Off the Campus
Recent grads look at life outside Princeton's gates...

Featured column: The Lure of Management Consulting, by Anne L. Merrow '98

The Lure of Management Consulting

by Anne L. Merrow '98

Suddenly, quite a few of my friends are waking up in strange beds. And not just occasionally, either; sometimes for four or five days in a row. They rest up for a few days, and then they're back at it, with a new pad every week. It's upsetting to see such well-educated girls - Princeton graduates from good homes, with high prospects - bedhopping with such impunity. They seem to be having the time of their lives, but I have a feeling that underneath, the transience of it must really get to them. It's not that they're suffering on the outside; in fact, they seem to enjoy the excitement of it all, with a different "client" to buy them dinner, procure them nice cars, and whisk them off to new and exotic destinations for a few days.

Actually, it might be easier for me if my friends were high-class prostitutes, because the lure of their ready cash and life of luxury might not tug so strongly at my own ramen-filled stomach. Instead, they're management consultants, part of a fleet of similarly young and well-educated recent college grads who eagerly answered the recruiting calls that began early in our senior year, offering seductive promises of cash, excitement, knickknacks, and - perhaps most importantly - a feeling of security and variety. Those firms, with the names of faceless, bodiless old men, reminded us constantly of their availability and eagerness to meet us in the college town's hotel rooms. In interviews and job fairs, they painted a picture of a life of constant stimulation, with endless opportunities to try out the business world from inside any number of firms, with a different task and environment on each project. The additional effects of this life are not too far removed from the old images of the traveling salesman, on the road every week, with only a vague idea of "home." For my friends, a new bed is hardly a change; they've barely had time to adjust to their own, brand-new mattresses, delivered to their doors and paid for with their handsome signing bonuses. My former roommate has spent four days in the last month in her
office; after training in Denver, she's been living out of a hotel room during the week and returning to her "luxury rental" apartment only on the weekends.

I was speaking with another friend of mine this evening after a long day exposed to the company of my consultant friends, which now comes steeped in discussions of reimbursements and expensing (a new and very common verb for them) and the relative merits of various hotel chains. She and I are the black sheep of the crowd: I'm in publishing and she's preparing for graduate school in physical therapy. We're both satisfied that we will enjoy our careers and that we have our feet on the right path to a well-chosen set of goals. While she takes the rest of the classes she needs to go to graduate school, she's living with her parents and working as a receptionist three days a week. I live in Hoboken with another editorial assistant, where we share a railroad-style apartment and clip coupons. Although each of us knew what we were getting into when we decided to duck the aggressive recruitment offers, it still rankles that our friends can lay out cash like water.

What we also opted for, less obvious in the financial accounting of the situation but nonetheless significant, was exposure to the everyday drudgery and banality that plagues the worker who each day heads to the same office to hone her skills on a familiar set of tasks with a keen awareness that she may well be doing this exact same set of tasks for the next several years, surrounded by a familiar cast of characters. Instead, their lives mirror the college rhythm we just recently left, switching clients like courses and hopping from client to client like the bars we so recently frequented. Those handsome flyers on the mailroom floors detailed all the overseas and domestic offices that my friends could hope to be shipped to. While I head to the same office each day, following the same routine with minor variations, they have the joys and torments of living from suitcases and seeing many cities at breakneck speeds. Their frequent-flyer cards are well
used, but they spend most evenings looking at a hotel television and bland decor. Their lives resemble a kung-fu movie, always braced for an attack from a different direction.

What my friend the future physical therapist suggested, though, is that beneath these jetsetting woes and lives on the corporate card, my consultant friends are probably at least as unsure about their futures as I am about mine. For the next several years, they will be professional dilettantes, their insecurities about finding their paths in the real world masked by their impressive corporate trappings and speed-of-light lifestyles. These firms with the names of old men and pockets full of cash offered a few years of respite from the many possibilities for rejection that come along with a job search, away from the cushioned and screened comfort of the school's career office. They've acquired with their signing bonuses a reprieve from deciding what they want to be when they grow up. Not that my friend the PT and I are so sure of ourselves either, but the cushion from reality is much more plush and comfortable when it's padded with $40,000 every year.

So do I envy my friends their cash, their trips, their easy choices? I wish I could say that I didn't, that I'm sure my job is twice as fulfilling as theirs and that I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat. But the truth is, if we set the calendar back a year, I might be more tempted by the offers of munchies and information in those hotel rooms. I'm being seduced by the lifestyle that I see so close and that nonetheless evades me by a long shot, but the day for my reluctant lust has passed. The wealthy suitors have chosen their crop from this year's finest, and playing hard to get has rarely been a successful business strategy.

Anne Merrow is an editorial associate with Doubleday in New York. Some of her best friends are consultants.