RHYS McDONALD – From Marine Corps to Wall Street

I have been waiting for this story for a long time. A very special one, as it comes from an American friend. I have shared a lot of success stories of international students on this page, but I also want to emphasize that even American students have to work really hard to get a good job in this country.

After serving several years in the Marine Corps, Rhys enrolled in college and his journey from a non-target school, limited work experience background to a top investment bank on Wall Street is just purely amazing and admirable.

Hats off to your hard work and dedication Rhys!!!

Rhys McDonald CS 2015

I served in the US military for several years, where I accumulated a deep appreciation for hard work and adversity that would serve me well in the coming years. I enrolled at Brandeis because I had built a strong foundation in Arabic linguistics. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a career, but figured that playing to my existing strengths was as good a starting point as any. I decided to double major in the Brandeis Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies program, as well as the Business program, because international business was an intriguing field, and seemed to offer more opportunity than just a language background.

When I had approximately one year of study remaining, I decided to minor in IMES and to double major in Business and Economics. I was discovering an appreciation for the stronger quantitative focus in an Econ degree and thought that it would serve me better in the long run.

I had spent my summers in summer school. Trying to complete my degree in as little time as possible, in order to limit the amount of student loans that I would accumulate. This created a problem – I had no summer internships. In order to make myself more competitive, I applied (and accepted admission) to a 5 year Master’s program, and immediately started looking for opportunities to overcome this weakness. In my first semester in the Master’s program, I applied to a unique field study opportunity hosted by one of the professors on campus. I was one of 5 students to be accepted by the professor, and we developed a quantitative trading model that would use social media data to outperform the market. The conclusions ended up being immaterial at best, but I learned a TON about quantitative trading and working with enormous data sets, and more importantly, had something interesting to put on my resume and discuss during interviews, that helped mitigate the fact that I had no internships.

About halfway through the semester, a bulge bracket investment bank was doing a limited recruiting run on campus, for the investment banking and sales and trading departments. I submitted my resume and was lucky enough to get a phone interview with the S&T interviewers. I brushed up on my macro-economic knowledge, rehearsed the details about the trading strategy that we had built in the field study, checked current events, and outlined a currency trading strategy that I thought would interest the interviewing team. I was completely destroyed in the interview. They listened briefly to my story about the field study, and then changed the subject immediately. They wanted me out of my comfort zone. The interviewers poked holes in my market knowledge and aggressively challenged all aspects of the currency trading strategy that I had prepared. It was a disaster. I received an email about an hour and a half after the interview, informing me that they were going to move forward with other candidates. It was devastating. I felt completely unprepared for the onslaught. However, I sat down the following weekend and thought about everything I could have done better, and made a plan to improve my knowledge and skill in those areas.

From this point on, I constantly thought that every moment of free time that I had should be dedicated to improving my chances in interviews. Every hour that I was not reading or studying was an hour wasted.

My next opportunity arose when an alumni team from a consulting firm in Boston came to Brandeis to recruit for summer interns. The career office email included the names of the professionals who would be attending, and I researched them vigorously. I stalked their LinkedIn profiles, I read their bios on the company website, and I even read all of the research papers that they had published, in order to have some talking points if I could get them to talk to me after the campus presentation.

On the day of the presentation, all went according to plan. They presented the company and the nature of their work, took questions, and spent some time networking with students afterwards. I was strategic. I arrived to the class early, and picked a seat close to the door so I could be the first student to speak with them, or try to cut them off as they were leaving. I had printed notes on their personal research that I referenced throughout the presentation and when it had finished, I struck up a conversation with the Managing Director of the team. It worked beautifully. I applied for the internship online, and sent him an email referencing our conversation. I received an invite to interviews in their office next week within a few hours.

Over the next few days, I reviewed everything I could find on the company, their contracts, their charitable work, the technical skills that they used, members of the team and the schools that they had gone too, anything in the news, everything. After the experience with the investment bank, I felt so much more prepared, and ready for anything. During the superday, I interviews with six professionals, and felt that I had shined in both “fit” and “technical” interviews. I talked at length about my statistics and econometrics background (strongly supplemented by my field study experience) and every single interview felt that it had gone extremely well. I left the office feeling great. Two hours later, my hopes were dashed- they had decided to move forward with other candidates. I spent the next weekend re-examining my performance in the interviews, and brainstorming everything that could have possibly gone wrong. I made a list of things that I could do to improve, and did everything I could to shore up these weaknesses for the next interview that I would get.

The next opportunity arose when a local boutique investment bank came to campus for interviews. The career office asked for resumes, and I polished mine up and sent it in immediately. I was selected for an interview with the team and I felt that I had really improved from my previous experiences. The interview went extremely well; it was much more “fit” oriented than the consulting interviews that I had just gone through. I didn’t have the best knowledge of investment banking as a field (particularly with regard to boutique banks and how they operated) but I felt that I overcame this weakness with technical skill and a demonstrated ability to work hard. I am also from a small country town in the western United States, and the interviewer and I both shared a passion for fly fishing. Once the conversation went down that route, I really felt that I had it in the bag. However, two hours after the interview, I received an email. Disaster. The boutique had decided to move ahead with other candidates.

Initially, I wasn’t sure where I had gone wrong, but eventually decided that I needed to attack the weaknesses in my own knowledge. These guys were asking technical questions that I had no exposure to in school, and so I started to compile a list of books that I could devour in my free time to bolster the areas in which I felt weakest.

At this point, it was March, and I was getting extremely anxious. Internship deadlines were passing every day, and I spent several hours after class researching firms, tailoring resumes, sending emails, and reading. I eventually received an email back from the recruiter for a small private equity firm in the South-Western United States. It was 3,500 miles away from my family, and it would barely pay enough to cover living expenses for the summer. However, the work seemed interesting (there’s not many private equity internship opportunities for undergrads) and time was running out. I arranged a phone interview with the recruiter and offered to send some of my school work in order to give them a better idea of what I was capable. I had accumulated some strong interview experience from my previous failures and brought all of it to bear. I came off as polished, knowledgeable, hungry, yet respectful. They ended up offering the position after two rounds of interviews. There was a catch though- there was no hope of a full-time offer at the end of the summer. I took it anyway, and at the start of the summer I headed out to do two things- listen and learn!

In May, I showed up for work at the office building in New Mexico, right next to the state senator’s office. The team for which I would be working outlined what they expected of me, and I set to work aggressively and diligently. It felt so good to be relied upon, and to get some real, actionable experience, and to be exposed to working in finance. I set to work, auditing financial statements for investment vehicles, benchmarking private equity investments, and reviewing investment opportunities provided to us by investment banks around the country. But something always stuck in the back of my mind- there was no full time opportunity at the end of this tunnel. However, I finally started to get a sense of direction. As I reviewed banking pitches and sat in on phone calls, I realized that I loved the work these guys were doing, and I needed to end up at an investment bank. I spent my work days attacking my tasks vigorously, but I also started to reach out to people at the firms we were working with. I spent every evening after work researching firms, studying investment banking technical knowledge, and writing emails with requests for informational interviews. I spent my lunch hours on the phone, learning everything I could from these people on how to pursue a career path in investment banking, constantly focusing on overcoming my limited internship experience.

Eventually, I spoke with some gentlemen at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, and they gave me the cold, hard truth- large investments banks have a very strict, regimented recruiting process, and it would be near impossible for someone with my profile (limited internship experience, 3.6 GPA, non-target school) to get an interview.

I laid awake at night constantly thinking about those conversations, and eventually decided that if I couldn’t get into a bulge bracket bank, I would hunt down opportunities to get a job at a boutique instead, and cross over to a larger bank later.

During my lunch break one day, I came across an opportunity to intern at a boutique investment bank in Boston over the fall. I immediately jumped on the opportunity and sent in my resume. I would figure out what to do with my fall school schedule later. For the next few days, I spent every free moment I had researching the partners of the bank, their sector expertise, and recent transactions. Soon after, it came! One of the recruiters contacted me and set up an interview. I made sure to mention that I had found some of their recent deals interesting, and she was very impressed that I knew the partners that spearheaded them. She set me up for another interview with one of the analysts, and I prepared immediately by finding his LinkedIn profile and looking for common ground. It worked out beautifully. None of his technical questions caught me unprepared, and I had done my homework to see what he was interested in, and we found common ground. The interview quickly turned into a friendly conversation, and shortly after, I had an offer to intern at the bank when I returned to Boston in the fall.

This did not prevent me from pouring my heart and soul into my work for the private equity firm, of course. They were extremely impressed with my hard work and dedication, and I still speak with my former supervisor to this day.

When I returned to Massachusetts in the fall, my school schedule was the obvious obstacle. It’s not easy to intern for 50 hours a week and go to school, but with some shuffling during the final enrollment period, I was able to work something out. This was my first taste of investment banking, and within a month of the internship, I decided that this was where I wanted to end up. Better yet, the bank was hosting superdays for its full time positions in the late fall, and all of the current interns (including me) were guaranteed first round interviews. I worked long and hard, jumping at every opportunity to assist the analysts in their deals. When I received a task, I would complete it was quickly and correctly as I could, and never hesitated to ask questions, always asking for more work when I was done. Things were going great, and when I interviewed for the full time position, it was with two analysts for whom I had consistently provided quality work. I felt great about the outcome.

Unfortunately, disaster once again. They decided to move ahead with other candidates.

Knowing that the internship at this boutique was ultimately going nowhere, I redoubled my efforts. Every lunch hour was spent in informational interviews, and every train ride to and from Boston was spent studying technical knowledge, brain teasers, and reading the Wall Street Journal. I even downloaded a mental math app on my phone, so that when I had nothing to read, I could practice math problems in my head.

Eventually I received an invite to interview with the technology investment banking group of a large international bank in San Francisco. This came after going through several networking calls and two formal rounds of phone interviews. They provided me with a case study to prepare and booked me a flight to California. On the big day, I went through six rounds of interviews, getting absolutely grilled by associates, vice presidents, and directors. I acquitted myself well, and only made a few minor mistakes. On my way out the door, I made sure to thank the directors with whom I had interviewed over the phone, and they assured me that they looked forward to bringing me aboard. Once back in Boston, I eagerly awaited that golden email.

It never came. The recruiting team emailed me nearly six weeks later, saying the position never opened up, and even though they liked me, they would not be able to extend me an offer. I was crushed. It wasn’t over though. Two of the directors were so impressed with me that they offered to refer me to a position at the bank in New York, in the Convertibles and Equity Linked Origination Group. It wasn’t long before I had gone through several rounds of phone interviews and was on my way to a superday in New York.

Even though I had a great interview lined up, I kept looking for opportunities. Those same directors were able to help me get an interview with their Technology, Media & Telecom group, and I landed an interview in person with a managing director at a boutique bank in Connecticut. At this point in time, I was in the middle of three fantastic investment banking opportunities- and they ALL fell through. I wasn’t able to secure a single offer, and I didn’t really understand why. I realized that I was missing something, and set out to find out exactly what it was.

At this point, I was still interning at the boutique in Boston, and on every train ride before and after work, I thought about what I could do. Eventually, I did the single best thing I could’ve possibly done to maximize my chances of landing a job in investment banking. No more phone interviews. From now on, I was going to do everything I could to meet bankers in person. It’s one thing to speak to a candidate on the phone and refer them to the recruiting team; it’s an entirely different matter to be able to say, “I’ve met this candidate, they have what it takes.” At this point, I was on winter vacation from school, and my internship at the bank in Boston was drawing to a close.

Within a few weeks of this newfound strategy, I had landed informational interviews with managing directors at several large banks in New York City, and all of them were in person. The results of the interviews were mixed – all of them were impressed with me and were willing to help. However, the recruiting timeline was against me. All of their banks had finished recruiting at non-target schools for the year, and the chances of me getting into the recruiting process were almost zero. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel. One of them turned out to be the head of the investment banking department’s recruiting committee for one of the Ivy League schools. He told me that even though I was a student from a non-target school, he was so impressed with me that he would have the recruiters give me a spot in his Ivy League superday.

This was the moment that I had been waiting for. I went from interning at a small private equity shop in the South-Western United States, to interviewing in New York City alongside Ivy League candidates at one of the most prestigious investment banks in the world. I had been to New York City superdays several times before, knew how brutal it was going to be, and held nothing back. I had an opportunity to put the experience and pain from dozens of interviews into a sincere, polished package. It was also the last superday of the recruiting season, and failure meant losing my dream. They grilled me on corporate finance and investment banking technical, market knowledge, and brain teasers. I felt that I was ready for everything, with a few exceptions that caught me off guard. But this was the process that I had learned in previous interviews. The intent wasn’t to discover what you know. It was to discover the limits of your knowledge, and how you reacted under pressure when confronted with something that you didn’t know.
I returned to Boston soberly, to await the decision. The spring semester started and it was a cold Wednesday evening when the call came. The recruiting team excitedly offered me a chance to join the investment banking department, and congratulated me on the accomplishment. They were even happier when I accepted immediately.

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