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Dean John Bilson of the Stuart School of Business scored in the 20th percentile on his Graduate Recommendation Entrance (GRE) mathematics exam when applying to PhD programs. For a split second, he thought his life was over. Then, he took a moment to actually think; he had just finished his master’s degree in statistics and scored at or above the 90th percentile for his other GRE exam subjects.

 

Obviously something was up. As it turns out, the GRE examination board had given Bilson the wrong question sheet, so Bilson was filling out the answer sheet for an entirely different set of questions, essentially answering them at random. Luckily, the GRE board was able to correct the score. Bilson sincerely urges young people to consider that not everything is their fault, like with his GRE score, and to stop feeling the need to take personal responsibility for events beyond their control.

Written by Dan Marten

Interviewed by Joyce Gu

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Bilson was an orphan for all of college, losing both of his parents when he was 17 and 18 years old. Despite this, he attended Monash University in Melbourne, Australia — himself hailing from Australia — and earned bachelors and masters degrees in economics in 1971 and 1973, respectively. He then began applying for PhD programs in economics, when the GRE score fiasco happened, before being accepted to the University of Chicago, where he graduated with a PhD in economics 1976. From there, he worked as a professor of economics at the University of Chicago before venturing into private industry. By his own admission, Bilson “sort of got bored with being an academic,” despite being remarkably successful and publishing important writings. Since leaving, his industry work heavily involved the merging of electronics and economics trading, bringing that focus to the Stuart School of Business as dean. 

 

UNITE’s interviewer Joyce Gu noted that Bilson maintained “grandpa vibes” throughout their conversation, a comment which he found endearing. 

 

The scariest day of Bilson’s life would be working through the “Black Monday” stock market crash of October 19, 1987. Bilson was working in private industry and trading at the time, when global stock markets declined by 11.4 to over 40 percent. When you’ve been working in the field of economics since starting undergraduate studies, to receive such dire news as a global loss of $1.7 trillion dollars in stocks, it must have felt like the sky was falling. However, the market eventually recovered, and when asked if he would “do anything different” if given a second chance, Bilson continually professed his love for economics. “Financial markets are the greatest game on Earth,” the former International Monetary Fund (IMF) employee noted, because you’re competing against millions of people around the world, wagering very real money with incredibly real stakes. 

After the stock market crash of 1987 — which Bilson endearingly referred to as the scariest day of his professional career  — he became increasingly involved in the technology of electrical and online trading and even started a small company centered around it. With a group of Chicago colleagues, he wrote a curriculum and pitched a technology-focused master’s degree program in finance to the Illinois Institute of Technology, which happily accepted. He is now the dean of the Stuart School of Business, host to one of the top MS in Finance programs in the country. He boasted this as one of the first and best finance programs where business majors code in Python. 
 

“All problems are opportunities,” according to Bilson. Students would do well to look at problems with the perspective “How do we learn and improve from [this]?” according to the dean of the Stuart School of Business. Even with COVID-19, Bilson admires the progress both professors and students have made adapting to online learning. 


Despite beginning his career in economics as a successful academic, Bilson remarks that he never quite had the same technical knowledge and mathematics success as his colleagues. He loves speaking, interviews, talks, being given tough questions, and coming up with difficult answers, though the page-long derivations were never Bilson’s style. This is surprisingly fitting for the field, as economics takes the approach that it “doesn’t matter how wild the assumptions are, so long as the conclusions work.”


Calling back to GRE scoring, Bilson was incredibly overjoyed that his score was overturned, though he expressed his gratitude that the University of Chicago accepted him before the score was even corrected. In the context of his other test scores and degrees, the administrators obviously saw it as a fluke, either on his part or the GRE board, and decided to overlook it. “Make sure you don’t undervalue people based on only one observation,” Bilson closed the anecdote with, because there’s a very good chance it may not even be their fault. 

Check out other interviews here!

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