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John Harvard's Journal

After Harvard, What?

7.1.94

Just as British gentlemen in the nineteenth century divided themselves among the four professions, the majority of graduating Harvard seniors pursue one of four fields. Roughly 60 percent of Harvard students know by the time they graduate that they want to enter law, business, medicine, or academia. But as Martha P. Leape, director of the Office of Career Services (OCS), points out, "The fact that it's only 60 percent is kind of surprising to some people." 

Interest in business careers peaked in 1983, when 21 percent of the graduating class chose to enter that field. The group entering academia has hovered at about 15 percent. And although interest in law has declined since the early eighties, the number of seniors who want to become doctors has surged in the last four years. Those who don't choose one of these four professions enter fields as diverse as agriculture, religion, library science, and museum conservation. 

OCS's statistics further indicate that nearly 15 percent of today's seniors are undecided about future career paths— up from 6.5 percent in 1979. And, says Leape, it's been predicted that members of today's generation will change careers an average of three times and hold eight different jobs in the course of their lifetimes. 

According to OCS, only one third of Harvard students go directly to graduate school; the growing trend is to spend a year or two working before committing to a career. Although the present generation does not covet time to "find itself in the way young people did 25 years ago, neither does it want to rush headlong into uncertain careers. The overarching advice from professors and career guidance counselors seems to be: "You're young. You have time to figure out what you want to do." Heeding these words, today's graduates are a strange blend of sixties' rebelliousness and eighties' single-mindedness. Many want time to explore the forest before focusing on the trees. Others find that financial security is as important as personal fulfillment. 

Among the pressures many graduating seniors face are money and family. Hyeon Lee '94, who will be starting Columbia Law School next fall, says his decision to attend law school "was the result of my parents' pushing." Originally from Korea, Lee immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was a child. "It's the dream of every immigrant to have his child go to law or medical school," he says. "My parents pushed me to law when they saw I wasn't interested in medicine. Actually, they didn't push me directly, but I feel obligated to them. They sacrificed so I'd have the chance to be something. I want a chance to restore their social status in Korean-American circles." 

Lee's older brother is also going to law school next year, but since his brother wants to do public-interest law, the family tacitly decided that Hyeon would pursue corporate law. "Corporate law will give me a sound financial background," he says, "which I'll need to pay for my loans and my brother's, and to support my parents when they retire. I have to take up the slack. From the outside it might seem that my brother is the selfless one—giving up a good salary to help society—but inside the family, he's the more selfish one. I guess I'm very family oriented. When we first came here, we didn't know anyone, so we had to cling to each other. Knowing their son is financially secure will give my parents a sense of confidence." 

Despite the fact that so many of his peers are not going directly to graduate school, Lee says, "I don't understand taking time off or taking a big risk. I can't understand people who are going into teaching or music or journalism." 

Because Michael Stockman '94 does not feel overburdened by finances, he'll be able to drive around the United States next year working on a novel. "No loans are staring me in the face," he says. "I don't have any financial ghosts I have to sacrifice my life to." 

Stockman's big decision this year centered on whether he wanted to go straight to law school or to pursue his dream of being a writer. "My parents are supportive," he says. "They say it's fine if I want to be a writer, but I really have to pursue it. Law school seems like the symbol of the anti-artistic lifestyle, but that's not to say it can't be a wonderful and important career. I'd like to try to balance a literary and a legal career. I'm even hoping to be a judge. There's been a lot of tension about what path to take." 

The end of Stockman's novel is unresolved, but he has decided that the book's protagonist will be a Harvard graduate who works for an investment banking firm in New York after graduation, only to become disillusioned after several years. The character then goes to the Grand Canyon, which will serve as a metaphor for America. "It may be an abyss of broken dreams," says Stockman, "or an omphalos, or something vaginal, or a wound. I just want to see America so I can learn what this country is all about. I feel like an outsider in many ways, coming from Queens." Stockman is planning to begin his tour of the country in northern Arizona. 

Although he worries that his desire to go to law school "might be selling out," Stockman says "there's definitely a real desire in me to raise children and to feel financially secure. If I were to achieve stability through writing, I'd be very happy." He believes his Harvard experience will help him tremendously as a writer. "It's quite an asset to be grounded in what career people are doing, because my audience will be educated people with careers. We'll be similar enough that I'll be able to communicate with them." 

Zofia Nowakowski '94 will also pursue her passion next year. "I really love plants," says Nowakowski, who will have an internship at the New York Botanical Gardens starting this summer. Had the internship not come through, she had been considering taking a job at a florist's shop as a last resort. Part of her job will be helping to plant, maintain, and develop 190 community gardens around New York City. She will be offering horticultural advice and may even teach. 

"Eventually, I'd like to do something with the environment or environmental policy," says Nowakowski. "I don't really know what I want to do, though. I'm not the type of person to be in Washington and to fly all over the world. I don't think I could sit with paper for sixty years, either. In working with the environment, it's hard to know if you're on the political, economic, or grass-roots side. I've thought about a lot of things and knew my heart wasn't in them. So I chose something I love." 

Both of her parents are chemists, and Nowakowski began Harvard as a chemistry concentrator. After a couple of years she realized she didn't want to continue. "But," she says, "it's been a real struggle with my parents," who were Polish immigrants. "A lot of people want security. A lot of medical and law school decisions, I think, are really security decisions. Once I have some experience, then I'll go back to grad school. But it's important to find out how the world works, and you really can't take a course in that. It's important to get your hands dirty—in more ways than one!" 

Amanda Federman '94 thought about taking time off but has decided to go straight to Harvard Medical School next year, after which she plans to get a master's degree in public health. "I don't think it's all family pressure," she says, "but maybe I'm deluding myself." 

Federman came to Harvard with a strong interest in evolutionary biology. After wrangling with introductory chemistry, she eventually decided to major in English. But when a friend of her brother was killed in a car accident following freshman year, Federman says, "I asked myself, 'What is meaningful?'" The answer to the question prompted her to take organic chemistry the summer after her sophomore year and to find a job with a liver-transplant team. "I worked on the liver for a year and a half, and I really love the liver," she says. 

The financial security offered by medicine, however, is also appealing. Despite the fact that the profession faces radical changes in the future, and a potential drop in income levels, Federman believes that job security won't change as long as people still need doctors. "I need stability," she says. "I'm not sure I could live the life of an actor or writer." 

Federman thinks she will be happy with her choice of career and her decision to pursue it immediately. "I don't need time to find myself  after graduation,"she says. "I found myself during college. . . . Doing what's meaningful is my real motivation. There's so much of the world I want to see, and I can do much more once I have an M.D. And with an M.P.H., I could run an AIDS clinic in Dorchester or oversee relief work in Somalia." After a moment's reflection, she adds, "There's something so appealing about being able to go anywhere in the world and help." 

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