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The hoops MBAs need to jump through to get a job in finance this year

If you’re an MBA student graduated this year, it’s got a lot more complex to break into banking. No longer will turning up to a milkround event on campus and applying for a position on an associate programme suffice – the recruitment process has got a whole lot tougher.

MBA recruitment is down, according to a recent study by MBA Career Services & Employer Alliance, and financial services continues to be the weakest industry – more than 20% of the top business schools reported a decline in recruitment activity, even if this is an improvement on last year when 40% said demand from banks was in the doldrums.

Even Harvard is feeling the pinch, with the financial sector taking only 27% of this year’s graduates, compared with 35% in 2012, and 45% in 2008 when the banking sector was imploding.

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To make matters worse, at least for international students in the U.K., most banks are reluctant to sponsor foreign MBAs when there’s such a plentiful supply of local talent. This essentially gives any non-EU students four months to find a job after graduation or be forced to leave the country.

Investment banks are still turning up on campus, but it’s much easier for those who have already completed an internship at the firm, or who have received a scholarship from an investment bank, to secure a full-time offer on graduation. Others have to be decidedly more creative in their approach.

Networking, and then networking again

The best way to get inside information about banks’ job opportunities is to try to tap alumni currently working in the sector. Most business schools arrange formal networking events, but careers advisors believe it’s better to approach people under your own steam.

Adam Powley, a careers relationship manager focusing on the financial sector at Cass Business School, said: “We’re encouraging students to make the most of alumni networking events and careers presentations, but also develop personal avenues of expanding their network.”

“We want students to do their research on the industry, attend conferences, look for ways to raise their profile throughout the course and expand their network as much as possible,” adds Karen Barker, manager of the CareersPlus centre at Warwick Business School (WBS).

It’s also important to explore every avenue, rather than trying to simply aggressively target those working in the sector. Tornar Yang, an MBA student at WBS, said that he’s taken any opportunity to meet up with investment bankers, as well as people in other industries, for drinks or coffee in his search for a full-time job,

“I’m currently doing an internship in an investment bank in the City, and I found out about the position through a friend who doesn’t work in the financial sector,” he said. “You need to seize every chance to network, because sometimes opportunities come about indirectly.”

Adding value

With internships incredibly competitive to secure, one way MBA students are gaining essential experience in investment banking is through short-term project-based work. Increasingly, MBA students are drafted into banks to tackle a particular problem or try to improve processes – business change projects or assessing the advisability of entering particular markets. This is an indirect route of proving your value, which could eventually result in a full-time strategy-based role, believes Powley.

Louise-Ann Potgieter, an MBA student at Cass is currently working with a large U.S. bank on a project that “involves critical thinking within a broad framework of the organisation”.  “The project and affiliation with a reputable company also gives more credibility to your experience and expertise and will, if anything, enhance your prospects of finding a new job,” she said.

“The reality is that investment banks have fewer formal MBA associate places than two or three years ago, and students need to keep a few plates spinning, develop relationships with the banks and show them what value an MBA can add to their organisation,” said Powley.

Stepping stones

Most people undertake an MBA to enhance or switch careers and in the financial sector this invariably means moving from a back or middle office role into a revenue generating position. Recruiters agree that the prospect of a sales or trading role for most MBAs is now out of reach, since banks are focused only on analyst level hires in this area, and that business school graduates securing front office roles are largely doing so by applying for experienced level jobs, rather than associate programmes.

Even so, gravitating towards their chosen business area is proving increasingly difficult, and many are instead accepting lower roles with an eye to move up in the business. “One student wanted to move into asset management, and secured an associate position at J.P. Morgan Asset Management with the aim to eventually move across to a portfolio manager role,” said Barker. “This stepping-stone approach is increasingly common in the current environment.”

“It’s an incredibly competitive sector, and most MBA students are being realistic and not being overly choosy with what business area they start working in,” added Yang. “I’d ideally like to be working in a front office investment banking role, but may have to accept a position in a division close to it. Or some of my friends are taking roles in smaller organisations. ”

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