Common Mistake: “I’m Sorry for Everything”

Common Mistake #3: sound apologetic when asked about one’s background

I hate to say this (and I’m sorry for saying it nonetheless), but many candidates go into job interviews with an inferiority complex. This is what I mean:

  • "Sorry, I only have a master’s degree, not a Ph.D."
  • "Sorry, I went to a so-so/no-name/7th-tier school."
  • "Sorry, I speak English with a heavy accent."
  • "Sorry, I don’t know C++ at all."
  • "Sorry, I’ve never held a real job."
  • "Sorry, I’m a CS major and only studied finance and stochastics/econometrics/linear algebra on my own, without taking any real classes."
  • "Sorry, I never studied finance or economics; my background is theoretical physics/mechanical engineering/applied chemistry."
  • "Sorry, I’ve never traded a single stock in my life."
  • "Sorry, I’m only making $25k in my current job."
  • "Sorry, I’m better-looking than you."

When candidates walk into interviews with one of these mentalities (except the last one, of course, since it’s just a joke), they end up sounding apologetic when they are asked questions related to their "weak" spots. Then they start sweating profusely, they try to come up with a "perfect" answer, and they have this depressed or humiliated look on their faces.I’ve seen this happen many, many times.

I want to say this: do not feel inferior about yourself, period. As I mention in my book, the fact you are looking for a quant job, and the fact you passed the initial resume screening, speak volumes of your qualifications. Someone must have liked your background to offer you the interview (especially if it’s an onsite interview). You already have accomplishments that attracted someone’s attention and interest.

So what if you never wanted to get a Ph.D.? The Ph.D. degree is totally not right for most people. By getting a master’s, you are already proving that you were serious about your education and worked hard to acquire advanced knowledge.

So what if you attended (or are attending) a school not rated by U.S. News and World Report in the top 20 or top 50? The fact is you are getting an education and you may already have the skills needed to work in finance. Of course, the key is that you must have those skills, and be willing to work hard.

So what if you didn’t study finance or economics? If you studied a hardcore science, that means you are smarter and work harder than people who study soft sciences. Besides, you can always pick up finance knowledge on your own. The people who invented quantitative finance were not "finance people" per se, either.

So what if you never traded stocks? You have other interests and skills. Maybe you just never had enough spare money to invest in stocks.

So what if you speak English with a heavy accent? Hopefully you are doing something about it (like taking an accent class or seeing a speech coach), but you picked up English as an adult and can now use it. (If you can read this blog, your reading English is good enough!) Besides, you can bet your life that other people will have an even harder time learning your mother tongue.

In short, if an interviewer points out a "weakness" in your background, don’t feel embarrassed (and never ashamed!), and don’t start sounding apologetic. Damn it, you have nothing to apologize for regarding your background. If you lack some skills, admit it and promise to work hard to gain those skills. Move on to positive things.

(BTW, if there is something in your background, like a D in a math class, that you are ashamed of, just don’t put it down on your resume in the first place!)

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