How to Optimize Your Education

On 03/26/2011, in Formal Education, by Jordan Wilson

I was asked by a reader for recommendations on universities that specialize in “wealth management” or “investment banking” studies.

It is difficult to give specific recommendations as there are so many variables that go into the right choice for each different individual. Cost, courses offered, area of specialization, distance from home, friends, location, commute, extracurricular activities, etc. All these play a part in determining the best option for a student.

And, as she is based in Singapore, my direct knowledge of universities in the region is limited. If any readers have advice, please leave a comment.

However, I can provide a few general comments on where and what to study.

How to optimize your education and increase the probability of a successful career.

My examples are finance related, but the principles relate to any field of study. 

Elite Universities in General

Certain universities around the world are considered the “best” in a general sense. Many are recognizable to most people. Yale, Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Tokyo, Zurich, and so on.

I previously wrote about this in Finding the “Best” University.

Unless you are independently wealthy or are in a special situation where attending one of these schools will not bankrupt you, I suggest you do not set your sights on attending these perceived best schools. I do not think that the payoff in contacts and employment adequately offset the investment.

For a little more analysis on the subject, please read My View of Elite Universities.

Finance Specific Universities

The “best” schools above may or may not have the top finance programs.

Often the “best” schools are known for their general studies or certain specific fields.

For example, Oxford and Cambridge are elite universities in the U.K. with a high general level of excellence. They also have good business programs. But I might be slightly more interested in someone from the London School of Business, Cranfield School of Management, or Henley Business School at the University of Reading. Lesser known schools, but with extremely high rated Masters of Business Administration (MBA) programs in the U.K.

So if you are going to pay for an elite school, do your homework and find one that is highly rated in your desired field.

You may never have heard of Cranfield or Henley, but finance executives in the U.K. and Europe will know their reputations.

University is Not the Only Option

University is not the only way to develop finance relevant skills. There are a variety of other educational options that exist.

Companies may hire high school graduates and train them in-house. I know many senior staff in European banks that do not possess university degrees. Rather, they were hired straight from high school and trained in banking, finance, etc., through employee training programs. Some would call it apprenticeships. The system can work well as the training is extremely focussed on company requirements.

There are many technical schools that provide excellent training as well. In fact, many professional organizations work directly with certain technical skills to teach their curriculum.

These options can provide strong skill sets while not bankrupting you.

It is Less the School Than You

If I am hiring someone straight out of university, where you went to school might carry some weight. Mainly because you have no real world experience or other training.

But I am more focussed on your knowledge level than on where you where you went to school or even the grades you received.

Attending Yale or Tokyo might look nice, but if you did not take the requisite courses to work in my unit you will have difficulty landing the job.

Also, I put little emphasis on grades. There is so much grade inflation these days, it is impossible to compare grades between graduates of different schools.

Instead, I like to assess each candidate’s knowledge level by asking specific questions as well as hypotheticals. Actually knowing how to handle a specific situation tells me much more than if you received 87% on your Finance 305 final.

So learn the skills needed to successfully fulfill the position. That is more important than where you went to school or the marks received.

Develop Complementary Skills in School

Learn as much as you can about finance in university.

But there are ancillary skills you should learn as well.

While in school, I suggest you take courses that complement finance specific topics. Especially in areas where you may want to develop a career.

Both investment banking and wealth management have multiple sub-sections.

Financial accounting and statistics are important skills in all sub-fields. In fact, I believe that a strong financial accounting background is a cornerstone for success in most finance related positions. And in general business as well.

The ability to properly write and communicate is another important skill for all fields.

But perhaps you want to be in a client-facing role. Marketing, languages, interpersonal skills, and presenting are also areas to develop skills.

Or maybe you want to work in Mergers & Acquisitions. Knowledge of law, tax, and business combinations can be beneficial.

Determine the area within finance in which you want to work. Then ensure you possess the complementary skills to be successful in that area.

Continuing Education is Important

Undergraduate degrees do not provide a strong basis for work in the financial field.

You will learn some basics, but university just touches on the surface.

This is true regardless of the school you attend.

A lot of what you really learn will be on the job training and supplementary education you do on your own.

If planning to work in finance, an advanced finance, accounting or law degree can be an asset.

MBAs are popular for many. MBAs can be especially useful to those with undergraduate degrees in non-business fields (e.g., engineering, health care). There are also MBA programs geared for those already in the work-force. They offer classes at night, on weekends, or in shortened fast-track programs.

Professional financial accounting designations are well regarded for those entering finance.

The Chartered Financial Analyst is probably the main professional designation for those working in finance and investing sectors.

Also, depending on your financial speciality, there are a variety of sub-sector specific designations available for financial planners, business valuators, personal bankers, investment bankers, investment advisors, insurers, etc.

For a little more information on a few different finance career paths, please read An Investment Banking Career and CFA versus CFP.

As an added benefit, many companies will assist employees, either financially or in time off to study, in pursuing additional expertise.

Extracurricular Activities

Some call this informal education.

Your hobbies, affiliations, part-time jobs, and activities can also develop relevant skills for use in your long-term career.

This is another area where you can set yourself apart from the competition.

Instead of house painting in the summer, why not take less money and try to work in a bank or investment firm. Even if you have to be an intern at little to no salary. Consider the money you lose in summer income an investment in your future career.

You will see what it is like to work in that environment (you may hate it!), make some contacts, and have something that looks great on the resume. Plus, sacrificing pay for the experience shows future employers that you are serious about learning the business and doing what it takes to be a success.

Or volunteer your time. You could help seniors prepare their taxes. Maybe work with a service organization (e.g., Rotary). These activities will teach you some skills and let you meet professionals in various industries. Professionals who you can ask questions of and use as personal contacts in the future.

Learn a foreign language or spend time in a different country studying. In today’s global marketplace, an understanding of other cultures, as well as other languages, gives you a competitive advantage in landing a job.

Join Toastmasters, or a similar group, to work on your communication and public speaking skills. Interaction with clients, peers, and senior management is a daily event at work. Knowing how to properly communicate and present is a valuable skill.

There are thousands of things you can do that will strengthen the indirect skills required to succeed in finance or most other business sectors.

And outside of your time and energy, they do not cost much, if anything.

Bottom Line

When comparing two identical candidates, where each went to school might carry some weight. And often, contacts made at certain elite schools can help find jobs better than the network developed at smaller universities.

But for the most part, where you get your technical training is much less important than what you actually know.

And personally, I would rather see a job candidate that invested wisely in his or her education than someone that went into substantial debt just to go to an elite school.

Identify the area you might want to specialize in and then develop the relevant technical skills for that field. Give yourself some flexibility in case the area you currently desire turns out to be not what you really want.

Through formal and informal education, along with personal activities, add important ancillary skills to your arsenal. Valuable complementary skills will separate you from the pack of candidates with identical financial education.

Most employers I know really look at the informal education.

This area tells us whether you get it or not. Do you display the intelligence to identify what is needed to improve your skills. And do you show the initiative and drive to develop those talents and experiences. It is difficult for companies to teach an employee drive and initiative. When we find someone that exhibits those skills they move to the top of the resume pile.

Employers want to know that you possess the actual skills needed to perform your job. And that you have the drive to complete your tasks successfully.

That is what counts.

Not whether you went to Oxford or Yale.





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