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What’s Next?

New Times, Same Old Dilemma

By Ian Ybarra

I have a new acquaintance named Tom. Years ago, Tom studied here at MIT and earned SB and SM degrees in physics. And he vividly recalls wrestling with questions about his future, like we are.

Tom arrived at his first answer during a ski trip in Maine. His girlfriend (now his wife) and he were enjoying some beer and discussing what they should do with their lives. That’s when Tom decided to attend law school. Although that setting is unique to his story, the factors influencing his decision were the same as those we consider now.

This past January, Tom was invited to campus to address about 50 people -- students, alumni, staff, and friends -- as part of an evening networking event sponsored by the School of Engineering’s Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP). As he took the floor in lifeless 4-163, I knew his pedigree alone would be enough to hold the crowd’s attention.

Mr. Thomas D. Halket, Esq., ’70 graduated from Harvard Law after earning two MIT physics diplomas. He holds positions as partner at Bingham McCutchen, one of the largest law firms in New York, and President of the MIT Club of New York. Impressive, yes, but not as much as what he shared that night.

“Coming to MIT was the best thing you could have done for yourself,” said Tom.

Those three letters on our rÉsumÉs ensure that our technical abilities are taken for granted, and this is one time when the words “taken for granted” are a good thing. In my brief professional experience, I have already watched several interviewers casually say to me, “Well, we don’t have to go over this,” and skip the quantitative questions. Apparently, it happens even at Tom’s level. He said people always assume he’s the technology expert in the room, even if he’s never heard of the issue at hand.

Clearly, this will be a competitive advantage for us in both technical and non-technical work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help us decide which we will pursue. Tom commiserated, acknowledging the misfortune of encountering the largest forks in the “decision tree” while we’re so young. That made me sit a little shorter. What’s worse than having to make choices that render the greatest impact on our lives when we are least prepared?

“We are prisoners of our time,” Tom said. He explained our cell bars are market conditions and social paradigms which include current industry salaries, job glamour, and further education required. In his time, there were only two factors: the renaissance of professional education and the not-yet-developed Wall Street market for high-salaried, number-crunching jobs. The tides have since turned. We are offered plenty of high-entry-level wages for using Excel through days, nights, and weekends in industries such as financial services and management consulting. Moreover, computing developments have raised IT salaries to similar levels.

Tom chose law school because it promised to teach him how to apply analytical reasoning to human life experiences -- something absent from undergraduate education -- and it presented a much more rigorous academic challenge than business school. We too need more thoughtful reasons than “it pays well!” for choosing our first career branches to climb -- especially since our starting salaries have no correlation with future wealth.

One student asked Tom what he thought about people attending law school without intentions of actually practicing law afterward. His response: “Everyone wants to be Josh Lyman.” Of course, Tom was referring to The West Wing’s brash Deputy Chief of Staff who holds Harvard undergraduate and Yale Law degrees and plays down compliments from females as often as he is right about his politics -- nearly all the time. Tom said that the problem with the really “sexy” jobs is that they are so few and so hard to get.

Yup, it’s a problem. However, I think if we first distinguish between which jobs the masses think are “sexy” and which ones really turn us on, we should go after our dreams without hesitation. If we do work we really love, we will be content even if we never reach the pinnacles of our chosen fields. And if, for you, that’s Josh Lyman’s job, great. That leaves Toby Ziegler’s spot for me.