This Is What It’s Really Like To Walk Straight Into an Investment Banking Job After Uni
“‘Work hard play hard’ is the mantra of someone who does neither.”
When you think about what it’s like to work in investment banking, or in the world of finance in general, you probably assume it’s something along the lines of what you see in films like The Wolf of Wall Street. Cocaine, competitiveness, parties and ridiculously nice cars, right? Apparently not.
I spoke to a first year analyst at an investment bank to find out what life in banking is really like.
He doesn’t want to be named, because he “just doesn’t want to represent the company in any way”, but he tells me he lives in W1.
For the purposes of this article we’ll call him Tom.
Tom studied Economics with a year in industry at a Russell Group university and tells me he first knew he wanted to go into investment banking when he joined the uni’s finance club in second year. He says “finance had always interested me as I like numbers. Obviously the pay is attractive, but mostly, [the appeal of the job is in] the opportunities it provides, and the fact that it’s pretty much the most competitive job post-uni.” So he applied for loads of internships for his year in industry and managed to land one.
The internship must have gone well, as having just graduated this year, Tom now works full-time in advisory, which means helping his bosses to provide advice to clients on mergers and acquisitions. He spends his time using Excel to build financial models and run analyses and then uses PowerPoint to put those analyses into a format where they can be shown to clients. He tells me that analysts, with the exception of interns, are at the “bottom of the food chain”.
Tom explains that base salaries for an analyst are around £45-£55K per year, and then yearly bonuses are up to 75% of that amount added on again, though they vary a lot. So at the very best, analysts like Tom are walking straight out of uni and into a job that pays £96K a year.
“My contract reads 9am-6pm, I think. But literally just disregard that straight away.”
Being at the bottom of the food chain in one of London’s investment banks isn’t your standard 9 to 5, 40 hours-a-week job. Tom ends up working 80-100 hours a week, sometimes more. And he usually works every other weekend. So he’s getting paid a lot, but he’s usually working well over twice as much as most graduates.
The job definitely means Tom has to make a lot of sacrifices. He tells me about a time he was at a surprise meal for his friend who was leaving to go abroad the next day. His friend was only in London for that one day and was going to be away for a year. Tom said it was “the worst” because he had to leave the party before his friend even arrived to do some work and deliver some documents to his Managing Director’s house in a cab.
Weekends are the most unpredictable time for people just starting out in investment banking, Tom tells me. “You can literally be called in [to the office] at any time and you have to be there… So you can’t just get drunk at 12pm on a Saturday.”
No one goes against the grain really, you learn what’s frowned upon.
Even though Tom is contracted to work until 6pm every night, he usually doesn’t leave until at least 1am. He says: “we often actually get set work after 9pm, so if you’re not there to do the work, that’s very bad news,” he continues, “they’ll probably call you and get you back in, or have a word the next day. If you were consistently leaving before 9pm they’d talk to you and explain that they need you there. At best, you might get no bonus – at worst, you’d definitely be fired.”
Analysts don’t get paid over time, but according to Tom they quickly learn what’s expected of them: “no one goes against the grain really, we know better than that… you learn what’s frowned upon.”
He tells me about someone he interned with: “There was one guy who kept leaving at like 7:30pm. To be fair, he asked if they had work for him and they were polite and said no, but then it got to around 10pm and other people were doing work that he could have been doing. Guess what? He didn’t get the full-time offer. So, no surprises there.”
Most people would say this is a nightmare, working such long hours that you have no time for a life outside of the office.
But Tom says he loves it and doesn’t resent the workload: “I was never bitter when someone gave me work at the weekend or late at night. They’re just doing their job and I have to do mine – it’s what we’re paid for.” He doesn’t seem at all put off by hard work, “I find the job really interesting actually, so I’d like to stick at it and work my way up.”
He tells me he sleeps for 6 hours a night maximum, “but sometimes it’s like 3 hours and you’re just in a daze the next day.” I ask if it’s hard for him to motivate himself, every hour for 100 hours a week – to keep working full on, and on little sleep. He says he survives on “shit loads of coffee” but says after 9pm you just stop being tired.
“You just focus on getting your work done… The work is always being done, you don’t even think about it. I don’t really know, I’m just always motivated. I stop caring about sleep and stuff.”
So no cocaine-fuelled nights at the office then?
“Absolutely not… Coke is a definite no. Maybe in the ’80s in the US it was big, but not anymore and not in London. Traders in the city, probably, but even then only a few.”
He adds: “We do work hard and when we go out together obviously we like to let loose a little bit, but not inappropriately so. Usually we have to work the next day.”
“Before you get too many ideas about first-year analysts living the ‘high life’, just remember that with those crazy hours we need to live close to the office and that means sky-high rents.”
Cocaine is a definite no.
It’s beginning to sound like investment banking, especially at analyst level, is just really, really hard work and not a lot of fun. I ask Tom what the appeal is then, is it all just about the money?
“The money is important,” he says, “because you’re giving up a lot to be there.” But for him it’s not what drove him to investment banking. And, obviously, he barely has any time to spend it anyway. The main appeal of the job for Tom is how competitive it is, the fact that not everyone can get there and not everyone who gets hired can hack it once they are there.
He talks about the really high staff turnover in banking in lower level positions like his: “a lot of people only stay for 2-3 years before leaving for a job with a better work/life balance.” But he doubts this will put him off. He won’t be quitting any time soon.
“If you make it it’s a great sense of achievement,” says Tom, proudly.
More than anything, Tom wants to be successful and says that a 90-hour week “still leaves time for seeing people.” I ask if he’d rather have more of a work-life balance, and whether he feels guilty about missing out on time with his friends and family.
He responds: “Potentially I would feel regret, but certainly not guilt. The alternative is that I do spend more time with people, but feel permanently less satisfied. There are trade-offs for every choice one makes in life.”
Happiness is achieved in many ways, I’m over the fucking moon.
I ask what his friends and family think, don’t they miss him being around all the time? He admits that “people sometimes struggle to understand. People have to understand that I have to work first and foremost.” I ask about what if a friend or family member needed him, though, would he sacrifice work for them then? He responds “I mean, if it was life and death, maybe I can compromise. But generally I would cancel dates, parents’ visits etc to put my job first.”
He says this attitude “could get in the way” of his personal relationships, “but it hasn’t so far.” I suggest that, though the job hasn’t caused too many problems yet, he has chosen success over happiness, but he disagrees: “No. Happiness is achieved in many ways, including through personal achievement. I’m over the fucking moon.” He says his job “very much defines who [he is].”
“It makes me happier than watching Netflix with my friends.”
One of Tom’s favourite memories from the six months he spent on the job as an intern is when he impressed others with the work he did. “When I saw the faces of some senior guys at a private equity firm after we worked super hard on this piece of analysis and they weren’t expecting it. The work we did was fucking awesome and they knew it,” he says.
But why did this make him so happy? Why is his main motivation in dedicating 100 hours a week to work, and sacrificing seeing friends and family to do so, centred around pleasing his boss and clients? Tom thinks his need for success over everything else is driven by, what he describes as, “some innate desire I can’t quite articulate. Some sense of self-actualisation and maximising my intellectual potential.”
Mistakes are not tolerated, even the smallest ones.
I suggest that many students and recent graduates would rather have time for nights out with their friends and watching Netflix than give all of that up to make their boss and clients happy. Many would probably say they’d rather have less money and more time to spend the money they do have on fun things. But Tom thinks those people may later wish they spent less time watching TV, and more time working really hard.
“People will look back and go ‘did I actually do anything?!’ There are a lot of people [our age] who want to achieve big things, but they end up in careers where they can’t be quite the success they wanted to be… because either they don’t try hard enough or aren’t competent enough.”
What Tom likes about his job are things you or I might perceive as negatives. He says, at work, where he spends the vast majority of his life, “mistakes are not tolerated, even the smallest ones”. And I point out that he says that like it’s a good thing – it seems as though he thrives on the pressure of a job where you can’t put a foot wrong. He says “You have it exactly. I’m a perfectionist.”
Tom says that other people his age who don’t go on to achieve the success he is striving for “can be just as happy” but that, for him, it would feel like “an inefficient use of resources”.
Finally, Tom tells me the idea that he may not live up to his full potential is what worries him most.