Business school blues: Finding your path as a commerce student

On the pressure to buy into corporate culture within the USyd Business School.

When I first began my degree at USyd, I was immediately intimidated by the stature of my peers. I was surrounded by high achievers who likely performed better than me in high school and would continue to do so in university. Orientation Week events furthered my vision of the ‘perfect’ business student: high WAM, interning at a big corporate firm, juggling a busy social life, with a bunch of extracurricular activities to boot. All I wanted was to secure my future in the same way that these ‘perfect’ students did. This benchmark of success was all I calculated my worth on, and it played into a culture that tended towards toxicity, particularly for someone who was beginning an arts degree at the same time, but not valuing it as highly.

It’s a mindset that many business students fall into. There are a whopping 22 student societies associated with the USyd Business School, almost one for every discipline. I still remember wandering around the Abercrombie building on Welcome Day, packed with booths of people vigorously advertising their respective societies. Joining a society is strongly encouraged, with welcome events and my business school mentor stressing the importance of partaking in this culture. If, as a first year, you find yourself seeking advice from older business students, chances are that they’ll tell you to get involved in a society. While this mindset is echoed throughout other faculties, in the business school it comes with an agenda beyond making friends and fuelling your interests: building your resume and forming corporate connections. 

Jerry*, a fourth-year Commerce/Laws student who was involved with Sydney University Business Society (SUBS) believes some people who get involved “are there only to get another CV point, which is a shame considering the impact these programs could have. SUBS had a reputation for being exclusive before I applied for a position, and I felt my experience in SUBS was cliquey.” Harry’s* experience with Enactus was similar: “The higher-ups seemed more concerned with getting awards or seeing how they can boost their resume, rather than the actual social enterprise and opportunities to help people. That left me somewhat disillusioned as it made me feel like there’s some ulterior motive for many people, especially those in charge, to take advantage of people who want to make an actual impact.”

Nevertheless, these societies do have value. As Harry* continues: “I got to work on a real project and employ skills and knowledge that I learned from uni.” Furthermore, they provide connections to reputable corporations. These firms take an active interest in USyd societies. Society partnerships with the Big 4 (PwC, EY, KMPG, and Deloitte) actively promote climbing the corporate ladder as a desirable future. One pathway students take is a cadetship, where they transition immediately into full-time work and pursue studies part-time. It can be incredibly jarring for students coming straight out of high school, who are not accustomed to the 9-5 working life.

The USyd Business School itself encourages corporate internships, offering International and Local Partnership Programs (IPPs), where students experience working full-time for six weeks, or three days a week alongside studies for an entire semester. I myself did one of the international programs, where I lived and worked in Shanghai for six weeks while undertaking a business internship at an international English-speaking company. Within these six weeks, the idea of “work hard, play hard” became a lived experience. I had little time to breathe and recharge, as I was constantly trying to make the most out of my surroundings and explore the city in the limited time I had. Living in a country where I didn’t speak the language and had little guidance from the university felt like getting tossed into the deep end in an attempt to teach us to swim. 

Jerry* also completed the Shanghai Business Immersion Program. “While I loved the feeling of being independent, exploring a new city and learning a new language, those benefits were only peripheral to the actual internship experience. The people in charge of the program were disorganised or out of their depth, and I felt the internship didn’t teach me valuable or ‘employable’ skills. Most of the time I was left with only menial tasks, or nothing at all, which made me and fellow students feel like the Program was designed to exploit our labour. The program was also subject to several complaints by my cohort, and requests to change workplaces were common.”

My own experience echoes these sentiments. While it’s true that I gained more independence and first-hand knowledge of the 9-5 working life, it’s not the only or necessarily the best avenue to gain work experience. Large corporations often provide interns with menial work, which can result in frustration and even imposter syndrome, as we question why we were even hired. I experienced this as an intern in an international risk compliance company. Upon reflection, I realise that the most important lesson learnt didn’t result from tasks I completed at work, but the experience of managing my time when faced with full-time work. Knowing this, I wouldn’t strictly recommend such a program. There’s value to be found in other avenues – for instance, I learnt more in my role as a retail assistant as I gained first-hand experience in managing a store. 

Not all companies provide the same experiences, however, as Jerry* explains. “I worked part-time at a prominent airline company in 2019, and I loved my experience. The work itself was really exciting and interesting, and I felt like I was contributing to real-world projects. They invested a lot in creating an inclusive, attractive and LGBTQ-friendly culture, and it reflected in the people I worked with. I’m still optimistic about potentially entering the corporate world and wanting to stay long-term. It’s a matter of finding the company with the culture and role that suits you.” 

Furthermore, Harry*, who works at KPMG, explains: “There’s more structure and clear direction on what you are doing and if you have questions, there’s usually answers. It certainly feels more stable, especially compared to smaller companies or uni life.” However, “That structure can feel constricting, especially with the large bureaucracy of time sheets, and mandatory learning modules and long unnecessary video meetings and long paths to get simple things done. Culture also becomes very simplistic and inoffensive and plain.” 

For Shannon*, who works at EY, it’s about clicking with the right people. “The people and culture at EY are what makes it a great place to work. They hold several social events, and they also have extracurricular activities you can participate in including volunteering, joining teams such as Digital and Innovation and Maximising Wellbeing, which work to create initiatives to improve either the efficiency of the actual work, or to make EY a better place to work. However, large companies are quite hierarchical, and it may be quite difficult to work closely and meet those at more senior levels, particularly partners.”

The juggling of university, extra-curriculars, and work can also cause a lot of stress. It did for Harry*, who explains: “I didn’t manage them very well. There was a point during university where I was the exec on multiple societies, still working on social enterprises, working on getting my grades up and eventually working an internship. There came a turning point, where I became burnt out and depressed and decided I didn’t want to do anything anymore. It took a long time to recover. By the end I had realised that the work I had done in the name of ambition was not worth it.”

That last statement is a sobering thought, and one that I somewhat relate to. In my earlier years of university, I had tried to join such ‘CV-boosting’, cliquey societies and dreamed of following the “perfect” business student path of Big 4 internship to grad program. I prioritised my business degree over my arts degree, buying into the rhetoric that deemed commerce as superior to the arts, and commerce students more successful. In doing so, I neglected my passion and focused heavily on building my resume for future grad role recruiters. 

I think my biggest takeaway is that different paths work for different people, and what we view as the most successful path doesn’t necessarily equate to the one that brings you the most fulfilment. We shouldn’t reduce our involvement in university societies to a simple ‘CV booster’, but seek value in the experiences it creates. Most of all, it’s important that we maintain our mental health and distance ourselves from an unhealthy obsession with perfection and climbing to the top. For me, I’ve found the experience of working in a small firm especially rewarding as it allows me more responsibility and opportunities for progress. I’ve also learnt to dedicate time to things I genuinely enjoy and am passionate about such as writing and hosting a SURG.FM radio show, rather than chasing CV boosting opportunities.