Alumni Column: Applying Liberal Arts to the Real World

Sarah Dyer '91

When I was interviewing for entry-level Wall Street jobs after graduating from Colgate in 1991, my conversations with potential employers invariably turned to my academic background. I was a Philosophy and Religion major, vying for a job at a brand name financial services firm. I was drawn to investment management (the business of investing institutional clients’ assets so that they will be able to meet their future obligations), as opposed to investment banking or sales and trading. I preferred this route because this business made the most sense to me, and I felt that I could more readily identify with the folks who were interviewing me.

They, however, often had a harder time making sense of me. I was repeatedly asked to justify how my studies in philosophy and religion would prepare me to understand the financial markets and address clients’ return expectations and appetites for financial risk. Early on, I used a thoughtful, well-polished defense of the liberal arts tradition, but I soon found that humor was more effective in clearing this interview hurdle. I offered that most successful investors readily admit that prayer is the common component in winning investment strategies, and I had received excellent training in the companion skills of supplication and optimism.

The question of how the liberal arts prepares you for success on Wall Street is a reasonable one, however, and it deserves a more reasoned answer. Since my days of pounding the pavement looking for an investment job, it seems that every financial market has globalized. Moreover, investment decision-making now relies heavily on technology (for trading, research and analysis, portfolio construction and risk management),and regulators struggle to keep pace with product and service innovation.

While financial professionals with highly specialized technical skills are increasingly essential, those with classic educations in the humanities, social sciences or natural sciences remain well suited for client-oriented, strategic and executive roles on Wall Street. The ability to read with deep comprehension, aggregate information and differing opinion, analyze and explain, and write persuasively – the dividends of a liberal arts education – make financial executives with liberal arts backgrounds both more inclined and better able to understand and manage their clients’ needs and tolerance for disappointment.

A liberal arts education may also help you be a more insightful investor.

Students of the liberal arts are naturally curious about complex and rapidly changing structures, and they have been schooled to consider and weigh historical, political, social, scientific and economic factors when making judgments about the world. When these skills are applied to the art of risking client capital, the result is a well studied and carefully executed program or service that should satisfy demanding clients.

Wall Street also needs liberal arts graduates to help them succeed in the global war for talent. Wall Street firms are simply talent communities sitting on a capital base. Those who are best able to understand a firm’s strategic direction and then recruit, manage and retain the most talented people to achieve its goals, seem to end up in the executive suite. As Thomas L. Friedman makes clear in The World is Flat, A Brief History of the Twenty First Century, the best professionals for today’s and tomorrow’s business opportunities are increasingly not sourced from the traditional American talent pools. Through classroom, residential and campus leadership experiences liberal arts are prepared to comprehend the direction of history, embrace cultural and intellectual diversity and are sensitive to personal narratives. This means that they should be particularly good at attracting talent and creating appealing work environments for future “gold-collar” workers.

Finally, the skills honed at liberal arts colleges also help build the intangible quality of credibility, the greatest contributor to personal success on Wall Street. Credibility allows clients and colleagues to be confident in an executive’s abilities when technical skills are lacking, when the markets are hostile, and when he or she must deliver disappointing results.

So if you are worried that your history or psychology degree will get tepid reception at your upcoming Merrill Lynch interview, try the “credibility” hook, or perhaps suggest that you are seeking practical field experience that will make you a better CEO one day.