Rise to a financial challenge

Investment banking requires stamina as well as academic skill, but the rewards reflect the responsibility
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The Independent Online

Think of banking and the first names that are likely to spring to mind are the big high street banks: the ones with custody of your overdraft. But beyond the high street, most banks deal with companies who have financial interests all over the world, juggling equities, stocks and shares, mergers and acquisitions and all aspects of corporate finance. Investment banking is one field where high-calibre graduates can progress rapidly, take on early responsibility and earn excellent salaries, but it's not a career for the faint-hearted. Long hours and a fast-moving, pressured environment mean that not only top academic skills but also drive, determination and stamina are prerequisites.

Think of banking and the first names that are likely to spring to mind are the big high street banks: the ones with custody of your overdraft. But beyond the high street, most banks deal with companies who have financial interests all over the world, juggling equities, stocks and shares, mergers and acquisitions and all aspects of corporate finance. Investment banking is one field where high-calibre graduates can progress rapidly, take on early responsibility and earn excellent salaries, but it's not a career for the faint-hearted. Long hours and a fast-moving, pressured environment mean that not only top academic skills but also drive, determination and stamina are prerequisites.

There is far more variety in investment banking than many graduates might imagine, says Rhiannon Thomas, a graduate recruitment manager with Deutsche Bank, which recruits around 200 graduates each year in the UK. "Many people think first of corporate finance, trading and mergers and acquisitions, but there are also roles in research, sales and marketing, and the technical and operations side is one of the backbones of the bank."

Numeracy is one important factor, but the disciplines that feed into banking are as varied as the roles available. "You don't always need a degree in maths," explains Thomas. "Some of the graduates who join our training programme have studied engineering, business or economics, and some come from arts and humanities backgrounds. What's most important is an analytical mind, a fresh, innovative approach, and a genuine interest in investment banking."

This is not a career you will drift into, she warns. "We would expect anyone applying to have a strong desire to work in the industry and a knowledge of basic products and terms such as equity, bonds and fixed income. Academically, we are looking for top performers, so we would expect a minimum of a 2.1 or the equivalent."

Other key skills include creativity and the ability to communicate and work in a team, she adds. But if you can make the grade, the rewards are great. "You can build a career very fast. Investment banking is a real meritocracy and there are so many opportunities. You could be managing your own desk or trading portfolio after just a few years. But it's not a misconception that the pressure can be high. We are looking for the ability not just to be able to work under pressure but to thrive in a fast-paced working environment."

According to Susie Lawrence, careers adviser at London School of Economics (LSE), degree discipline is "immaterial" for potential investment bankers. "What's far more important is a passionate interest in finance. You really need to love the world of finance. The job is intense, the hours are long and you need to be enthusiastic about what you are doing." A successful candidate, she says, would be following the markets, perhaps even experimenting a little on the stock market themselves. She would advise candidates to read the financial press, join finance or business clubs and societies at university and gain some kind of work experience in their holidays, either with a bank or gathering transferable skills. "It's all about showing some serious commitment."

Even if the degree subject isn't important, typical entrance requirements are exacting. Banks are likely to demand 24 UCAS points and at least a 2.1 degree. "They are looking for first-class brains, strong analytical and intellectual ability, as well as commercial awareness," says Lawrence. "Increasingly candidates are also following an internship. I would say that probably 80 per cent of the new hires have done that."

The male to female intake ratio is likely to be around 60:40, she says; as much as 70:30 in some banks. "It is still a male-dominated field. The issue is less about attracting women initially, but about keeping them at age 30-plus; this is a career that is difficult to combine with a family. The potential is there for serious money, masses of responsibility, but you have to put in long hours and cope well with stress."

Numerical skills are important, says Stephanie Lacey, deputy head of European campus recruiting at UBS Investment Bank. "But you don't necessarily need a numerical degree. Skills such as foreign languages or computer programming are attractive too. We are also looking for core skills such as being able to work in a team, solve problems and communicate; without those, you won't necessarily succeed, even if you are very strong academically."

Jo Craig, 24, a junior analyst in equity research, took A-levels in maths, economics, politics and biology and a degree in maths from Leeds University. She followed the UBS internship programme before joining the bank permanently in 2002. She says that she was first attracted not only by UBS's position as a market leader but also by the respect the company extends towards its staff and the office culture. "The environment is a lot more laid back than you might expect from a major investment bank. That is not to say there is a complacent atmosphere - there certainly isn't. The work can be stressful but the people are very supportive."

One of the keys to success, Craig has found, is teamwork and mutual support. "Ruthless go-getters wouldn't fit in here - it's a results-driven environment but not a cut-throat place. You need to have the drive to help others succeed as well as yourself," she says.

'Good people get spotted early on'

Polly Edwardson, 23, joined the Deutsche Bank graduate programme just over a year ago and now works as a global markets sales analyst. She gained four As at A-level in maths, chemistry, biology and general studies and a First in economics from LSE.

I heard about Deutsche Bank at careers fairs and presentations that were held at LSE. When I first applied, they were very efficient. I heard back very quickly, and I had an offer straight away.

The interview process was all very much about how you get on with people. We had to work in group situations, demonstrate teamwork, and give presentations to MDs. I came out with a very good feeling; I had met people I liked and felt I would fit in with.

I had opportunities to meet clients from day one, which were fantastic. The chance for responsibility comes at a very early stage.

One of the best feelings is working together to meet a deadline. You get very good feedback. The managers notice what's going on individually, and we have quarterly meetings to ensure the bank is getting what it needs from us and we're getting what we need too. It's very encouraging and good people get spotted early on.

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