By Devin Connolly – Master of Finance (2021)
A large element of what one might call my ‘professional success’ can be attributed to a rejection from my dream job. After multiple phone calls, endless interviews, two flights, and a draining day in a top-floor conference room, I received a generic rejection email. I remember the feeling, and I remember making the decision to take action. Luckily, this rejection was soon followed by an acceptance letter that would undoubtedly change my life: an admission to MIT Sloan.
As I stepped off the plane at Logan Airport, my mind was racing. Even the moderately-sized Boston made my home city of Dublin, Ireland pale in comparison. Thoughts of friends, family, and two dogs left behind fiercely battled notions of the American dream and opportunity to truly prove myself. Motivated, yes, determined, even more-so, but naïve, even more-so again, I began my MIT journey.
I completed my undergraduate back home at Trinity College Dublin, with a degree in Management Science and Information Systems. I had little professional experience bar a summer at JPMorgan, and little certainty in my career ambitions. I did know, however, that I was fascinated by the relationship between analytics and finance, and that MIT was one of the best places in the world to learn quantitative finance. An inherent desire to find my ceiling, or to be told I am officially out-of-my-depth, drove much of my prior success, and I was relying on that same desire to get through MIT.
The first port of call, setting aside my education, personal life, and interests for a moment, was finding an internship for the summer. To do that, I had to survive the firehose of information that is MIT. With every day came an abundance of coffee chats, free lunches, and information sessions. Without Emily, my trusted CDO advisor, I have no doubt that this firehose would have washed me right back to Dublin. Working closely together, we were able to craft a shortlist of target companies, potential contacts from those companies, and bookmark any upcoming events that may be helpful for me.
These targeted efforts allowed me to finally start making progress on my career journey, and opportunities started to present themselves: a trip to Bank of America in NYC, a lunch-and-learn with PIMCO and the Investment Management Club, a data science career panel from the Business Analytics program, multiple informal phone calls, and even a steak dinner at a high-end Boston restaurant. The trip to Bank of America turned into an application, then a phone interview, and even a ‘super-day’. I had settled in, targeted my search, and had even managed to get to a final round interview. Things were looking good.
Then I remembered the long list of things I conveniently set aside two paragraphs ago. Balancing the above with a 63 credit workload is far from a walk in the park. I, however, was not viewing it through a lens of balancing academics and career exploration. In my eyes, they were complementary. The academics fuelled my career search and exposed me to interesting areas. If you treat classes as interview preparation, and interviews as an application of your education, the challenge instead lies more in picking the right classes and interviews. With the CDO aiding in identifying suitable career opportunities, and my peers and advisors offering a sounding board for course selection, the task seemed less daunting.
Of course, it also helps to not be going into these interviews blind, or developing target lists without any priors. Networking, an oft-feared topic, can work wonders here. With an MIT education comes a wide-reaching and supportive network, and I would urge you to make use of it. My advice to my younger self regarding networking, simply put, would be:
- Be prepared, but not over-prepared. You should have a tangible reason for speaking to every person you connect to, but don’t map out every conversation in advance.
- Don’t waste anyone’s time, especially not your own. If you are struggling to jot down questions in advance, perhaps the conversation is worth saving for another time.
- Not everyone is going to like you, and that’s just life. Furthermore, not everyone will be a connection for life and help you land you dream job, but the rare few will.
- Make connections through connections. The benefits are two-fold: your network expands, and the original connection can pawn you off to somebody else. Win-win.
The night before my Bank of America super-day, I called a ‘Quant’ who worked on the team I was interviewing for. He overviewed the process, gave me his thoughts on the market news, and wished me luck. Prepared, but not over-prepared. Thankfully, the interviews went well, and I was given an offer for the summer.
I fine-tuned my classes in preparation for a difficult summer. Nervous excitement was a new driving force, and I wanted to push myself to be as ready as possible. Alas, we all had dreams and ambitions, but what 2019 giveth, 2020 taketh away. Thankfully, my internship survived, but I was fully virtual. My envisioned evenings on rooftop-bars in SoHo were replaced by Zoom quizzes, and a 55 floor skyscraper was replaced by my bedroom. I could write an independent piece on surviving a virtual internship, but for brevity and your sanity, I will not digress. My internship came and went, I learned a lot, applied my skills as best I could, and attempted to build a professional network in a leading global financial services firm.
Now comes a twist in the tale. If you recall the mention of a steak dinner in Boston earlier in this piece, I assure you it was not simply a vain inclusion. That dinner was with a recruiter from a trading firm in Chicago. The dinner was followed by many phone calls, and even a second dinner. I enjoyed the conversation and learnt a lot, but never expected it to go anywhere. It was clear I was not the typical candidate for the firm, and I was absolutely okay with that. Finding my ceiling was the goal, after all.
In mid-August, I received my official offer letter from Bank of America. I had a two weeks to accept, and was over the moon. As requested, I informed the aforementioned recruiter of my situation. Sparing the details, in the following two weeks I had 9 individual zoom meetings: engaging conversations, programming tests, and grueling technical interviews. With a little over three hours to spare to my deadline, an offer arrived in my inbox. The hours that followed were perhaps the most stressful in my career journey so far. No matter how many conversations I had had on this exact topic previously, I felt overwhelmed by the impending decision. I frantically touched base with contacts from both sides, as well as family and friends, and tried to reach a sensible decision, with the help of many outside opinions.
I was asked to end this piece with some practical advice. In doing so, I refer to my interview with the founder of the aforementioned trading firm. I asked him, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘what makes you guys the best at what you do?’, and the answer is what I wanted to share with you:
‘We don’t hire people who are the same as each other. We want everyone to be orthogonal. If not, when things change, and they will change, we will go the way of the dinosaurs’.
My advice, then, would be to always be aware of what sets you apart. In an industry like this, to even get a chance at an interview you must have the baseline technical ability. I was fortunate enough to have a great education and develop those technicals skills, but I would only be fooling myself if I claimed they were even close to the level of some of my peers. But that’s okay. As a product of my own unique experiences, learnings, and background, I can offer an orthogonal perspective to those already at a company, and that is what I need to sell.
I am thankful I was able to forge my own career path with the help and guidance of the CDO, the MIT community & faculty, and all my peers, friends, and family. In the end, I was delighted to accept an offer with a leading trading firm as a Quantitative Researcher. I called my mother, and while ecstatic, she didn’t quite know what a ‘Quantitative Researcher’ did. A quick Google search later, and it was decided that I was joining the ‘rocket scientists of the finance world’. I’ll take it.