, why should we care? So what if people go into banks or management consultancy or design some algorithm that makes a load of shareholders filthy rich. If there is a culture of guilt or stigma around doing so then we can surely just put that down to overreacting snowflake students, right?

I disagree. I think it’s simplistic to say every individual working in the finance industry is actively contributing to harm in the world but I do think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest as a whole the industry has had some pretty harmful effects on people. The private equity firm Blackstone, headed by our recent illustrious donor Stephen Schwartzmann, is accused of dramatically increasing rents in houses it acquires, international speculation in food markets stands accused of causing famine, and many consultants make their trade advising business on how to prevent unionisation that can secure workers decent pay. I think it’s at least worth considering such factors before entering the industry. Even if not necessarily having these directly bad effects, comparatively the benefit of making many of the rich richer seems somewhat less important than helping the genuinely needy or inspiring others.

As Oxford students we are privileged, no matter where we come from; the future we can secure for ourselves is likely to be comfortable even if our past wasn’t. And to a certain extent that privilege is due to luck, even if it wasn’t the luck of being born into a rich family, or an elite postcode. Many of us were the beneficiaries of a good teacher who believed in us even when we didn’t, or are indebted to the efforts of our parents to provide for us even in tough circumstances. Of course hard work plays a factor, but none of us could have got here completely by ourselves. As such there does seem to be some sort of moral obligation to give back, to recognise the unique opportunities given to us shouldn’t just be in service of our own self-fulfilment, but the world at large. It seems to me that going into the finance sector isn’t the best way to achieve this.

Of course this sounds very preachy, and maybe it is. But I don’t severely judge those who go into corporate jobs. I myself have had years of encouragement from my mother to become a banker, or a top commercial lawyer. As an immigrant from Uganda, to achieve one of these jobs to her is the pinnacle of success, and it’s a trend often in minority communities that beyond the mere monetary incentives, corporate jobs bring a level of prestige and pride to a family that can’t be dismissed out of hand. Moreover, many of us, though we can have relatively bright futures, still leave behind struggling families: parents who worry about going into care homes, and siblings unable to afford all their school textbooks. Sometimes going into a high paying corporate job really is done with the noblest of aims: to enable those we’ve left behind to share in our success. And of course, I can anticipate that effective altruists would take direct issue with the claim that going into a high paying job isn’t the best way to help the world at large.

Sometimes going into a high paying corporate job really is done with the noblest of aims: to enable those we’ve left behind to share in our success.

The point is not to say those who enter the finance industry should be forced to do a Game of Thrones style walk of shame, but that we should consider more closely the reasons why we choose the careers we do. I don’t think we should ever blindly stop worrying and love the banks, though I fear a career in those industries can blunt our capabilities to objectively critique their practises. So if you do find yourself sitting in a Goldman Sachs office in five years’ time (which statistically, it is likely at least one of the people reading this will), and have already turned to dark side, at least think about how you can make the dark side a little brighter.

Image Credit: James Broad