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MIT student blogger Phoebe C. '18

Allegiance by Phoebe C. '18

"No, I'm not one of /those/ people."

1. Labels

The number of double takes and comments I’ve gotten this month in response to my choice of dorm has been astounding:
“What does your room look like? Does all the furniture in your room hang from the ceiling?”
“Are you this quiet all the time? You must be crazier in everyday life. Are you hiding something from us?”
“I hear it’s really dirty…but I mean, I bet you live in one of the cleaner parts.”

I imagine a big label being added next to my name—from East Campus. May show up to work with green hair. May enjoy setting things on fire in free time. May affix furniture to ceiling when bored.1

I’m a pretty vanilla EC resident. My lifestyle doesn’t take advantage of the perks of living in EC—I don’t spend a lot of time building roller coasters, customizing my room, being naked in public, or playing with cats. It’s a very special place and the culture is great and everything, but I live there because I ended up hanging out there a lot during CPW and REX, most likely because I had friends who lived there already. I’m happy enough there and I like many of the residents. These reasons are, I imagine, pretty much the same as anyone else’s–to me, EC is a home, not a social statement.

Like my internship: it is a job, not a social statement. Among my friends at MIT, announcements of one’s decision to work in finance are shrouded in the pretense of “it’ll be an interesting thing to try for a month, but I don’t expect to like it”—because people Like Us don’t actually pursue careers at big banks, which, you know, overflow with moneyed people who judge you based on what you wear to the interview. If I mention that I am Course 14, I’ll often clarify that I like theoretical stuff, I like behavioral stuff, I like the kind of economics that takes place in third-world countries and not in banks–anything that doesn’t have to do with money, because God forbid anyone should ever actually contemplate making a profit.

So I’m hesitant to tell people where I’m working right now, because the reactions are like, “I see; you’re a yuppie now. Should’ve seen this one coming,” or worse, “Oh my god, are you a banker now? Are you just going to sell out like that? What are your hours? Can I even trust you anymore? (Absolutely not. I am going to sell all your stuff when your back is turned.) Are you a Sloanie2 now? What about Bernie Sanders?!”

The adults who populate universities have already made the choice to eschew finance and corporate jobs in favor of teaching and research, so I’ve wondered if even my research mentors are judging me—I told my research supervisor where I would be over IAP, and she immediately asked not what I would be doing but how much I would be making. I’ve been on the other end—I’m weirdly allergic to the idea of my friends going into finance, and the word comes with many negative associations that I have to work hard to reason past. I use the phrase “sell out” a lot, mostly when talking about myself. I really, really didn’t want to like my job. And I’m surprised that I now like my workplace and might seriously want to return for the summer.3

To address some stereotypes: “finance” can mean many different things. Especially in a large bank, hours and work vary greatly across divisions and desks. I’m at a desk with relatively reasonable hours (8:45 – 7:30?) because we focus on constructing longer-term portfolios, don’t execute trades (i.e. don’t need to be in super early, don’t need to be on our toes following the markets), and, as I understand, spend a lot of time building tools for others to use. On a day-to-day basis, we mostly code quietly.4

2. Swallowing my pride

Last week, I told my mom—who works in quantitative trading, one flavor of finance—that I didn’t like my work environment, and she basically said, “suck it up, intern.” This is the tough-love way of saying, “You’ve only been there a week; you’ll get used to it, and it will get better,” which was, as it turns out, what I needed to hear.

It takes time to get used to the reward system of my workplace because it’s so different from the one in school. You are judged based on your record of performance. If you are used to being praised for your talent in theoretical, abstract fields, tough luck, because none of that directly influences performance. If you are new, tough luck, because you have no record of anything.

I hang out with a lot of mathematicians and theoretical physicists who have incredibly powerful minds and little patience for illogical stuff that is learned by rote. I share their impatience; I don’t dedicate much time to learning material—like corporate finance—that is theoretically easy to learn. But at the end of the day, I’m less knowledgeable than someone who put in the hours, even if I have all this extra theoretical knowledge and this big brain to boot. So—note to self and people “like me” at the lower rungs of a large bank: Learn to swallow your pride. Yes, you might be more capable of solving “difficult” problems than, say, your manager, and financial literacy is “easier” to pick up than abstract algebra, but you still need to invest the effort of learning it. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “most of these people’s minds aren’t as sharp as mine,” but hard work, opportunism, and results trump all else.

While chatting with a MIT graduate who is now in the top rungs of the hierarchy, I asked, “Do you regret not doing anything when you were at MIT?” And he said: now that he has faith in his own abilities, he would have taken 18.701 and the advanced economics courses: 14.04, 14.05, 14.06.

I took 18.701 and 14.04 this semester, yet I’m certainly not doing better than him. I think I would like to be somewhere that rewards me for the abstract thinking I learned in courses like these. Bonus points if my job allows me to write in a format that’s not just code or business emails. Also, I (and probably most of the workforce) function best when my emotions are engaged in alignment with what I need to accomplish; I am going to seek out work that feels like a better cause.5 I’m currently moving more and more in the direction of grad school/research.

And yeah—I do fear that the true, real, deep, unspeakable reason I don’t want to work in (most divisions of) a big bank is that I’m too soft and lazy. I’m a millennial who wants to be valued “as a person” and am not disciplined enough to deal with long hours and bureaucracy. But alas, we’ll never know. Anyway, it’s been fun, but I think I’m done. Part of me wants to stay and prove myself and my ability to work my ass off and be entrepreneurial and get ahead, but first I need to go back to MIT and take 14.05.


1 I could be wrong about them judging me. It just feels that way. Also, for the unacquainted, these are stereotypes associated with the dorm East Campus and, more generally, the dorms on the east side of MIT’s campus, which have, I guess, relaxed social conventions and dorm rules.

2 Sloanie–MIT business student or undergrad who behaves like a business student, oft. mocking or derogatory. A relevant Quora answer.

3 But in the research division, so it’s okay, right?!!

I think it’d be better in the summer because I’d know more people in the city/the intern program would be long enough to make lasting connections/it wouldn’t be too cold to go outside. I don’t superficially have a lot in common with the people I’ve met, which makes small talk awkward (and networking events excruciating). So it’d be hard for me to make good friends from the job alone: work moves quickly, and there’s not much time to get to know someone beyond the labels they wear in order to signal what type of person they are. (It’s not really a place where people go to make friends, though, which is a shame–the employees spend so many hours together. But I guess this is also a millennial thing, the idea that workplace should be friendly.)

4 In addition, everyone around me (and, from what I’ve heard, around the firm) is extraordinarily hardworking and resourceful. This month was almost like a boot camp, and in that light I think the externship was a very worthwhile experience.

It is refreshing being around people who are all very socially savvy (or think they are), but you’re constantly left wondering, “Do you actually care about me or did you just read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People?” It feels like high school all over again: who’s fake, who’s doing it just for college admissions, who’s for real, and does it even matter? I can play that game, but I’d rather not.

5 I was going to say, “I want a creative job”, but I also thought, “lol, i sound like such a millennial, it’s insane,” so this thought has been relegated to the footnotes section.