An illusory trade-off

Is working for a corporation a selfish or complacent use of an MIT education? Not necessarily.

In Friday’s issue of The Tech, Madeline O’Grady ’16 asserts that MIT students should be “better than the career fair.” Instead of settling for comfortable, lucrative jobs with corporations, she writes, we should aspire to solve the world’s most challenging problems.

O’Grady goes on to lament the fact that students are not only settling for these jobs, but many even seem to prefer them to more altruistic career paths.

The problem with O’Grady’s argument is that it ignores the contributions corporations have made to expanding opportunity for millions of people and also the role corporations have played in trying to solve the problems that have come with expansion.

Have the interests of large corporations and private companies always aligned with the best interests of society as a whole? Of course not. But what should not be overlooked is the fact that profit-driven companies and industries have contributed in significant ways to addressing many of the challenges that have confronted societies since the onset of the industrial era.

Just a cursory browse through the career fair brochure yields a variety of companies that are all addressing important societal challenges. Google has transformed the way people and businesses connect and share information. IBM has driven hardware and software innovation for over a century. And in the face of dwindling public investment in spaceflight, SpaceX has grabbed the baton in an attempt to sustain our collective reach for the stars.

True, some major investment banks exploited lax regulation and consumers’ lack of information to trigger the great recession. But one must look at the bigger picture. Investment banks have been critically important in fostering entrepreneurship, economic growth, job creation, and products (think pharmaceutical and medical products, fuel-efficiency technology, irrigation systems) that have improved life for untold numbers of people in the last two centuries. Even the banks that were entangled in the 2008 financial crisis played key roles in accelerating global economic growth and opportunity over the past 50 years. Furthermore, these companies are often the only ones equipped to provide tailored expert advice as firms take on the challenges of an increasingly globalized economy.

Fossil fuel corporations are certainly contributing to the alarming advance of climate change, but should they really shoulder all of the blame for our international dilemma? They are supplying a commodity that the world demands, but at the same time, they have been pouring resources into alternative energy research and development. In their own self-interest, they are diversifying — perhaps later than they should have — but diversifying and investing in new technologies nonetheless. They are part of the problem, for sure, but also increasingly part of the solution.

Corporations address problems indirectly as well. I’d imagine that O’Grady would applaud those students who elect to pursue careers in academia. After all, that’s where she would suggest that many real world problems are solved.

But money for this research has to come from somewhere. Between corporate research and development, and private contributions to universities, businesses do a great deal to support applied research — all the more important at a time when federal funding (the lifeblood of post-war scientific research) is being eviscerated by the sequester. Moreover, universities are built and funded by major gifts from corporations and wealthy capitalists who become philanthropists.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that corporations never help to solve important problems, and that they don’t fund applied research. Should students still be “better than the career fair”? A large and growing portion of college students face enormous student loan debts, and they are under incredible pressure to begin repaying those debts as soon as they graduate. Should they be condemned for pursuing well-paying jobs to pay off those debts? Should students be condemned for trying to provide a better future for themselves and the families they will one day start?

Granted, not all corporations are helping to solve important problems; and even if a corporation is providing value to society, it isn’t necessarily motivated by a sense of social responsibility. The challenge for those students who do decide to take jobs in the private sector is to look for ways to influence corporate cultures from within, to push them in the direction of social responsibility. Today’s job-seeker will be tomorrow’s business leader. And through enlightened leadership, companies large and small can do more and more to mitigate the adverse by-products of business, and to contribute to the solution of social, economic, and environmental problems.

Ultimately, O’Grady raises an important question — to what extent should we balance our individual need for some measure of financial security with a selfless drive to solve the world’s problems? I commend O’Grady’s idealism, but the answer isn’t always a trade-off.

Unfortunately, there is so much in this world that needs to be improved. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to go about improving it.

Anonymous over 8 years ago

My biggest issue with O'Grady's article is her lack of any significant credentials to talk about MIT and its culture. This is a student who had completed maybe a week of sophomore year, so really only has freshman year as an experience. She is making claims about students not wanting to change the world or make a difference before she has even seen her first lab or research group. She also seemed to imply that the lack of groups for her specific motivation, climate change, meant there was a total apathy towards all issues at MIT as a whole. This is obviously short sighted. The idea that we all can individually change the world and solve the big problems like climate change in tiny groups is naiive at best. She mentions the climate change group just started like it is some beacon of hope in the otherwise barren wasteland of the rest of us money hungry mortals, but if she thinks that the MIT climate club is going to solve the world's problems on altruistic desire alone... She has obviously never had to secure funding for research, or had to really try and grasp the scope of a problem and recognize the scope the solution must be. Going to work for a corporation does not mean you are selling out to "the man" as O'Grady seems to imply, and thinking that it does shows a juvenile and naiive mindset, which is ironically sophomoric. Moral of the story: one shouldn't go claiming things about MIT students and culture as a whole if one has barely finished their GIRs. I wouldn't go to Japan for a year and then start telling native Japanese families what their culture supposedly is.

Nina Yang over 8 years ago

One also shouldn't post insulting comments about an author and not even have the courtesy to attach his/her name in the comment. One also should stop

thinking that just because someone "has barely finished their GIRs" that they have no right to comment about the culture of the institute we ALL attend. Are you trying to say that unless you're a junior or senior any comment you try to make isn't valid because you haven't been here long enough to say anything of value? Because THAT is a little naiive.

Furthermore, it was an opinion piece. O'Grady was stating an opinion she had. You can agree with it or not. But blatantly asserting that someone's OPINION is wrong without bothering to take both sides of the matter into

account is also a bit short sighted, don't you think?

Darryl Williams over 8 years ago

Let's continue this little train, Nina. The first comment didn't simply assert that O'Grady's opinion was wrong by virtue of her being an underclassman, but rather mentioned, for example; "She has obviously never had to secure funding for research, or had to really try and grasp the scope of a problem and recognize the scope the solution must be". To be quite clear, no, I do not believe they are "trying to say that unless you're a junior or senior any comment you try to make isn't valid because you haven't been here long enough to say anything of value", but saying that she has yet to have the experiences which they feel would better inform her opinion, and that it is indeed O'Grady herself who has failed to "take both sides of the matter into account", by virtue of having not yet experienced the other side.

One hopes you see the logic behind my interpretation of the comment.

Anonymous over 8 years ago

You're all making her point for her! "Google has transformed the way people and businesses connect and share information. IBM has driven hardware and software innovation for over a century. " Can you see past a world that needs huge corporations to do good, or a future without a BMW to prove your success.