Careers and Cambridge: Obsession or Anathema?

The culture of careers at Cambridge differs substantially depending on who you talk to

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The Cambridge Guild are writing a careers blog for The Tab. In their first column, the committee bring together opinions on careers in Cambridge. Some of these have been kept anonymous because, well, this can be a sensitive topic.

As a collegiate university that would rather you spent 99% of your time in the library, Cambridge has a careers scene that is more diverse than most.

A topic too often ignored in the student press, this article discusses three aspects of careers culture at Cambridge. Part I looks at Subjects and Careers; Part II at Careers Societies; and Part III at the Careers Service.

I. Subjects

The career-obsessed subjects

“There is undoubtedly no subject more obsessed by their career than economists”, a third-year economist confesses. And at the centre of that obsession is the City, namely investment banking.

Whether it be by drinking their bodyweight in free wine at finance networking events, padding their CV with an excessive number of committee positions or spending weeks on end in London to attend interviews, economists will go to the ultimate lengths to bag a summer internship for themselves, or else they face public disgrace.

Champagne socialism

Their comrades in the quest for a corporate are the law students. Equally desperate to trade in their soul for riches, the Law Faculty is filled with gossip about who-got-where on a daily basis.

One second-year law student lamented: “Law firms sponsor everything from our lecture rooms to our faculty competitions to our subject society – the psychological impact is real.”

Humanities students

Humanities students still treat Oxbridge like it should be – a lot of unstructured days spent thinking holistically about past human interaction and literature, punctuated by the odd supervision or lecture.

Ostensibly with little utilitarian value, some employers (and the government) can struggle to understand the point of these subjects. As Margaret Thatcher, who read chemistry at Oxford, exclaimed during one visit to her alma mater to a student of Ancient Norse: “What a luxury!”

That said, Oxbridge humanities students are in demand for their skills. Aside from filling the editorial teams of most of our national newspapers, the City is full of Oxbridge humanities students, according to a study by Oxford University of its pupils who graduated between 1960 and 1989. One senior Managing Director at Morgan Stanley claims it needs “students of history, geography or languages” because they “are interested in what’s going on in the world.”

Humanities students may or may not know these companies                                                © The Cambridge Guild

Whether that message has got through to Human Resources, who actually do the recruiting in banks these days, is less clear. Certainly, in 2017, as one Pembroke student told us, “you’ll do well to find many Cambridge Linguists or Historians applying to investment banking Spring Weeks because of the maths tests involved.”

Interestingly, the exceptions are the two most prestigious banks – Goldman Sachs doesn’t do numerical tests and J.P. Morgan has recently dropped them. In any case, many arts students end up rushing to law firms in the third year instead; these only have verbal reasoning tests.

“STEM careers”

Meanwhile, Cambridge scientists, though they do not struggle with maths, have the option of a four-year degree, an offer many take up, unsure of what they “really want to do”. As one Trinity Hall NatSci put it, “NatScis are trained to understand the mechanics of the physical world and regard the vapid pursuit of wealth as nothing more than misguided nonsense.”

Many pursue the path of academia. That is, until they soon realise how impossibly difficult that is and desperately apply for graduate schemes.

Most end up in consulting, or at least the engineers do – taking their problem-solving skills to BCG, Bain and McKinsey. After a few years there, a popular option is business school.

Cambridge’s Judge Business School is now ranked in the global top ten

II. Societies

There are four major careers-oriented societies that serve the Cambridge community. While they have different audiences, they all compete for sponsorship from similar firms each year and offer similar events. Mostly, they’re worth joining for the networking events they hold – though the speaker events and workshops are also worthwhile.

Marshall Society

About: One of Cambridge’s oldest societies, Marshall has traditionally been a society primarily for economists but as of late, the society has been positioning itself as an advocate for careers in the City. This sharp change of direction recently left the society in a bind, resulting in member dissatisfaction followed by a constitutional crisis.

Active members: 1,500 approx. | Membership cost: £25 lifetime

Partners: EY, Barclays, PwC, Citi, FTI Consulting, Oxford Economics, RBB Economics

The Cambridge Guild

About: With a history dating back to the 1970s, the Guild is Cambridge’s main general careers society, covering law, education, public/social service, finance, consulting. Having rebranded just over a year ago, the society has grown dramatically since then but still lives in the shadow of its sister society in Oxford which has recently invited huge speakers including Kanye West.

Active members: 3,000 approx. | Membership cost: Free

Partners: BCG, Citi, BlackRock, Hogan Lovells, PwC, Accenture, Education First, Mars, Goldman Sachs, J. P. Morgan, Jardines, Bird & Bird, McKinsey, TeachFirst

CULS (Cambridge University Law Society)

About: Probably the richest society in Cambridge, except for the Union, City law firms continue to lavish Law Soc with sponsorship, even after the banks’ cut back post-2008. As such, they are known for holding some classy events but do lose style points for recycling the same events year on year.

Home of Cambridge Law

Active members: 2,000 approx. | Membership cost: £35 lifetime

Partners: Almost every large law firm under the sun

CUFIS (Cambridge University Finance and Investment Society)

A society for aficionados of corporate finance, CUFIS itself was created years ago as a result of a merger between the numerous Cambridge finance societies. Now acting as a focal point for those keen to enter the heady world of investment banking, they do attract their fair share of Wolf of Wall Street wannabes, for better or worse.

Active members: 3,000 approx. | Membership cost: Free

Partners: Credit Suisse, Commonwealth, Goldman Sachs, BAML, Fidelity, GIC, J. P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Rothschild, Deutsche Bank, Schroders, Temasek, UBS

III. Careers Service

If the societies just mentioned tend to hold more “interactive” events with bigger-spending employers (read: networking, workshops and lots of free wine), the Careers Service is the home of the traditional corporate presentation.

On top of these events, the Service offers valuable one-to-one interview practice. There is also the option to meet individually with careers advisers, though opinions vary on how helpful these meetings are.

The Service is not flawless, mainly relying on email to (not always effectively) reach students, though the UN Careers Talk last term was posted on social media and had hundreds interested on Facebook. While, unlike the various business societies, the Service is professional and institutionalised, this can also be a drawback in terms of effectively engaging with and understanding students’ perspectives, as was demonstrated last term with the controversy reported in The Times around restricting students’ freedom in the job market.

Careers Service Building (Google)

IV. In sum…

Cambridge, when it comes to preparing students for careers, certainly does not score full marks as an institution. That is not necessarily a bad thing. First and foremost an academic institution, Cambridge has to some degree successfully shielded its students from the corporate winds that affect American Ivy League universities.

Equally, however, the graduate jobs market has become dramatically more globalised over the last two decades. This more competitive marketplace can sometimes be a shock to students and the conveyor belt nature of spring weeks, summer internships and getting a job even before graduation could certainly be more clearly flagged up.

Our next installment – linked to the Guild’s upcoming “Meet the Interns” event – will look at exactly this.

If you would like to contact the Cambridge Guild with ideas or opinions for the column, or apply for the 2017-18  committee, please email [email protected]