Jim Donovan is a law professor and managing director at Goldman Sachs.
After two degrees from MIT, one from Harvard, a couple decades in the business world and a semester teaching at U.Va. Law, I certainly don’t claim to know everything. But I do have some insight into how to best utilize your assets and how to make the most of your education to succeed in the workplace. For those of you embarking on the journey, maybe my thoughts will help you. I hope so.
Something I know: Degrees matter less than passion. The workplace will always welcome eager and committed individuals. And enthusiasm can take you a long way.
At first glance, the combination of degrees on my résumé doesn’t make a lot of sense. The path to my position as a managing director at Goldman Sachs was not linear, but it was guided by a strong work ethic and an intense drive to succeed. It’s important for undergrads and recent graduates to understand the value of those two things. Let me explain.
For whatever reason, I’m a left brainer; math and science came easier to me in high school than English or history. I knew it was in my best interest to attend a college renowned for excellence in those fields. So I chose MIT, where I majored in chemical engineering. I didn’t particularly want to be a chemical engineer, but I enjoyed the material and was good at it.
This brings me to my first point—study what you enjoy, not what you think your graduate school wants to see on your transcript. (Obviously this doesn’t apply if you’re med-school bound. Those undergrad prerequisites are a must.) Demonstrate good grades in college. Study what you want and get good grades instead of studying what you think looks good and getting bad grades.
If you’re thinking about law school or business school and trying to figure out the most suitable major to increase your desirability as a candidate—just stop. Major in what interests you and what you’ll do well in. Education is one of the most important keys to your success, so take different classes and get a well-rounded understanding of the world around you. Be independent enough not to follow the herd, no matter what your major. Look at all your options—banking, business, entrepreneurial, policy, nonprofits, politics, etc.
When I was at MIT and considering my next steps, I already knew I did not want to pursue chemical engineering as a career, so I consulted some of my classmates who knew exactly what they wanted to do. I found the students I respected the most were going into business and law. So, I decided to get a business degree from Sloan while I was at MIT and then follow it up with a JD from Harvard, although I never intended to practice law. I was simply developing and exploring different facets of an education because I didn’t know which direction I wanted to go in. My law degree has been invaluable. In law school, I learned how to argue well, how to summarize and condense a tremendous amount of material, and I earned a new credential that proved I was fluent in a difficult discipline.
One of the keys to my success has been my ability to converse in different languages across different fields. Technology speak, business speak and legal speak have a tendency to be incompatible. I’m in a unique position to communicate with many different parties because of my BS, MBA and JD. I use my legal education in the business world when I’m talking to counsel, I use my chemical engineering background when I’m corresponding with the head of a technology company and I use my business degree in conducting my financial work for clients. You never know when something you learn is going to come in handy—so educate yourself in myriad ways, especially the languages of different industries. You don’t necessarily have to get a full-blown degree—just go to the library and check out a few books so you understand marketing terms or corporate strategy terms. There’s no reason to be intimidated. When you’re not intimidated, you can be confident—and confidence is essential in the corporate world.
Jim Donovan (left) with Dr. Philip Kantoff, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s chief clinical research officer.
In the job market, you’ve got to rely on two things. The first is excellence. Take pride in what you do. You have to be able to honestly tell your interviewer, “Everything I’ve been interested in, I’ve done really well. If I pursue it, I’m going to take it seriously and I’m going to excel.” Second, you have to demonstrate your interest. Tell your interviewer, “Here are the five things I’ve done on the side to pursue this: I’ve joined this club, I interned here, I read this journal, I write for this magazine, etc.” You have to be entrepreneurial and aggressive about proving your commitment to the field.
I’ve spent my career doing three things: covering clients in investment banking and investment management, working on corporate strategy and managing people. The last duty is my favorite because that’s what business and any workplace is ultimately about: people.
Advice for anyone in the corporate world: Focus on building relationships. Make connections with as many people as you can and have as many repeat interactions with clients as possible. View them as long-term commitments and strive to understand them and their industry holistically. By building solid relationships, you will create a web of professionals within which you will be well-known and well-respected. And that’s good for any business across the board.
As a final note, I’d like to point out that it’s difficult to balance a career, charitable work and a full personal life. I have a wife, four kids and serve on numerous charitable boards—I’m busy. But I make it work by being extremely regimented about my time. I don’t compromise and don’t let anything else bleed into the time I’ve designated for an activity. I compartmentalize the time and once I’ve committed to doing X, I don’t let other things intrude. I also make sure to take time off. A mistake people make is working with only 80 percent of their potential 100 percent of the time. I work 100 percent of my potential for 90 percent of my time—that other 10 percent of the time, I am totally off! I also enjoy a structured workout routine. I run 5 miles a day—rain, snow or sunshine—and it helps me keep my sanity. I would definitely recommend incorporating some physical activity into your everyday life as an outlet for stress. The corporate world is stressful. It is also incredibly rewarding.
Remember: Study what you enjoy, demonstrate your excellence and your interest, be conversant in as many languages as possible, build solid relationships, create a strong professional network and always take time off. I hope these suggestions help guide some of you on your journey in the job market and beyond. Good luck and remember what Mark Twain said—it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.