Helping graduates land top Econ jobs with the Federal Reserve is a team effort
Once overlooked for coveted entry-level positions within the Federal Reserve System, three top VCU Economics graduates recently achieved success thanks to rigorous coursework, accelerated program opportunities, and a collaborative effort by VCU School of Business faculty and alumni.
In December 2019, Mahd Mahmud (B.S.‘19/H&S) accepted a position as a research assistant at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington D.C. Just over a year later, Ria Sonawane (B.S.’21/B) joined Mahmud as a research assistant in D.C., while Jacob Walker (B.S.’19/H&S) accepted a job as research associate with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
Professor’s goal: Develop a pipeline of students into the Fed System
“It’s been a goal of mine, since coming to VCU seven years ago, to develop a pipeline of students into the Fed System,” says Chris Herrington, associate professor of Economics. “These are jobs that set you up for lots of opportunity, especially if you choose to continue on the academic economist career path.”
“If I hadn’t made that connection with Professor Herrington, I wouldn’t be at the Fed,” declares Walker. “The support he gave me was monumental. Getting a job is what you know and who you know. The professors at VCU guide you on how to stack your credentials and set yourself up for success in any field.”
Former Fed president, now a distinguished professor
Few people understand the Federal Reserve System better than Jeff Lacker, former President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond who today serves as distinguished professor at the VCU School of Business where he engages regularly with senior Economics students.
“The Fed looks for bright, capable people with a strong background and training in economics who are knowledgeable in the markets where the Fed works and operates in, as well as the general economics of central banking. The Federal Reserve is very selective. They get a lot of strong, well-trained applicants in economics and finance, from around the country. I think these students’ success is especially noteworthy.”
Accelerated Econ program broaden minds & opens doors
“VCU’s Econ classes prepared me to ace the technical part of my interview, says Walker. “I took a lot of econometrics courses as an undergraduate, so I know how to do programming and data and economic analysis.”
“Both Mahd [Mahmud and Jacob [Walker] did graduate statistics work as undergrads so they were incredibly prepared in terms of data training,” explains Oleg Korenok, professor of Economics. “VCU offers an accelerated program in Econ and a few other majors where bright undergraduate students can pay for one class and it essentially counts as two, if they choose to go pursue a graduate program here.”
“We have a LinkedIn group of VCU Econ alumni and students. Most are working with data, but they might be in finance, marketing, accounting, or public policy. We are proud of all our graduates, but I’m especially proud of these three students. It’s hard to get positions like that. At the Richmond Fed, the research department has maybe 20 economists and they hire maybe five to 10 RAs, usually from Harvard, MIT, top schools.”
VCU a finalist in national Fed competition
As coach of the VCU team that competes annually in the National College Fed Challenge, Korenok becomes intimately familiar with VCU’s top Econ students. The academic competition is designed to deepen students’ understanding of the nation’s central bank. Three times over the last eight years, VCU has won Fifth District title in the Federal Reserve and reached the national finals.
Though they competed during different years, both Mahd Mahmud and Ria Sonawane each represented VCU on a five-person team that routed other universities competing in the Fifth Federal Reserve District before advancing to the national level.
“At the national competition, we presented to policy analysts who asked us questions in a 15-minute Q&A session,” recalls Sonawane. “We worked very hard and did well enough to place in the Top 8 and received an honorable mention from the chair of the Federal Reserve Board.
“After they announced the winners, they said, ‘If you’re looking for a job, we have research assistant positions available.’ I hadn’t really considered an RA job,” Sonawane reflects, “But after this whole program, learning so much about monetary policy and getting exposure directly into the Fed with policy analysts, I saw this was something I could do as a career that would really interest me.”
Mahmud credits both the College Fed Challenge as well as Lacker’s class on financial markets and central banking for inspiring him to apply for a research assistant role at the Federal Reserve.
Faculty support for all three students came in a variety of forms. Each served as a teaching assistant for economics courses where they forged meaningful relationships with professors who went on to write them strong letters of recommendations. Two served as undergraduate research assistants to VCU economists. Walker served as vice president of VCU’s Student Economics Association and also did peer-to-peer mentoring. All credited VCU professors and the VCU Business Career Services with getting them externships, internships and entry-level economics jobs.
“After my first summer internship,” recalls Sonawane. “I went to VCU Business Career Services. With their help, I received a financial analyst internship and worked my entire junior year. One of the reasons I chose VCU was for its location and all the opportunities I would find in the city.”
“Professor Herrington was my biggest mentor and he’s been an essential part of this journey,” says Walker. “He knew I wanted to work at the Fed, and he was always helping and guiding me, telling me the publications each Fed team works on and what I could expect from the interview process. He gave me feedback on my resume and cover letter. I still keep in regular contact with him.”
New Fed employees “know they are the trailblazers”
According to Herrington, such mentoring relationships are best part of his job. He adds, “Mahd, Ria and Jacob – they know they are the trailblazers. If they are successful at the Fed, it creates a path for the next wave of students.
“We’ve constructed a network of former teaching assistants and students. With all three, when they were getting ready to interview with the Fed, I connected them with other former students. ‘Talk to this person before you interview. Understand what kind of questions they are going to ask.’
“Some of my best students had to overcome so many challenges. They have grit. They really want to do well, to be successful. Those students rise to the top and so many of my colleagues end up developing great relationships with them. I love getting the emails when they tell me about their latest success. It’s such a cool thing. As a general statement, the student body at VCU is a unique group. There’s something special about them.”