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The Job Search: Smith School Alumna Lisha Lai

The Job Search is a series for international graduate students.

imageBy Anna De Cheke Qualls

If there is a theme in Lisha Lai’s job search, it is that relationships matter. Throughout her graduate study here at Maryland, she put emphasis on building social capital both to find support and later to assist with her job search.

And her efforts paid off. Upon graduating last spring from the Master of Quantitative Finance Program, Lai landed a position as a data analyst at RiskSpan, Inc. in Arlington, Virginia.

Hailing from Qingyuan, Guangdong Province, China, Lai got her bachelor’s degree in Financial Management from Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in Guangzhou. She credits her father and undergraduate internship supervisor with her interest in finance, and the support to study in the United States. They each offered insights, by example, into an area that was at first unfamiliar to Lai.

It also helped that her family remained open-minded throughout her academic studies. “My childhood was full of joy and love. My parents always encouraged me to pursue what I want, providing guidance when I needed it," she said. "All they ever cared about is whether I was happy or not. I am always grateful for the series of relationships that I’ve had – first my parents, then wise professors, helpful staff and kind friends at UMD. The knowledge and experience I gained from those connections have shaped who I am.” 

As she embarks on a career in finance in the States, Lai joins the crowds making the daily commute across the DMV. She reflects on her choices, and the steps she took to advance her career in an effort to help other international graduate students find their way.

When you came to study in the US, what were your perceptions? Expectations?

I was expecting to gain more knowledge and experience the culture here.

How is your field perceived in your home country? 

From my point of view, data analysis and risk management are emerging fields in China. More people have become interested in these topics and the subject matter has been more academically developed over the years. For me, mastering the language and understanding cultural differences were the biggest challenges and I think that’s true for a lot of international students. But I think it is not worth dwelling on those challenges too much. I think it important to be brave, to step out and talk to more people, and to take advantage of the fact that we have tremendous cultural capital to share with others.

How did you prepare for your job search?

First, I scheduled lots of appointments with my Career Coach, Pauline Ma at the Smith School. She was super helpful on many occasions. She helped me modify my resume, assisted me in figuring out my career path. She pushed me to step out of my comfort zone to do more networking. She even helped me prepare for last spring’s Smith graduate commencement speech. To this day, I am very grateful to her. I also networked with the professors at Smith, asked for advice and insights into my potential industry. They were a great support and resource. My classmates would also circulate career opportunities, so it was also important to communicate with them too. Most of all, I never gave up on finding a job, I just kept applying.

Did you do any informational interviews?

I did one informational interview with one of our alumni at Wells Fargo. It was my career coach who connected us. As a general rule, I would say it was helpful to do some research on prospective companies and the person you might be talking to. I also prepared some good questions for the end of the interview.

What experiences as a graduate student (beyond your academic work) contributed to finding a position at your current employer? 

Working as teaching assistant was helpful. I also volunteered at the Income Tax Assistance Program in Montgomery County. My bartending courses also helped. All of this combined, I had experiences and stories to share during interviews, that would give people a sense of who I was outside of work.

What does networking mean in your home country? Any comparisons to the US? How did you navigate networking as an international person?

I have very little experience networking in China, so I don’t have an informed opinion. From my perspective, networking in the U.S. is really common. I have found that people are generally accessible and open to offering advice and resources. I took part in some networking events at UMD, and found connections also through Linkedin.

What advice or tool worked well as you searched? What did not work?

I think Indeed is a good place for a job search. I also used LinkedIn to find people working in my target companies and I followed up with them.

Does your current job have a specialized skill set?  If yes, what are they? 

It would be SQL, Tableau, Python, SAS, and Fixed Income. What matters most is that you have the ability and willingness to learn and be self-motivated.  I think people skills also matter – collegiality and collaboration.

How did you work on your resume? What was the process? Who looked at it?

The GAs in the career center, my career coach, and friends helped me review my resume. I started with the resume when I applied for graduate study, and then asked the GAs to take a look after the first few months here. After that I talked to my career coach and classmates. Before applying for specific positions, I also tweaked my resume. In total, I think I edited my resume over 50 times.

Career aspirations? What do you hope to do long term?

For the next few years, I would like to stay in the U.S. and gain more experience in my current company. In the future, I might be looking at opportunities in a different environment with more challenges.

What was the interview/application process like? Any surprises?

I applied online, did the data assessment test, got connected to an alum working in the company through my career coach. From there I had a phone interview, an on-site interview, and got the offer.

I currently work for RiskSpan – a combination consulting and financial technology company. I work as a consultant on the client’s site. The project I am working on right now requires SQL and Tableau. I am helping the team build Tableau reports on the input and output of the valuation engine they are using.

How do you continue networking locally? And globally?

I continue to stay active on LinkedIn. I also stay in touch with my professors, career coach, and classmates through emails and Wechat.

What do you think your mindset has added to your career journey? 

A positive and embracing mindset has served me well. I look at problems as an opportunity and as a result focus on finding solutions. Also, I think listening to others and soliciting feedback helps you develop faster – you grow when people are willing to help you.

Any advice to other international students?

Network with your professors, make use of a career center, take part in more extracurricular activities you like, and you’ll become the person you want to be.

More information about Lisha Lai can be found here.

(Photo credit: UMD)

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