Our Entry Level Finance Professional's interview tells you how relevant work experience plus outside training in basic analytical skills can translate scholarship in Classic Greek/Latin studies into a career in finance.
ZD: Why finance (investment banking)?
A: My path to finance/investment banking wasn't as straightforward as many of my peers. I was a Humanities major in college, and I tried to get some varied internship experience during my sophomore summer, with internships in publishing and city government. I decided both of those fields probably weren't for me, and ended up at an internship at a start-up financial firm that was trying to look at the world economy in a new and different way.
During that internship, I gained a lot of exposure to the inner workings of a wide range of companies through their regulatory filings, and I found that businesses were dynamic, living things not unlike literature, history and the other things I enjoyed studying at school. When I was younger, “finance” had been a four-letter word to me associated with number crunching, grueling hours and general soullessness – but it had also been totally opaque to me, and when I realized that business analysis could provide its own sort of satisfaction, I opened my mind to the type of finance jobs that I had previously dismissed as “uncreative.” In the end, the best opportunity for me was at an investment bank – I had also been receptive to buy-side and consulting jobs, but this is the one that worked out.
ZD: Tell us about the “process” - your résumé, the interview.
A: I had the benefit of being from a “target” Ivy League school with a strong GPA, but the disadvantages of not having summer investment banking experience or a college major that was particularly relevant to the industry. It turns out that the latter was a sort of advantage, in that investment banking interviews at the entry level are relatively easy to prepare for. For my current job, I went through two rounds of interviews with four people in each round. They tested my interest and preparedness by asking me how to do a DCF (discounted cash flow analysis), quizzing me on valuation multiples and how the three financial statements (income statement, balance sheet and statement of cash flows) worked. Using one of the popular websites for aspirants into the financial industry, or the Vault guide to investment banking, it shouldn't take more than a few days of studying to grasp those concepts well enough to “pass” the technical aspect of the interview. Bankers are more concerned about things like work ethic, genuine interest in the field and cultural fit than whether you can do a DCF, but if you haven't prepared how to do one, it doesn't speak well to your level of commitment to landing the job and being in the financial industry.
ZD: How would you describe your transition from college to career?
A: There are a lot of very stark differences, but I sort of experienced them and acclimated to them out of necessity. One of the biggest ones is that, even if you're in a city where a lot of your friends have moved to after graduating, it's NOTHING like a campus-centric college social scene. You may be living with friends from college and have some more within walking distance, but for the most part it's a much bigger ordeal to get people together. Additionally, people are busy or tired during the week, so your time for “hanging out” becomes much more confined (and ideally more meaningful, since it's rarer).
On top of that, if you're in an industry like investment banking, you have to be ready for your free time to be snatched away from you right before your eyes. I dealt with this by adjusting my expectations. It's much more frustrating to expect to get off work at 6:00, then have to stay in the office until 8:00, than to go into the office with no expectations and leave at 9:00. It was very important for me to get used to the fact that I couldn't make my own schedule anymore, but also to roll with the tide and find a way to give yourself some personal time and make time with the people who matter.
ZD: Your biggest surprise?
A: I had a lot of trouble meeting deadlines in school, often allowing myself to get distracted or go to sleep and revisit something in the morning when I should have been more diligent, and I feared that at a demanding job I might have similar issues getting all my stuff done on time. I found that the structure of the work environment made it much less appealing to procrastinate – your work usually has an immediate and practical use, you receive almost instantaneous feedback, and you learn an enormous amount as a result. To some extent this is particular to an investment banking job or something with similarly long hours, because the quicker you finish your work the sooner you get to go home, and you never find yourself “running out the clock.” In the jobs I've had with a more defined “9-to-5” workday, I found it much easier to lose focus and put something off till tomorrow.
More relevant to the job itself, I was very surprised by the amount of responsibility I was entrusted with after I gained a bit of experience at this job. I've had to walk a CEO through his own business model, tell a CFO what was wrong with his analysis of his own company's sales numbers, and do most of the production of the materials a company will use to find new investors. At an investment bank, you get so much experience in the workings of transaction processes (i.e. mergers and acquisitions and financings) that a 23-year-old can be telling a senior executive what needs to be done and what will happen next. It can be baptism by fire, but it's a great way to build confidence in a job environment.
ZD: Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?
A: The true answer is that I don't really know; part of the reason I'm in investment banking is that it can serve as a springboard into other financial and business-related jobs. That said, it's possible that I will be finishing up business school and seeking out a job that plays to my strengths and interests: not necessarily a private equity firm, hedge fund, consulting firm, investment bank or corporate development department in a company – but those are the “defaults,” so to speak. I'm very interested going against that trend into a more entrepreneurial but similarly demanding place, but that's only a vague outline in my head at this point.
ZD: Your résumé.
ZD: What you think shines in your résumé.
A: I tried to emphasize that I played an active and thoughtful role in the work experience I had. Firms are looking for self-starters who will take initiative to learn and do a great job without requiring a lot of hand-holding from others. For this reason it's important to emphasize things that make you stand out in your past internships, extracurricular organizations or academic environments: even if you've done a great job fulfilling the rote responsibilities in school or at work, that's not something that will differentiate you as a candidate. Having a strong GPA from a target school definitely helps get a first interview, but as with all aspects of the résumé, it stops mattering once you get selected to interview.
From an IB-specific standpoint, I highlighted the business course I had taken after graduating and the aspects of my work experience that translated directly to investment banking. The most relevant experience for a full-time investment banking job would, of course, be previous investment banking experience. Short of that, however, fundamental and comparable company analysis (which I had done through internships at two asset management firms) is also a core focus of investment banking. This allowed me to show, at the least, that I had a strong interest in the area in which I was applying for a job.
ZD: Two tips (Do's and Don'ts)?
A: DO be pro-active in your job search, stay in touch with any people you may meet who are at companies where you might have an interest in working – they are always looking for candidates and it feels good on a personal level to help someone get a job, so you shouldn't be hesitant to reach out. It's a common impulse to not apply somewhere or contact someone at a firm because you're afraid of failing. If you get over that anxiety, you will be at an advantage to the huge number of people who are shying away from opportunities instead of being aggressive in their pursuit.
DON'T take a closed mind to the job search – i.e., don't be dead set on one job or line of work just because it sounds prestigious, or someone you looked up to did it. You'll better know what is up your alley after you get some experience, and doors will open as you become a stronger candidate and meet new people in interesting places.
ZD: What do you do in your spare time? Hobbies? Sports?
A: A lot of sports-watching, spending time with friends in any capacity, trying to break out from the routine in spare time and seek new things to do in the city, movies, certain TV shows. In a few months hopefully I can add “going to the gym,” but that wouldn't be totally accurate at this point!