Cure the 'Nowhere University' Syndrome

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You completed your BA seven years ago and your MBA two years ago - both at public universities. Your rivals boast Ivy degrees. So, what do you do?

A second- or third-tier educational background can be a significant handicap in the world of finance, where hiring managers often look to academic pedigree as shorthand for intellectual ability. But a low-prestige degree is not an absolute barrier.

"I know a lot of portfolio managers who went to SUNY (State University of New York) at Albany and are running hundreds of millions of dollars," says Kyle J. Ramkissoon, principal and founding member of IJC Partners LLC, a New York search firm that specializes in recruiting for hedge funds.

We asked a career counselor, a recruiter and a college career development director what candidates can do to overcome the lack of a glittering academic institution on their resume.

Use networking, says Phyllis Rosen, a New York career counselor. "Getting yourself referred in can really overcome a great deal of resistance or competition you might be facing as a result of your resume," she says. If a hiring manager got your name through someone they trust, you come in with "a warm call, as opposed to a cold call." That can make all the difference.

Seek Out Fellow Alumni

Other career authorities agree that personal contacts are the best tool for opening doors that your background won't. "The bottom line is, you have to get out and meet and greet people, and you have to be creative and do that in every way possible," says Patricia Imbimbo, director of the Starr Career Development Center at Baruch College, a part of the City University of New York.

She advises candidates to start by calling their school's career services office to inquire about alumni networking events. Also, ask about other ways you might be able to contact fellow alumni who could help you explore particular employers. Some schools, for example, maintain online directories of alumni.

Many colleges and graduate schools devote substantial resources to helping both students and alumni link up with others who can help them advance their careers. Baruch, for instance, has alumni who work on Wall Street lead workshops and discussions for undergraduate finance students, talking about both their functional roles and the companies they work in. It also maintains a list of alumni within various financial services firms who have agreed to be contacted, participate in informational interviews or mentor students and graduates.

Getting Noticed, and Other Tactics

Taking visible roles in industry groups or publications is another effective tactic. Serving on association governing boards, panels or working groups can showcase both your commitment and expertise in a chosen specialty, Rosen observes. The same goes for publishing research or articles in your field, or establishing a specialized Web site or blog. However, Rosen cautions that anything you showcase on your own site should be "of high level, high caliber." On a blog, that can be more difficult than most people realize.

Crafting an effective resume is vital for any job-seeker, but all the more so for those whose education doesn't stand out. Ramkissoon recalls one candidate who had to revise his resume four times before it was presentable. The candidate had omitted many essential details, wrongly assuming they would be self-evident from the names of employers and other information in the document.

Well-written cover letters also matter, because analysts do a lot of writing.

Imbimbo stresses the need to keep one's skills up-to-date, and to present them effectively in meetings with decision-makers.

If You're Still in School

Some avenues for closing the gap exist only while you're still in school. Top grades in college and top scores on standardized tests make a difference, says Ramkissoon. The majority of hedge funds demand to see high-school SAT scores, he says - even from candidates with years of work experience.

Ramkissoon concedes that college grades and SAT scores carry less weight than the ranking of the school itself. Indeed, after three or more years in the work force, grades and test scores usually have negligible influence, while the college or MBA school you attended continues to matter. Still, many employers view the top graduates from lesser institutions as intellectually on a par with candidates from the middle of the pack in elite institutions. Hedge fund employers "are not so foolish as to pass up someone because of a school," Ramkissoon says.

Internships are another important potential equalizer. While bulge-bracket firms typically recruit interns only from top-tier universities, Ramkissoon says boutique banks are open to interns from other backgrounds.

How about you? Do you think your degree is a help or a hindrance to your career? Join the debate!

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