Sunday, October 12, 2008

MBA and law students, please do something useful

This is probably the most depressing thing that I've read all week:

For students who set their sights on Wall Street during the boom years, the end has come just as they are getting ready to join the party... But even as the markets spiraled downward, business and finance students at top universities said they were not panicked about their futures and were confident that the financial markets would recover. For the young achievers drawn to finance, expectations die hard. [Kenton] Murray, [a senior at Princeton,] described the mood at Princeton as cautiously optimistic. No one I’ve talked to is worried about moving back home yet,” he said. “But everyone I know is studying for the LSATs right now, people who a month ago had no intention of ever going to law school.

Jian Yang, 25, who is in his second year at the University of Chicago's graduate business school...expects to graduate with $200,000 in student debt.
Ye Gods.

Part of the reason that we got into this mess is that too many bright people are doing relatively useless things like investment banking and lawyering. Another key reason that we got into this mess is that once any entity -- from an individual person to the Federal Government -- gets themself under a massive pile of debt, their options are highly constrained. Prison may be more crushing than debt service; but it may not, because in prison, you don't have to spend your sentence productively.

To all the MBA students out there -- please don't double down on this historic mis-allocation of resources. If you are quantitative enough to consider finance, look into data mining and machine learning for product and marketing design and refinement. Translation: search relevance and ad targeting; but these are only the tip of the iceberg. Soon these disciplines will spread, because they add real value both to consumers and to merchants. Operations research for resource allocation is another huge area. The world is undergoing another historic transition now, which is toward connected, data-driven marketplace of real stuff -- not the fake packaged stuff that has been driving Wall Street for the past seven years. You won't ever get a $500K bonus working in this field, but you'll make a good salary, you'll add to the productive economy, and if you join (or start) the right company, you'll get rich beyond Wall Street dreams of avarice -- and deservedly so.

To all the law students out there -- if you are articulate and nuanced enough to consider law, how about a management or leadership career? The world needs more thoughtful communicators and accomplished managers. Running a team is a lot harder than running a trial, but much more rewarding. Understanding and influencing the people who work for you and who struggle to work together is a lot more interesting than navigating a jury selection pool. Negotiating a business partnership is a lot more fulfilling than a litigation settlement. I see the insides of hundreds of organizations that we partner with, and good management and leadership is all too rare. You too can make an enormous difference to the productive economy by refocusing your talents elsewhere. Are we electing Barack Obama president because he's a good negotiator? Or because he's a great leader, communicator, and manager? You know the answer. Be that answer.

And to all of you - please, please be careful about getting yourself buried under a mountain of debt, such that you end up having to work at a career that you may hate, in an industry that may not really provide anyone lasting value, simply because you are crushed by your debt service. I'm sorry, but if it takes $200K in debt, then whatever your parents told you about getting into that 'top school' is probably wrong. The ROI to your life is negative. I flunked out of one top school and left another before completing my PhD, and I was neither struck by lightning nor am I begging on a street corner. If you're truly smart, talented, motivated, and capable, you'll do fine.

There's a lot of broken economy to fix. Let's get to work.

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