The supermodels of finance

Elizabeth Heathcote looks at some unconventional options in the financial sector
Acareer in finance does not have to be limited to broking, trading or accountancy, or even an office environment. There are alternatives, but most graduates do not look for them.

"The graduate market is very conventional," says Alan Fawcitt, deputy head of the careers service at Cambridge University. "Everyone applies to well-known names, like Goldman Sachs. They think of broking, but don't think of commodities. They think of accountancy but never of niche areas, which can be fascinating."

Derivatives is one of the sectors recruiting most heavily at the moment, with the City stalking high-flying maths post-graduates and computer whizzes to work on increasingly complex risk and pricing models.

Neil Maddocks, 26, has been with the product development department of Credit Suisse Financial Products, the derivatives arm of the CS Holdings Group, for a year. He has a PhD in theoretical condensed matter physics from Cambridge. He is part of a team of 11, five based in London, four in New York and two in Tokyo, that concentrates on designing ever more accurate ways of pricing derivatives products and calculating their associated risk.

The job revolves around heavy-duty maths and computing, although Mr Maddocks insists there is more to it than abstract modelling. "It's not just maths," he says. "We have to know a lot about the markets we're dealing with so we do spend a lot of time talking to people, to traders." Dealers also provide the department with a crucial early warning system of necessary model refinements.

His day begins by tackling any problems with models that may have become apparent to foreign market traders overnight. Other tasks include writing spreadsheets to help traders to analyse risk more effectively, and working with marketers to calculate prices for new derivative products.

In any spare time - though there is not much of that - the team works on new models. "We work long hours. It's the biggest downside of the job," says Mr Maddocks. He works between 10 and 12 hours per day, and longer if necessary. The evening before I spoke to him there had been a new model released in Tokyo and he had been in the office until midnight.

The money he earns is "a good recompense", however, and he enjoys the atmosphere. "It's very laid back really. We work as a team, although there is someone senior who's been in the business for a long time and if I run into problems, I can do some head crunching with him. It's nice, it is still a small company."

The team is also very young, aged between 26 and 30. Not all have PhDs, but those that do not are recognised to be outstanding with computers.

This clearly excludes most of us, but there are other alternatives. One option is provided by Marks & Spencer: financial management in its stores. Diane McCarthy joined the company as a graduate trainee six years ago with a degree in French and business studies. She is now financial manager of four stores: Chester, Wrexham, Crewe and Northwich.

The financial manager is one of four posts accountable directly to the store manager and carries three areas of responsibility.

The first is probity and accuracy of financial information - ensuring that accounting procedures are adhered to. The job does not require any accountancy qualifications, however, although Marks & Spencer is sponsoring Ms McCarthy through her exams at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants.

The second is systems management. This involves analysing and exploiting the information generated by the IT system rather than running it - Ms McCarthy is, she says, no computer expert. She will isolate any movement in sales trends from the store's profit and loss account - if a product is doing particularly well, for example, or if a section of the store is unusually quiet - on a day-to-day basis so the company can act as quickly as possible to maximise sales.

Marks & Spencer is increasingly devolving responsibility for profit to store level, and this provides her with a great deal of scope. "One of the things I love about this job is that it is as big as I have time to make it," she says. "I'm managing profit, and the results of my action can be very visible. I have a huge amount of autonomy for such a large company."

Her third area of responsibility is for staff. She is line manager to 50 people, including those in the cash office, the financial and customer services departments, and the security staff. "I wanted a career in finance but I didn't want to be just an accountant," she says. "This gives me a management role. I'm part of a team and I like that."

Strategy in each of these departments is also her responsibility - at present, she is calculating how best to deploy security staff among her branches over the Christmas period.

A graduate entering the programme would start on pounds 17,500, excluding London weighting, and a financial manager - a position he or she could expect to reach in three years - on pounds 25,000. Steady rather than spectacular numbers, perhaps - but you don't need a PhD.