Business school is about academics, networking, and, ultimately, getting a job. Because my classmates were pretty successful before they enrolled at Columbia, you'd figure that securing other gigs wouldn't be too difficult. That wasn't the case in the summer of 2008.
In B-school, the recruiting season begins in early September, especially for the financial services and banking industry. The key component to assuring that you'll enjoy the second-year MBA "senior" status is receiving an offer after a successful summer internship. This past summer at Credit Suisse (CS) in New York City, I completed a 10-week rotational program across four sales and trading desks (international equity, credit, interest rates, and prime brokerage). Covering this wide an array of products and divisions, I was able to see IPOs launch; learn about the interconnected credit default swap, U.S. Treasury, and corporate bond markets; and better understand how an investment bank lends securities and supports hedge fund strategies with capital. As a career changer, being immersed in Wall Street's bulge bracket is exactly what I needed to reaffirm the career goals I'd set before business school.
I became intrigued with the financial markets starting in 1997, during a high school stock investing exercise. The dynamic nature of the markets is a constant adrenaline rush to me—the only comparison I can make is a mission through central Baghdad. On the trading floor, there's nothing more suspenseful than a highly anticipated earnings or economic indicator announcement, or better yet an interest rate decision from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Despite my initial passion for equities, I also chose to explore the fixed-income division, as I had just completed first-year elective courses on the capital and debt markets.
As one of 13 summer associates, I worked closely on projects with MBA students from business schools across the nation. In sharing the same experiences, we became a very close-knit bunch and would often huddle at a local bar after hours, discussing strategies on how to best navigate the process. Contrary to the popular perception of highly driven MBAs, competition was of little concern because there was clearly room for each of us to learn and to add value to the firm.
As a summer associate, my primary job was to observe, ask intelligent questions, develop a view of the market, and analyze its relevance to the profitability of clients as well as to the desk and the firm. However, because I wasn't a licensed broker, my job also occasionally required delivering coffee or lunch, answering phones, and grasping the desk's product enough to successfully pass a quiz or two from a trader with a moment to spare. More frequently, though, it required generating a stock pitch and presenting my investment recommendation to peers, mentors, and senior management, or compiling a correlated basket of stocks that would most likely decline in value in the event of an economic downturn.
Overall, the recruiters did a great job of introducing us to different areas of the firm and assigning both junior and senior professionals as mentors. Also, the candid and actionable feedback I received during and at the end of the internship helped to focus my final academic year's efforts. The internship really opened my eyes to the valuation and economics skill sets that I had already gained in my first year at Columbia, and inspired me to build upon that base. More importantly, the summer at Credit Suisse showed me how little I knew about trading and Wall Street in general. Despite having an offer in hand, I'm continuing up that learning curve. This semester, I've signed up for options, securities analysis, and advanced derivatives courses and I will tackle the Chartered Financial Analyst exams in June.
Harrell is an MBA student at Columbia Business School, Class of 2009.