Alumni Spotlight: Michael McDonald

April 7, 2022

Michael McDonald has taken an interesting career path since his undergraduate days in the Clemson IE program.

He cites the beginning of his untraditional experience as graduating high school with lots of AP credits— almost too many. When he began attending Clemson, those credits removed general education and basic courses from his graduation requirements, and he quickly found himself signing up for classes he found interesting simply for fun to take more than the two classes a semester he was left with.

His freshman year landed him in an economics class with Dr. Louis Stone as he began taking classes “just for fun.” Stone was a property developer in the Clemson area when he wasn’t teaching and quickly pulled McDonald into that role, somewhere he would remain for many years. While McDonald was “terrible with a hammer,” he found that he had a mind suited to the behind-the-scenes responsibilities of building homes: tasks that allowed for effective processes and production. He decided to focus on coordination and financing and stay away from the toolbox, helping build at least 25 houses in the area in his undergrad at Clemson.

He chose Industrial Engineering because it provided the most flexibility across applications in engineering and business and was the best suited for his current endeavors. However, he immensely enjoyed economics and business, so when paired with his small class load, he found himself taking Economics graduate classes beginning his junior year, thinking he would work towards a Ph.D. in Economics at Clemson as well.

While still doing this, he once again found himself with a small workload and a lot of spare time on his hands, even while continuing to build homes in the Clemson area. He took a job with a hedge fund in 2005 and then was offered a full-time position as an investment banker at Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) in 2006 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Unfortunately, the Clemson Economics department would not allow him to continue his degree from Charlotte with a full-time role. He had to quit the Ph.D. track, converting his previous courses into a master’s degree as a “consolation prize.”

That was the end of his time at Clemson University. He left the college with a B.S. in Industrial Engineering, an M.S. in Economics, a side-hustle building homes, and a promising role at Wachovia. And in most years, that career would be a secure choice. However, the Global Financial Crisis occurred at the end of 2007 and into 2008, the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression. The bank he was working at blew up, and Michael found himself at a crossroads once again. Initially, he intended to forge onwards in his current career despite setbacks, but then he considered: “maybe I should go back and finish my Ph.D.” This time, however, he would switch it up. He decided on the University of Tennessee as his new school and also decided to get his Ph.D. in Finance instead of Economics or Industrial Engineering.

While he completed his Ph.D., he also found the time to write 3 research papers, work at a Financial Technology startup as a consultant, and even write some questions to put at the ends of textbook chapters. By the time he was preparing to graduate and take a university position as a professor, he had amassed five different job offers.

He accepted a position at Fairfield University that had multiple advantages. Located in the Northeast, it appealed to McDonald due to the great industry connections, proximity to financial firms, and geographic location. While teaching, he consulted in engineering economics on the side and held training in “finance for non-finance folks.”

He continues to do this type of work, working with 30-40 major companies such as GE, Cisco, Microsoft, and many others in a consulting capacity. His responsibilities as a professor include teaching intro and capstone classes for finance, developing mathematical trading strategies via his research, and assisting with Fairfield’s annual entrepreneur competition.

When asked about his favorite Clemson memories, he said:

“I remember sitting on top of Strom-Thurmond and looking out at the view, watching the sunrises with a friend. Nobody was really up that early.”

He looks back on his Clemson time fondly and offers this advice to current students:

“The best way to be successful in a career is to find an industry, learn it really well for a couple years, then take a big chance. Look for something that’s missing and fill it. Switch careers, find a niche, get paid better, be a specialist. Just make the jump.”

Despite not technically using his IE degree in his role, he says that industrial engineering is invaluable in general.

“When you have that background, you learn to think of the world in an analytical way that is useful in just about any industry. After that, you only need to ask: Where do I fit in?”