Having a strong interest in investment management companies made this a very exciting opportunity for me; I actually met someone who works for the company that invented the investment vehicle known as the exchange-traded fund (ETF) in 1993. This is the moment you hear about when seeking out the right degree program, the moment where you have the chance to connect with Alums in your field of interest.
Interview with Pia McCusker, MSF '00
[NP] Could you describe your educational background?
[PM] I graduated from Brandeis University with a bachelor’s degree in both Economics and American Studies in 1992. After a few years of work experience, I knew I needed a graduate degree to further my career. As such, I returned to Brandeis, participating in the inaugural class for the Master of Science in Finance (MSF) program at Brandeis International Business School. It was a great experience given the small class size – roughly 20 students – many of whom I still keep in touch with today.
[NP] Why did you choose Brandeis IBS for your MSF?
[PM] I was actually working at Brandeis University at the time as an assistant budget director. The budget director and current professor at Brandeis IBS, Alfonso Canella, is a close friend and mentor to me. He advised me to participate in the MSF program concurrently with my job. I was able to take a class during the day in lieu of my lunch, and evening courses after work. Looking back, I wouldn’t be where I am today if I had not taken Professor Canella’s advice. It was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever followed through!
[NP] Did you have a favorite class?
[PM] I don’t recall a particular favorite class, but I do remember taking a class with Professor Edward Bayone on bank credit analysis. I wouldn’t mind participating in a few lectures in Financial Modelling being taught by Professor Canella today.
[NP] Could you tell us what your career path was like leading up to your current role?
[PM] Graduating in 1992 into a challenging environment was difficult. Fortunately, I had an internship at Fleet Bank that became a permanent position after my graduation. I joined Fleet Bank as a Financial Analyst in their Managed Asset Division (MAD). It was a great experience, as the team worked on acquiring Bank of New England’s portfolio.
I was asked to relocate to Providence, RI, post Fleet’s acquisition of Shawmut Bank, which I was unable to consider at the time. Soon after, in 1994, I returned to Brandeis University, this time as a budget analyst at the University’s Budget and Finance department. It was definitely an eye opening experience being “on the other side of the fence”.
After two years, I took a Financial Analyst position at Molten Metal Technology. It was a start-up technology company in the field of hazardous waste recycling. Being young, it was an opportunity worth taking the risk. Vice President Al Gore visited the company and cited MMT “as the best example of American ingenuity”. The stock price sky rocketed to $25, and then quickly tumbled down to 25 cents when most of the company’s activities in research and development (R&D) never took off. Again, it was an eye opening experience, reviewing pro-forma financial statements with senior management and making decisions to lay-off people.
Soon after MMT went bankrupt, I returned to the safe confines at Brandeis, this time as an Assistant Budget Director under Professor Canella. While painful, working and attending graduate school at the same time, it was absolutely worth it. After graduating in 2000 with my MSF in tow, I accepted a position at State Street Global Markets as a Senior Associate in their Structured Products group. Fourteen years later, I am still at State Street; within the asset management group at State Street Global Advisors as Global Head of Credit Research. State Street has been a great organization in terms of learning, growing, and expanding my career.
[NP] What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
[PM] The best part of the job is that I don’t have set “day-to-day” responsibilities. I suppose we have requirements, such as weekly strategy meetings, monthly surveillance meetings or quarterly earnings reviews. However, my responsibilities range broadly from addressing external (clients, rating agencies, consultants, the “street”) and internal (management, risk, legal, compliance) queries, to reviewing new opportunities (asset class type, products, issuers/counterparties) and writing thoughtful pieces or research updates and opinions. We are a team of seven analysts located in Boston and London, but we support a team of portfolio managers globally.
[NP] What has been one of your career highlights to date and what was your worst experience?
[PM] The global financial crisis of 2007-08 has been both a career highlight and a worst experience. It’s a career highlight in that we made a conscious decision to stay away from sub-prime mortgages as an investment. With $750 billion of assets under management, at the time we came out of the crisis nearly unscathed. People thought we were simply lucky. It was quite the opposite, actually. We were very cognizant of the deteriorating trends in the underlying mortgages; from a relative value perspective, investing in sub-prime RMBS was definitely not worth taking the risk. It was also the worst experience because soon after Lehman went under, all of the banks were under scrutiny including State Street. We were waiting for the next Lehman to fall. I certainly had many sleepless nights back then. Sadly, we are still dealing with the fall-out from the crisis - that is, dealing with the myriad of regulations imposed in the financial markets. Perhaps my worst experience has yet to come through…
[NP] Do you have any advice for someone entering this field?
[PM] Funny story… prior to the financial crisis, the credit research team was seen as the boring, “numbers crunching” people in the back corner. However, during and post crisis, everyone now wants to meet the credit research team, performing due diligence of our process and policies as well as asset class competencies. In 2008 alone, I had to visit clients in South Africa, Australia, UK, Spain, France, South Korea, and Slovenia, which to be honest I had to look up on the map. Today, our credit research effort is at the forefront of any client or new business pitch. The team certainly has a higher profile within the organization. Given this background, the type of skills needed for someone entering the credit analysis field should include excellent writing skills, a sense of curiosity - to some degree, distrust (question everything; “the street” always has an ulterior motive), confidence in presenting your case thoroughly and of course, quantitative skills to review financial documents. It’s definitely not a field that students clamor to after graduation. It’s a field that people tend to evolve in over time.
My conversation with Ms. McCusker was extremely interesting. She helped me realize there were professional skills I should focus on strengthening in order to prepare for employment in this particular sector, a sector I hope to become employed in myself. When she mentioned how many students were in her program when she studied, I realized then just how much the Brandeis IBS graduate programs have expanded over the last ten years. This is a promising indication of the strength of my degree and the potential for continued growth in the coming years for anyone who matriculates through these programs.
It made me happy to hear Ms. McCusker mention that she would be keen to watch lectures in financial modeling from her mentor (and my current Professor) Alfonso Canella, I realized that this might be the most important thing I learned from our conversation, that a successful professional is always interested in gaining more knowledge and learning more about his or her professional field.