Dinner at Cambridge University . . . and a shocking revelation

This past week we were invited to Cambridge University for dinner at the Trinity College dining hall (think of the dining hall in the Harry Potter movies and you have a good image) by a graduate student.  Our friend is finishing his Ph.D. in Medical Physics and is one of those bright, young (26) people with a mission to help mankind with his intellect and creativity. It was a very inspiring evening, especially for my daughter, Stephanie, who at 13 is vaguely becoming aware of her post high school adventures and curious about what universities are all about. It was also a shocking evening, but more about that later.

For my friends and readers who may not be too familiar with Cambridge University, here are some facts.  The University of Cambridge is a public research university located in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world, founded around 1209 , and the fourth-oldest surviving university in the world. Wikipedia. It is composed a numerous Colleges, each with its own traditions and expertise of study.

Walking around the college on a chilly November evening was much like going back in time; the old buildings, archways, narrow passages, cobbled streets, massive stone gates and thick oak doors leading in to grass enclosed courtyards.  Truly magical and inspiring to think that the Archbishop of Canterbury in the time of Henry VIII was a student there, as were John Milton, Charles Darwin, Jan Smuts, CP Snow, Lord Mountbatten, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alastair Cooke, Jane Goodall, John Milton Keynes, EM Forster, Samuel Pepys, William Pitt, William Wordsworth, Oliver Cromwell, and even John Harvard.  The list goes on and on. We also attended an Evensong mass in Kings College Chapel where 30 boys and young men sang the psalms amid candle light. Definitely moving and magical (but the benches were rock hard).

Being a graduate of Harvard University, even I was awed and impressed by the history, architecture and vibrancy of the ancient seat of education.  And the graduate students we met in the dining hall were also impressive.  All were young, enthusiastic, bright (obviously), respectful of the education and traditions of the University, and researching ground breaking issues.  Our host was finishing his Ph.D. in medical physics and conducting research on a way to early diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.  This is critical research because the toll on the health care systems of the world from Alzheimer’s is immense and will only get worse as people tend to live longer and longer.  The costs of care are skyrocketing so early diagnosis offers some means of getting better and newer treatments to people earlier and earlier.

As we sat chatting over dinner in this great dining hall I asked a question about the future.  What do most of these bright and gifted students do after they graduate?  Where do they go?  I was expecting to hear something like become professors, join technology or medical companies as researchers, establish start-ups to commercialize their research and make their discoveries available to the world, join think tanks or research institutions.

But what I heard shocked, and frankly, saddened me.  My host replied, “A great number, many I would say, go into investment banking!”  I sat with my mouth open.

Years of training and study in advanced maths, chemistry, physics, literature, languages, history, even music and countless hours of research and thesis writing, all to become investment bankers, high paid money merchants!  Seeing my response, he shook his head and added, “It’s the money!”

What are your thoughts?

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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5 Responses to Dinner at Cambridge University . . . and a shocking revelation

  1. I don’t think this is particularly new, John. How many arts students go on to make a career out of their chosen subject? Their future employer has noted in them an ability to think, and the degree itself can be less important than the brainpower. I read Music at Balliol College Oxford (founded 1263!) and went on to work for a brewery!

    I agree that those with a more technical subject might be more likely, we would have thought, to use it in later life: perhaps there are simply more job opportunities and money to be made in banking, although again currently one might think that unlikely.

    I’m glad you enjoyed your time in Cambridge. The choir at King’s College is arguably the best in the world.


    • Michael: Working in a brewery is different from investment banking and I dare say you learned quite a lot about real live and business in that brewery, much of which you probably draw upon in your trainings (I suspect the principles are all there). Here are my additional thoughts:

      On my Cambridge post, I don’t deny the Investment Bankers are smart and have figured out where to recruit the smart talent. But I know quite a lot about the banking industry and two things bother me. First, most people working in banking hate their jobs – I don’t think that brings out the best in people nor the best creativity, and ultimately leads to the culture of unaccountability and greed that is so evident now days in Investment Banking. Second, I don’t see Investment Banking saving the world from its current challenges. Large salaries are not the key to fulfilment and happiness, nor making the world a better place. Making a positive contribution to society is the only real key to fulfilment and happiness(although that’s not what the media and modern society pushes). I’m not saying that one individual will change the world alone, but teams of bright young scholars working together on challenging issues that make a difference in the lives of all of us on the planet can. My Point of View anyway.


      • Now I get it! It wasnt soo much the fact that these undergrads arent going to use their subject matter per se , it was more that they were planning to go into Investment Banking as opposed to theatre, oil or film. Makes sense!


  2. Raunak says:

    We have a similar situation here in India. The Indian Intitutes of Technology (IIT) are highly esteemed, government run engineering universities that produce some of the best scientific minds in our country. However, the growing trend of IIT passouts immediately pursuing MBA studies and moving into Investment Banking is disturbing. There was even a call to ban IIT students from changing their fields soon after graduating, but the calls soon went silent.


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