After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and economics in 2011, Tim Maloney decided to stay at Vanderbilt for one more year. Having a master’s in finance, he believed, would be an important differentiator in a difficult job market.
Turns out he was right.
“It’s definitely a really tough job market, but the master’s helped me get the job I wanted,” he says. This past summer Maloney, BS’11, MSF’12, began working at Morgan Stanley as an Analyst. His focus is largely in fixed income, foreign exchange and emerging markets.
Preparing students to enter a variety of finance jobs is at the core of the yearlong Vanderbilt MS Finance program—a goal made all the more important after the financial sector was hit particularly hard with job losses during the recession.
“What we aim to do is give students a broad-based skill set so that they can go into almost any area—banking, investments, corporate finance—and start tackling real problems right away,” says Kate Barraclough, Senior Lecturer of Finance and Faculty Director, MS Finance. “We want them to be able to deal with any type of problem that comes up and deal with it quickly and effectively. They may be starting at entry level, but they should be star performers.”
MS Finance versus MBA
For Maloney, the MS Finance program was not merely a stepping stone to an MBA. “In my field, sales and trading, it may not help to have an MBA,” he says. “Even if I do eventually become a manager, I don’t think I’ll pursue an MBA.”
He’s not alone. Students in the MS Finance program are “seeing it as a terminal degree and they’re not coming back for an MBA,” Barraclough says. “In the six years of the program, there have only been a handful who have come back.”
When compared to MS Finance students, those on the MBA track typically have a bit more job experience, with most pursuing the degree about five years into their careers. MS Finance students, on the other hand, tend to come with fewer than two years’ experience. “There is the benefit with the MS Finance that students don’t have to take two years off to go to business school and then come back to the job market,” Barraclough says.
While the comparisons to the MBA program may be obvious, there’s no sibling rivalry between the two. Students in both programs take classes together, and the MBA students often mentor those in MS Finance. In fact, the MBA program was somewhat responsible for MS Finance being developed in the first place.
“One of the benefits of going to a school like Vanderbilt is that the alumni are so great. Staying connected and keeping the program successful is an important way to give back, but I’m doing it because I think it adds value to my degree.”
“Having a smaller MBA program allowed us to expand our offerings through a portfolio of one-year master’s programs, including the MS Finance,” Barraclough says.
Besides filling an important niche among specialized postgraduate programs, a one-year degree in finance makes sense because Owen is well-stocked with professors who are among the world’s leading experts in the field. The close alignment with the MBA program, however, causes some confusion over which degree a student should pursue.
One rule of thumb for deciding is the student’s career goal: “If someone comes to us with a few years of work experience wanting a less specific finance education or a job in consulting, we’ll typically suggest the MBA path,” Barraclough says. “Do they want a more generalist business education so that they can move into a higher position, or a targeted master’s and an entry-level position? That’s usually the determining factor.”
The MS Finance program also can be useful in switching career focus. Zach Eskelson, MSF’07, Assistant Vice President at Redwood Trust near San Francisco, had worked in account management but found that he wanted a more quantitative finance role. “I started looking at job opportunities and educational options and decided, based on what I wanted to do and my experience, that MS Finance was a better fit for me,” he says.
Master’s degrees in finance are growing in popularity at colleges and universities throughout the country. “It seems like every week we’ve got a new competitor,” Barraclough says. Yet Vanderbilt made Eskelson’s list even though he graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle. He had visited Nashville several times before, and all it took was an official visit to campus to help him make up his mind.
“My decision was made,” he says. “The program is part of the business school. I wasn’t attracted to programs where they were part of the math or engineering schools. The fact that some of the classes were MBA classes—that attracted me. I’d be getting that exposure. There were only a few schools that had that.”
Access to the Very Best
Most students who enroll in the MS Finance program have received their undergraduate degrees elsewhere. In fact, only five of the 41 in last year’s class had attended Vanderbilt for their undergraduate studies.
“Our students tend to come from all over,” Barraclough says. “Students are attracted to the Vanderbilt brand and the strength of our alumni network.”
In addition to Vanderbilt’s overall reputation, it helps that students have access to professors who have authored landmark studies on virtually every aspect of finance. For example, the faculty includes Bob Whaley, the Valere Blair Potter Professor of Management in Finance and Co-director of the Financial Markets Research Center. Among his many industry innovations is the development of the Market Volatility Index (VIX) for the Chicago Board Options Exchange.
“The classroom was generally a really interactive environment,” says Tony Cox, MSF’09. “It was really challenging, so we had to have a lot of interactions outside normal class hours or just talking to faculty in their offices. That kind of interaction was helpful. Being able to pick their brains whenever I wanted was definitely a great part of the experience. Bob Whaley’s class was one that I wanted to take just because he was teaching it. Having the opportunity to be around those people every day made Vanderbilt stand out.”
For Cox, a Financial Analyst with Goldman Sachs, another valuable benefit of a Vanderbilt education is access to the alumni network. “I know I wouldn’t be at Goldman without it,” he says. A graduate of the University of Kentucky, Cox connected with a fellow Kentucky alumnus who had received a master’s from Vanderbilt. Though the two had both schools in common, it was the Vanderbilt alumni network that connected them. “That’s how I was introduced to him and to Goldman and the office here in Atlanta,” he says. “Without that, I don’t think I ever would have had the opportunity to get the job here.”
“The program is a really short runway. Students can come out of undergrad pretty green, and in a short time they have to become accustomed to grad school and be ready to go into the job market.”
Cox represents his class as an Owen Alumni Council representative to ensure that the network remains helpful for those who follow. “Coming in, one of the things that I heard about Vanderbilt was the alumni network was really strong, and not just that they had a lot of alumni at great places, but there was a huge sense of community and people willing to return your calls,” he says. “The alumni network was a big drawing point for me, and I think it will be a big selling point going forward. If someone’s looking at any number of great schools, being able to show that you have an alumni network that’s willing to help you out, that’s something that you can use to compete against anyone. That’s the best resource you can have. It helps to keep the school strong and helps the school recruit.”
Eskelson, an Alumni Council representative for the Class of 2007, agrees. “One of the benefits of going to a school like Vanderbilt is that the alumni are so great,” he says. “Staying connected and keeping the program successful is an important way to give back, but I’m doing it because I think it adds value to my degree.”
Pursuing a master’s degree in what amounts to nine months creates an intensity, with every minute made to matter. It also forges deep relationships that carry on for years after graduation. “At University of Kentucky, it was easy to go through and not make a lot of connections,” Cox says. “Part of it was that you went from semester to semester and may never have had another class with someone. At Owen we had classes with the same people all the time. You really had to rely on your fellow classmates to make it through.”
Exposure to MBA students also makes a big difference, both inside the classroom and in extracurricular activities like the Owen Finance Club, which offers programming specifically for MS Finance students. Since many of the MBA students have had several years of work experience, their insight as mentors and career coaches is particularly valuable.
“Coming out of an undergraduate program and into a master’s is a different teaching environment,” Barraclough says. “Being in a classroom with a group of people who have, on average, five years under their belts is a wonderful experience for MS Finance students. They get a different style of learning, and they’re exposed to people with some background in their areas of interest.”
Ready for the Working World
Students in the MS Finance program usually fall into two categories: economics and finance undergraduates who want to differentiate themselves in the job search, or liberal arts majors wanting to home in on a career. The first semester follows a core curriculum, while the second allows a student to specialize in an area of finance based primarily on where they’d like to work, such as in corporate finance or at an investment firm.
Much of the academic year is devoted to the job search process. In fact, for many the job search often begins much earlier. Owen’s Career Management Center is in contact with students before they arrive on campus, and quite a few pursue internships the summer before classes start.
Sheila Swedberg, MSF’12, didn’t start quite that early, but might as well have. After receiving a bachelor’s in business from Boston University, she worked in accounting at a university for two years—long enough to determine she didn’t want that as a career. Arriving at Vanderbilt in mid-August 2011 (MS Finance students come two weeks early to plan for courses and career preparation), she immediately set to work on finding a job.
“We were told that there has to be an equal balance of school work, personal life and job search,” she says. “You can’t put too much effort in one area. That approach was new to me. When I’ve been in school, the message has been, ‘Focus on school work. Everything else will work out later.’”
Swedberg took advantage of the exposure to MBA students and the Owen Finance Club. She also participated in mock interviews through the club and set goals for herself, which she then emailed to the CMC’s career coach assigned to MS Finance students.
By November 2011—more than six months before graduation—she had landed a position as a Financial Analyst at Caterpillar Financial Services in Nashville. “There’s a lot of emphasis on networking, which was somewhat new to me,” Swedberg says. “I was terrible at it before, but it became a process of learning how to talk to people, making connections, reaching out and hoping that something will materialize from it.”
The MS Finance program is perhaps best described as a “really short runway,” says Barraclough. “Students can come out of undergrad pretty green, and in a short time they have to become accustomed to grad school and be ready to go into the job market.”
With such a rapid turnaround, every interaction with students matters—and translates into the working world. For Cox, it was the emphasis on communications. “The curriculum stressed it so much early on, from orientation and all the way through the first set of classes,” he says. “It was one of the biggest insights I got.”
He also gained technical skills, like something as simple as using Excel, which has helped him in his work. And then there is the intangible aspect that comes with the confidence of being able to engage in high-level discussions with fellow students and professors. “Because it was such an interactive and dynamic environment, being able to take the things that we were learning and turn them into a conversation was hugely helpful,” Cox says. “I interact with clients every day where I’m able to take what we see in the markets and distill it.”
For Eskelson, working at a small boutique firm has required virtually every aspect of his degree. For instance, the accounting courses have provided a high level of understanding about financial statements. “That has probably been the one single skill that lots and lots of people with high titles don’t have. Understanding complex financial instruments and being able to talk intelligently helped me get the job. It’s not that I can come into the job and do it immediately, but it is valuable being able to understand what, to most of the world, is very opaque.”
Vanderbilt MS Finance graduates may not be ruling the world of finance just yet, but they’re working their way up the ladder, reaching a hand behind to help those a few rungs below on the alumni network.
“Most of the people in my class have been lucky and have had some success in their careers over the last couple of years,” Eskelson says. “If I were to look for another job, that would be one of the first resources I would reach out to. I know people keep in touch and let each other know when they’ve moved. If someone came to me, I’d try to help them out, and other people would do the same.”