In a continuation of last year’s seasonal series, this winter, each PCUR will interview a Princeton alumnus from their home department about his/her experience writing a senior thesis. In Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Alumni Perspectives, the alumni reveal how conducting independent research at Princeton influenced them academically, professionally, and personally. Here, Alexandra shares her interview.
As part of our Seasonal Series, I had the opportunity to interview Masi Yamada ’94, a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineer (MAE). He is currently working as a Managing Director at J.P. Morgan Chase and offered insight about studying MAE and transferring that into the world of finance.
AK: Why did you choose to major in MAE?
MY: A lot of it was the generation I grew up in—as kids, we grew up seeing Star Wars and all those sorts of things; the space shuttle had been developed and there were a lot of engineering and economic resources being put towards defense and aerospace. The Cold War was still going on, so there was an ongoing buildup of arms and technology against the Russians. Back then, aerospace was viewed much like the startup and technology field is viewed now—that was where all the interesting tech jobs were.
I grew up thinking that I wanted to work at NASA—it was always my intention to go into the aerospace industry—but then reality set in. The Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989 and by the time we had graduated in ‘94, the aerospace and defense industry had been downsized and NASA’s budget was being cut. A few of us went on to graduate school, but the majority of us followed the classic Princeton path, going into finance and consulting because those were the companies that were recruiting very heavily at the time.
AK: How did you find your way into finance?
MY: It was actually completely accidental—I was at a career fair interviewing for a job at General Electric Aerospace, and because they were arranged alphabetically, the booth right next to them was Goldman Sachs. While I was waiting my turn at the GE booth, someone I knew was turned down by GS for not being technical enough and pointed the recruiter in my direction. It turns out the recruiter was MAE too, and we talked about what he did and the conversation ended in a job offer for me.
AK: Do you feel that your background in MAE has carried over into your career?
MY: The Princeton education program—particularly the engineering program—is basically training in problem solving, which has been extremely useful in finance. Unlike many schools that have practical finance classes, Princeton tends to focus on academic theory, analysis, and research, so Princeton students enter finance jobs with less practical knowledge than graduates from finance-focused schools. That said, no matter what field they study, Princeton students usually have good work habits and a very strong problem-solving framework, which in my view is just as important and tends to be harder to develop. You will always pick up relevant subject matter expertise while on the job, but being able to look at a problem, take a step back and think critically is much more useful long-term than just knowing the answer because you happened to have taken a class on it before.
I’m very active in recruiting Princeton students to work at J.P. Morgan, but I also recruit candidates from other schools, and I would say Princeton remains differentiated—along with a few other schools—in this respect. Princeton’s liberal arts foundation provides a strong base of life skills and problem solving skills, at the cost of a deficit in some practical skills. Princeton kids might struggle in their first year on the job, but they soon realize that anyone can learn to build a spreadsheet to discount cash flows. It’s much harder to learn how to think through, at a high level, business strategies for a corporation.
AK: What was the topic of your independent project?
MY: I got to build a car for the Society of Automotive Engineers competition in Montreal—it was an amphibious off-road vehicle that had to be able to float and navigate through water. It was intended to be a 7-8 person group, but only 4 signed up, and only myself and one other person actually did the work. We designed the car, ran stress analysis on the frame using some archaic programs, and then milled and welded the whole thing together. Our sponsor, Briggs & Stratton, gave us a brand new engine, and I got to drive the car in the actual competition.
It was a lot of fun, but it completely dominated my senior year—I don’t remember doing any other class or activity. We were spending weeks on end welding until 2, 3 in the morning. We did great in all the tests, but in the actual race the steering failed in a collision. We weren’t expecting a crash, so we hadn’t built enough redundancy and it ended up taking us out. To this day, it’s one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my life.
AK: Do you have any advice to share with current students?
MY: When you’re taking on some huge task, make sure you know who you’re doing it with. That goes for starting a new company, starting a huge project, and starting a family. It’s a very important lesson to learn in life—you have to be able to rely on the people you’ve chosen. If they don’t do the work, it falls to you. To this day, the guy I built the car with is one of my closest friends in the world.
AK: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned?
MY: It’s important to have a long-term goal, a long-term vision. Your actions and decisions should be aligned with that, not short-term achievements. As cliché as it sounds, it takes quite a lot of experience and learning from your own and others’ mistakes to reinforce that the short-term gains are not worth sacrificing the long-term for. It also takes a lot of discipline to pass up meaningful opportunities that are not aligned with that goal, especially in the social media-flooded FOMO culture we live in now. Your long term plans can and will change, but don’t deviate from them lightly.
Learning more about Masi’s independent work was incredibly interesting for me, as an MAE major who is starting to think about her own future projects. Although his career is not directly related to his studies, Masi was able to successfully apply the skills he learned as a Princeton engineer to a completely different field—a testament to the quality of the education we receive. I am extremely grateful for the chance to learn from him.
— Alexandra Koskosidis, Engineering Correspondent