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Reflections on Smith

Article Anonymously Submitted to QBR

The authors, both fourth year Queen’s Commerce students, are appreciative of the extracurricular and professional experiences that the program has offered them. Both have enjoyed their time in the program. With the benefit of hindsight, they are keen to share their perspectives and opinions on several important, under-discussed issues surrounding the program.

The mission of Queen’s Commerce is to develop the leaders of tomorrow. With many opportunities for academic and extracurricular involvement, an active student body, and a strong alumni network, the program is successful in preparing students for employment at world-renowned firms. 97% of Commerce students find jobs within six months of graduation, and the 8% acceptance rate from a pool of 7,400 applicants( [i] ) is a testament to the attractiveness of the program. But should recruiting outcomes be the singular measure of success for a program that seeks to develop tomorrow’s leaders? Furthermore, what impact does this definition have on students’ perceptions of their values and priorities and how does it affect the decisions that they make? These are worthwhile questions that deserve to be talked about.

While the culture of prioritizing recruiting drives results, it also creates several unaddressed problems. The competitive nature of the program has created an environment in which students are afraid to fail. The drive to build a competitive resume has produced a bloated student society where many extracurriculars are treated as a means to an end. The hyper-prioritization of grades places significant pressure on students to choose easy electives instead of intellectually stimulating ones. There is a lot of room to improve the culture of the Commerce program and the well-roundedness of the students that it shapes.


The Stigma of Failure & of the Path Less Traveled: Recruiting in Queen’s Commerce

One of the most important decisions that we as Commerce students make is choosing our first job post-graduation. We place much emphasis on how firms are perceived by our social circles and in the broader Commerce community and little emphasis on whether our personal strengths and interests align with the role we are applying for. The lack of critical thought and self-reflection displayed in coming to these decisions is troubling.

The hyper-competitive culture of the program, though not inherently a bad aspect, creates an environment in which we are afraid to fail. We tie our self-worth to outcomes of recruiting processes that can be unpredictable and far from perfect. As a result, we misattribute causes of failure, internalize insecurities, and experience feelings of inadequacy and isolation at the expense of our confidence and optimism. Further, recruiting failure is often wrongly associated with a lack of aptitude or experience. However, we believe that unsuccessful applications are regularly a result of poor fit between the candidate and the company or role. B.Comm ’17 Amit Kumar concurs, saying, “[given recruiting failure]…the mature thing to do is to reflect on the criteria that makes people successful in different careers and how that relates to our own personal strengths and weaknesses, and to have the courage and resilience to pursue opportunities that are truly a good fit.” Unfortunately, what often happens is the internalization of failure at the cost of self-confidence.

The stigma surrounding recruiting failure must be lifted for the program to overcome this existing perception. How often do students in Commerce talk about interviews or jobs they did not get? Not often enough, we think. There is much to be learned through sharing these experiences and removing the stigma around failure will reduce the toxic, isolating impact of the program’s results-oriented culture.

While the Commerce program effectively produces candidates for the traditional streams of accounting, consulting, finance, and marketing, the program struggles to support students whose interests lie beyond these industries. Sam Battista, a B.Comm ’16 who turned down a job at Bain & Company to build his own startup, agreed that his peer group and indeed the broader Commerce culture, was the biggest hurdle to overcome in pursuing entrepreneurship. Vasanth Ranganathan, B.Comm ’16, shared similar sentiments about his experience recruiting for the entertainment industry while at Commerce. However, he argued that not all blame should be placed on the school. “Anyone looking to go against the grain, in or out of school, faces a steeper curve to create their own opportunities. In this case, it means hustling beyond formulaic banter at recruiting sessions and generic LinkedIn messages” .

To be fair, many people come into Commerce with some idea of pursuing one of the traditional streams. We recognize this, and are not advocating for all students to choose non-traditional career paths. However, there is value in creating an environment where students are encouraged to look beyond the norm. Battista says, “ If you don’t know anybody in Commerce who pursued [what you want to do] successfully, you won’t see it as a viable path. ” Although the onus is on students to seek non-traditional opportunities, the community is responsible for supporting us in our efforts, and that starts with being open to challenging the existing culture.


Bureaucracy & the Vacuum of Pressure: Navigating the Commerce Society

Most students begin their Commerce experience by involving themselves with a club that falls under the Queen’s Commerce Society (ComSoc). ComSoc is the collection of conferences, clubs and businesses that have come to define student life and it serves two functions. First, it helps us explore areas of interest and advance our skills. Second, it provides the structure for us to create our own communities and social circles.

Involvement with a club should be a clear indicator of genuine interest in an industry or aptitude for a skill. Instead, we feel pressured to differentiate ourselves by joining multiple clubs, regardless of interest or aptitude. The sheer number of clubs and club positions means that extracurricular experience, previously seen as a way to stand out during the recruiting process, is now the minimum price of entry. The first figure illustrates how Queen’s Commerce has almost three times the extracurricular positions on a per-student basis relative to similar programs in Canada, and the second figure shows the bloated size of the average club within Commerce.

Figure 1 Data Pulled From: www.smith.queensu.ca , www.cus.ca , www.mus.mcgill.ca , www.ivey.uwo.ca

Is this a sign of success, or a failure of the system? Darren Cole, B.Comm ’15 and Queen’s Recruiting Lead at McKinsey & Company comments on the number of positions saying, “ the fact that up to 40 students may apply for a competitive job with the title of “Co-Chair , in a somewhat perverse way, diminishes the value of Co-Chair roles considerably and non-leadership roles even more ”. The high number of club positions is best exemplified by the Commerce Society Assembly. 58 individuals are tasked with representing and governing a student body of 1,908 students. If the same proportion of Assembly members to the general student population was applied to Canada, this would require an additional 1,100,000 members of parliament, an increase of 3300%.

Figure 2 Data Pulled From: www.smith.queensu.ca , www.cus.ca , www.mus.mcgill.ca , www.ivey.uwo.ca

With the extraordinary number of student positions and significant pressure to join clubs, students are more likely to become involved in organizations they are not passionate about. One driver of this is the Frosh Hiring that occurs in September of first-year. B.Comm ’16 Vasanth Ranganathan describes this process, saying that “ in the vacuum of pressure, first-year students are quickly funneled into place ”. Those who have gone through it surely remember the disorienting first weeks of the program. Many clubs shape their members for a specific industry through exposure to social and professional circles. Given that, is Frosh Hiring the best environment to be making potentially lasting career decisions?

While there is no easy solution for this problem, changing the mind-set of the student body is a step away from apathy and towards progress. Students entering first-year should ask themselves who they want to become and what type of problems they want to solve, not what clubs will hire them or what job they want to attain. The driving force behind any involvement should be self-awareness coupled with a genuine motivation to develop skills, explore a nascent area of interest or build a meaningful social circle.


On Bird Courses: Enabling A Higher Academic Standard

Commerce students like to choose bird courses — ones that require little work to achieve a high grade — as our arts electives. Why is this the case? Because grades factor into the recruiting process, we choose electives that will improve our GPA to better our candidacy for a job. Even after we secure jobs, the complacent mindset of taking the easiest courses often still exists. For students interested in graduate school, the same pressure is placed on selecting electives. The grade-centric system incentivizes Commerce students across all years to choose bird courses as their electives.

This transactional relationship students have with their arts electives is exemplified through several resources. QUbirdhunter.com , birdcourses.com , and numerous Facebook groups help us identify the easiest courses. Unfortunately, no such resources we are aware of exist to help students find the most engaging or best-taught courses. This presents an opportunity for the school to improve the course selection process using data that is already being collected each semester. Publishing a portion of class USATs (University Survey of Student Assessment of Teaching) for non-mandatory electives would offer students a way to objectively identify courses that have been well-received by peers. Amid the resources for finding bird courses, accessible USAT data would allow the student body to evaluate electives more critically. It is disconcerting that crucial academic decisions are currently made with such a patch-work of information.

What are the consequences of us not effectively making use of our electives? The importance of developing an interdisciplinary perspective through intellectually stimulating courses is a subject that has been well represented by Yuting Pan and Max Townsend, both B.Comm ’16, in the Globe and Mail . Pan and Townsend argue that engaging critically with a challenging elective will “ not only remind you why you chose a business education but also allow you to fully utilize it beyond the classroom ”. To balance this with the existing grade-centric system, the implementation of a Personal Interest Credit (PIC) that already exists in Arts and Sciences would allow us to explore areas of interest without being academically penalized.


The Future of Queen’s Commerce: It Starts With You

As a professional program, Queen’s Commerce measures success as the placement of top students at prestigious, world-renowned firms. To this end, the program does a phenomenal job. However, the longstanding success of the Commerce program too often obscures important issues that have wide-ranging implications. The solutions to these problems are not simple and progress will take time. Whether you are just entering Queen’s Commerce or heading into your final semester, we invite you to avoid complacency, remain self-aware and continually question your purpose in the program. If you are in first year, what do you hope to gain over the coming years and what are your long-term goals? If you are in fourth year, what do you wish you had done differently and how can awareness of this help you in the future? To current and former students of the Queen’s Commerce program — what are the consequences if things do not change?

([i]) 2016/2017 By The Numbers. (n.d.). Smith School of Business ‘16/’17 Year in Review , 3–4.