Alumni on Advanced Certifications and Degrees

By: Jacob Wilkowsky (Q19)

March 2014:

Flying Back from Spring Break in Barcelona

I knew the CPA lay abruptly ahead. Committed to work in public accounting after graduation, it seemed like there was no alternative. My future employer provided the Becker study materials. My friends in the field either had the accreditation or were well on their way to achieving it. Pursuing the CPA didn’t feel like a decision, but an inevitability. Little did I know it was a slippery slope…

January 2015:

All Smiles in my Grandmother’s Guest Bedroom

Well the CPA didn’t go as planned, but at least I was done. Seven months, hundreds of hours studying, and six attempts later I passed all four sections (FAR, REG, BEC, and AUD). However, even before the results of my final attempt came out, I was registered to take Level I of the CFA in June. This time, the reasons I enrolled weren’t so clear. For certain the ease of the CPA wasn’t a factor—it truly was a miserable experience. However, my education in finance, past experience in valuation, and yada, yada, yada—none of you care.   


I’m gearing up for Level II of the CFA. Facing the deep abyss ahead, I can’t help but wonder how I got here. In the approximately three years since graduation, I’ve lived in five apartments (including my grandmother’s guest bedroom), worked at two firms, and gone on one additional international journey. However, the singular constant has been the unyielding pressure of studying for advanced certifications. At least I can take solace in the knowledge that my obsession with abbreviations is shared by fellow QUEST alumni seeking advanced degrees in science, medicine, law, and business.

Santiago Miret (Q18), PhD student in Materials Science & Engineering at the University of Berkeley

You’re brilliant, we get it. Why get the PhD? Could you gain the same knowledge elsewhere?

One thing that you learn while doing a PhD is how truly not-brilliant you are, but I think that is the case for any challenging work that you do because you get exposed to how much more there is to do and learn. The PhD is very conducive for challenging learning because it is set up for you to explore topics that have never been explored and create new knowledge to share with the world. It may be possible to acquire similar knowledge somewhere else, but it is very difficult to acquire depth outside the environment of the PhD.

Tony Trinh (Q21), medical student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine

Since graduating it seems like my friends in Med School have had it the worst in terms of up front investment in their career (grueling workload, financial cost, longest-term payoff). Why do you think there are so many people lining up for the opportunity?

I think what it comes down to is that people in medical school are content to play the long game (and I mean L-O-N-G game). Although both the financial and even psychological costs of medical school are astronomically high, I don’t know a single person in my class who isn’t passionate about medicine. It might sound a bit romantic but I genuinely believe that everyone here has an earnest desire to help their fellow man and are willing to go through what can sometimes seem like hell to do so. Of course there is a financial driving force tied in there but anyone who’s looking for ONLY a quick pay out wouldn’t last a day in medical school. From my perspective of my class and my school, the job comes first and paycheck comes later (much later) but we’re okay with that and wouldn’t you rather have a doctor who looks at you like a patient rather than a source of income?

Matt Sarna (Q19), law student at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

People say that law school teaches you how to think like a lawyer. Did anything in QUEST help prepare you for this transformation?

Plenty of my peers questioned why a business school QUEST student would be interested in pursuing a law degree. My answer has always been that QUEST does not prepare you to go into a specific field, it prepares you to take a client’s opportunity head-on and develop a synthesized solution that addresses each facet of the issue. That is the foundation of a successful lawyer. Law school teaches you how to take black letter law, ambiguous regulations, and ever-changing political landscapes and massage a client’s needs to fit. It teaches you to keep asking, “What if…” and “Why.”

Richard (Ricky) Wilson (Q6), M.B.A at the University of Chicago – Booth School of Business

[Ricky also has a Masters in Electrical Engineering and Six Sigma Greenbelt]

Based on my friend’s Snapchat, business school is alternating sprints between the library and bar. How true is this interpretation and what was the best lesson you learned as an MBA?

That was not my business school experience, but it can be the experience of some.  It may likely depend upon your background prior to entering business school.  I never spent much time in the library.  Business school was really a lesson on time management, an opportunity for personal and professional development, and an immersion into diversity. The coursework is generally not very challenging for people with analytical backgrounds, but it can be time consuming.  There is a lot of reading and a lot of group assignments.  Besides homework there is recruiting, student groups, building friendships, and definitely going to bars.  It is basically always someone’s birthday, there is always a student group event, there is always a company on campus, and there is always homework to be done.  People have to learn how to manage and prioritize these demands.  The biggest benefit of business school is the relationships you develop, but that can’t be at the expense of finding a job and passing classes.

I’ve also never been in an environment with people having such diverse backgrounds across ethnicities, work experience, recreational interests, travel, country of residence, etc.  It really just exposes you to various opportunities and inspires you to accomplish great things.  It is a chance to try new things and to re-examine what you once considered your boundaries or limitations.

The biggest thing I walked away with was self-awareness.  I learned a lot about how I am perceived, how I behave in various situations, how I can influence those situations, and where I can develop.  Beyond that, I think business school really teaches you to identify an unmet need (sometimes an unknown need) and how to successfully address that opportunity.  It provides tools, resources, and relationships that provide advantages.

Jason Graub (Q17), CPA and Co-founder and CFO at Gameplan

How much thought did you put into getting the CPA? What’s it worth to you now?

In terms of time put into CPA, once I made the decision to go the accounting route ( which I wavered on a few times throughout college) I knew I had to get the CPA in order for it to be worth it. Especially when KPMG would pay for Becker and the tests and I’d get the bonus when I passed.

What’s it worth to me now: Now it’s a nice fall back and provides some credibility on my resume. But I don’t view as something crucial to my long-term success. I’m debating whether to let my active license expire (I’ll probably renew next year through 2019, but since I’m not practicing and don’t see accounting in my long-term future there isn’t much incentive to keep up with the CPE’s, which are a pain).

Bryan Towns (Q7), Six Sigma Blackbelt and Director of Program Management at Abbott

[Bryan is also has a Masters in Product Development Engineering, MBA, and PMP]

The Six Sigma Blackbelt seems like the certification most aligned with QUEST’s core teaching curriculum. Can you talk to the value it’s added to your career?

While applying the Six Sigma methodology in my career, I have realized that it is a natural extension of the QUEST experience.  Systems thinking, an emphasis on data-based decision making, continuous improvement, and even techniques for effective team management are threads that are shared between the QUEST experience and in all variants of the Six Sigma methodology.  Therefore, it is difficult for me to isolate either the Six Sigma certification or QUEST experience as the sole contributor, as they are so intertwined.  As an example, I remember describing the use of a Pugh Matrix, which I had learned in QUEST, in a panel interview to land my first job out of UMD, before even realizing that it was part of the Six Sigma tool kit.  As an engineer, I relied on Designs of Experiments to build robust designs into the products that I developed, and as a Program Manager, I rely on Voice of the Customer techniques to ensure that my teams are aligned with our customers’ unmet needs.   In that sense, both QUEST and Six Sigma have provided me with tools that I have used to solve problems as I have grown in my career.

Ningwei Li (Q20), Investment fellow at T. Rowe Price, CFA level III Candidate

What is the CFA charter?

CFA, chartered financial analyst, is a designation for professionals interested in the field of investment research and portfolio management. Essentially the process requires passing three exams, each requiring about 100 hours or more of preparation, and four years of working experience in the investment industry. Many firms see the CFA designation as a way of showing commitment in the industry as well as a person’s ability to learn. I personally think the CFA exposes a candidate to so much of finance that learning alone is worthwhile. Luckily, I’m currently sponsored by my firm to take the CFA exams. To me, it’s a no brainer that I should pursue the designation.

What question should QUEST students ask themselves when planning to pursue an advanced certification or degree?

Richard (Ricky) Wilson (Q6)

The biggest question to ask is ‘do the benefits outweigh the costs?’  The cost is not just financial, but also the opportunity cost.  What else could you be doing with your time, does this provide you with the most utility, and what will you be able to accomplish that you could not without it (or at a faster pace than without it)?  The financial benefits will be related to supply and demand as well.  People should try to spend some time estimating the future demand, evaluating the future supply, and risk factors that could affect both and thus change the economic value of the decision.

Bryan Towns (Q7)

Be careful to pursue only those certifications that will be the most impactful within your field.  I have had a number of colleagues who had an “alphabet soup” of certifications in their email signature lines, but were not exceptionally strong within any one of their apparent areas of expertise.  Choosing a couple of accreditations that will better help you to serve your organization, customers, and clients is much more valuable than sheer quantity.

Santiago Miret (Q18)

I would suggest to conduct your own research as to what each degree or certification means. Many degrees showcase to the broader audience that you have certain skill sets or certain knowledge, yet there may be other ways to show that you have that skill set or knowledge. Degrees and certifications are often just a tool to help you get somewhere you are striving towards. That being said, it is also important to remain humble and acknowledge how much you truly know so that you don’t overestimate or underestimate yourself.

Jason Graub (Q17)

Students should be asking what are they truly interested in and what will provide them with the most value long-term. For me, I do appreciate the CPA and I think it’s good to have, but if I’d done it again, I would’ve gone a different direction most likely and not gotten it. Especially since it required 150 credits which is a lot to ask for a certification, if you’re not going to be a practicing CPA.  

Tony Trinh (Q21)

How much are you willing to sacrifice to get what you want?

Ningwei Li (Q20)

How will the certification help you reach your goal? I think as a student as well as a young professional, you can learn so much more through your work than pursuing an advanced certification that doesn’t help you reach your goal.


Thank you guys for participating!

As a student you can often find yourself obsessing over your life after college– I certainly did. However, in all the simulations I ran in my head, I never predicted how dedicated I’d be to advanced degrees in my first two years out of College Park. Whether or not you want to be a doctor, lawyer, business executive, scientist, etc., it is important to do some research and investigate the opportunities for advanced certifications or degrees that may align with your interests. Thanks again to my interviewees for taking the time to share their insight!


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