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by Derek Loosvelt | March 10, 2009


Ajit Pai, 34, had been an architect before going to Yale School of Management and making a career change. After graduating with master's degree in business administration in 1999, he joined McKinsey & Co. as a strategy consultant. In 2000, recent M.B.A. at large consulting firms earned about $110,000 in base salary and bonus pay, according to Kennedy Information Research Group. He's now a principal in equity research in New York City of San Francisco-based investment bank Thomas Weisel Partners LLC. He talks to about the rewards and challenges of his career switch. What motivated you to change careers?

Mr. Pai: I'm from India, and there you have to start specializing in a chosen field very early. I went for architecture, because it combined so many different elements like the arts, history and geography. I went to architecture school in New Delhi and even opened my own firm while I was still an undergraduate. I was passionate about it, but I hadn't really experienced anything outside of that profession, so I applied and was accepted to the Yale School of Architecture. I went there with the intention that it would help me decide whether being an architect was what I wanted to be.

Once I was at Yale, I decided to get an extra degree with the business school there, so I could learn something new. I also had the opportunity to examine what the architecture profession was and decided I didn't want to go into it at the time.

The job opportunities in architecture were very entry level. I got one job offer for a firm in New York City which paid $9 an hour with no overtime. I had $120,000 in debt and was going to be living in New York City, so it just wasn't feasible to take a job like that. I wouldn't have been able to live.

Since I had so much debt, going back to India also wasn't an option. I had my own firm there, and I was taking home less than $50,000 a year. I also felt that I could progress much faster in the world of business than in architecture and get more responsibility quickly. With architecture, you work on certain projects for years before you see the end result, and I wanted to work on more short-term projects. What's been the biggest surprise in your new career?

Mr. Pai: There have been two. I left McKinsey to join Lazard Brothers & Co. to do equity research. Lazard recruited me, because I had done similar work at McKinsey, and it was a good opportunity in terms of progression. I could have a much more senior role much faster than I would as a consultant. The promised financial rewards were also greater. I was there just over a year and had to leave due to corporate restructuring. When I moved into the business world, I didn't even think about this happening. I still had $100,000 in debt!

I found my current job at Thomas through a Yale classmate. When I joined, I was told not to expect a promotion, so I'm surprised that I got promoted multiple times in three years. How much more do you earn now, compared to what you'd be making as an architect?

Mr. Pai: I'm making multiple times the money I would be making. I have been able to pay off my debt. I can afford a lot more, but I have less free time. [According to the 2005 American Institute of Architects Compensation Report, architects with six years' experience earn a median annual salary of $50,000.] Are you happier?

Mr. Pai: I have loved all of my careers, but I would say that the greatest stimulation comes from my current career. I've realized that you have to derive a sense of enjoyment from what you do and have the money be a secondary focus.

I finished off paying my school debt in 2004, and in 2005, I started giving back. Once I had money, I felt it was important to start looking at institutions I wanted to give back to. I give money to Carnegie Hall, Yale School of Architecture and Yale School of Management.

I make modest contributions. It is a small beginning, but over time, I expect these modest contributions to grow. For me, it was quite natural that as soon I didn't have debt, I would start giving money to institutions I was believed in. The intention was always there, but I didn't have the money to do it. Emotionally, it is very satisfying to be able to do so.

I also recently started investing in real estate. I bought some preconstruction property in India this year, because I think it's a good investment. I wouldn't have been able to do this before. I have helped out friends and family. I've loaned money to friends who want to go to school here.

Now, I can also indulge my interest in travel, history and food. Before, it was stretch to travel, but since I paid off my debt, I love traveling for pleasure. I've been to Brazil, Hong Kong, Latin America. I have traveled before, but you when you do it with your money, it is so much more rewarding. Before this, I had to take a pause in doing a lot different things. What was your career transition like?

Mr. Pai: I was lucky, because McKinsey was receptive to hiring an architect with no business experience and didn't have any doubts that I could do the job. The company hired me right out of business school. Actually, all of my employers have been receptive to my background. I was there for 15 months and loved it, because everything was new to me. I worked on projects in lots of different industries like telecom and finance.

From an intellectual perspective, it was gratifying, but it was a difficult cultural transition, because I moved from an industry that is all about designing, implementing and pushing your idea to a world that is all about getting along with people and serving clients. You have to tone down what you think and not involve your ego. What do you do now as an equity research analyst?

Mr. Pai: I analyze and study stocks and industries in the applied technologies area. Based on my research, I make recommendations to institutions like mutual funds, pension funds and hedge funds whether they should to buy, sell or hold a certain stock. I help them understand companies and certain sectors better. Are there any similarities to being an architect and what you do now?

Mr. Pai: Both are intellectually stimulating. In both fields, the hours are long. Now, I get in at 6:45 a.m. and usually finish at 1 in the morning. If you're finishing a project in architecture, the hours are very similar. There are slower periods in both careers, but in equity, there is less downtime. What's a challenge you face now that you wouldn't have as an architect?

Mr. Pai: This is a volatile industry, so you have less job security. The financial markets are boom and bust, so during a period of economic growth, this industry builds up infrastructure and hires. During an economic downturn, more infrastructure is shed. If you're at the top of the field, then you will probably keep your job, but if you're average, you face the risk of being let go. What advice do you have for others looking to change careers?

Mr. Pai: Figure out whether the career you are moving to is something you would really enjoy, and examine whether you will get the opportunity to grow. You want to move to something where you get increasing levels of responsibility. I find it amazing that it is so easy to move professions in this country. In other countries, like India, it is much harder to make that professional change, so people should really take advantage of that here if they are in a career which is unfulfilling. Would you ever switch careers again?

Mr. Pai: As much as I love equity research, if I found something which would allow me to leverage my past experiences and skills, I would think about switching. I'm done with the stage where I start at the bottom, so I would have to move into an area which isn't completely disconnected.


Filed Under: Finance
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