Be wary of greener grass; there are always tradeoffs...
Mod Note (Andy): This comment is from the post Career decisions: walking away from FT M&A and is so good (26 silver bananas and counting) that I had to put it as a standalone post on the frontpage. Enjoy.
As someone who did two summers in investment banking at the same top bulge bracket and subsequently turned down a full time offer, I want to echo what another poster wrote about being wary of greener grass. It never is. There are always tradeoffs.
The truth is that few jobs are intellectually stimulating. Most work is process oriented and will be until sentient AIs come to relieve us of our duties. There are a small number of critical creative jobs at any given moment. There is some truly revolutionary stuff going on at tech companies like Google in the fields of machine learning and life extension, but the vast majority of Google engineers are just bodies being thrown at more trivial matters like search and maintaining legacy code. On the non-critical but intellectually stimulating side, the pay is dog shit. Think PhD postgrads, lab technicians, journalists, writers, artists, etc.
Something you'll learn in due course is that it's very uncommon to make this kind of money anywhere outside of high finance without being an entrepreneur or principal. This is about as sure fire a path as one can find to a wealthy existence in the long run without any actual talent and large doses of good fortune.
Another thing you'll learn is the financial incentive rarely keeps people in this game in the long run. Tons of grads have done analyst stints in investment banking, and the handful of times I've come across these professionals 10 and 20 years down the line they're often doing something largely unrelated in the corporate world with a solidly middle class salary. One case I witnessed recently: an Ivy League grad with stints in top tier investment banking, top tier business school, MBB consulting, and top tier corporate strategy, just to finally transition into a wealth management type of role where he admits he would have likely been making more money had he started there in the first place.
I took a massive leap of faith and turned down my full time investment banking offer as it exploded just two weeks after the summer ended with nothing lined up. I'm over a year out of school now, and sometimes I wonder whether the decision was a mistake. When times are tough and the future looks hazy, I really miss the guaranteed outsized pay and the illusion of prestige. Sound familiar? I suspected the grass would be greener outside of banking, discovered that the grass was actually blue, and have all but forgotten what shade of green the grass in banking was. One intellectually knows that the grass in banking is still the same shit green. I just actually miss it sometimes. The young, insecure, and ambitious are driven by equal parts desire and fear.
The world outside of finance doesn't come with a six year itinerary in two year partitions. There are no analyst programs followed by stints in private equity and extended vacations at Harvard Business School. This sucks for some people, and those people are served well by taking their investment banking offers and following along the path. But for others, this is a good thing because it forces them to make some actual decisions about who they are and what they want as kids with nothing to lose rather than as adults entering the third decade of life saddled with business school debt as similarly clueless as when they left college.
Since leaving, I've worked at a venture capital fund trying to recreate Silicon Valley in emerging cities. I sat at the edge of a coworking space watching several of our portfolio companies operate day in and day out, CEOs, product managers, engineers, sales reps, and analysts alike. Most startups are simply the new office job. Operating under the illusion of meritocracy - like finance - with an additional veneer of creative work and life fulfillment, founders of mostly riffraff companies pay you less to work more of the same chores you'll find in most other jobs. The people who thrive in these roles find what they do genuinely interesting and get a kick out of working at high growth organizations despite the lack of bottomline reward. I'm interested in being an entrepreneur, but I'm not so sure I fit the bill as a startup employee. Luckily I'm doing all of this through a selective postgrad program and have had tons of time that I wouldn't have had in finance to broaden my horizons. I'm wiser, have a more interesting life, and a have far stronger network than I would had I gone into banking, but I'm financially less well off and the uncertainty persists.
So my recommendations to you:
1. The Present, The Future and Happiness
Accept that you haven't much of a clue what will make you happy in the future but have a hunch as to what you might like to do in the near term. It sounds like you're learning towards something quantitative. You're lucky to enjoy something that pays well and is in very high demand. Whatever you do in your career, you'll always have this technical floor you're unlikely to fall below. Worst case scenario, you'll pick up some cushy data scientist gig somewhere.
2. Throw out the notion of prestige and embrace the concept of networks.
Nobody gives a shit about brand name outside of industry. Your friends are too busy worrying about themselves, it's not gonna get you laid, so why place so much emphasis on the opinions of others when making this important life decision? Do something that gives you a network of intelligent and accomplished friends and peers your age that you can not only leverage for the rest of your career but also enjoy as a social circle. This could be quant grad school, Google, an analyst program, etc. These coincide with prestigious organizations, but your mindset is exponentially different taking the latter approach.
3.Realize that life isn't deterministic.
Outsized success requires good fortune on top of the usual suspect accolades, but good low six figure pay is firmly within your reach in whatever direction you choose. You have a great school on your resume. Start your career on a strong base network, then take some calculated risks as you get a better sense of life and what you want out of it. With a good network, opportunities that you couldn't have predicted will present themselves later in life.
Make a decision, watch it play out, learn from it, and make some more decisions. Goals are nice, but enjoying - or at least not hating - the ride makes all the difference between a life well lived and a life wasted in our privileged first world. Careers are long, so make sure you do that too. Rinse and repeat.