I met a friend of a friend in a Mayfair hostelry the other day who was determined to get into M&A. He was interning in the operations division of a mid-sized European bank and hated it, unsurprisingly.
Working in ops is a thankless task. I’ve never done it (fortunately) but everyone knows this. Most ops people want to become traders but this guy thought he could hack corporate finance, despite apparently knowing nothing about it. I worked in M&A for several years in a graduate role and I warned him how tough it was. Like dog years, I told him: a year in M&A can feel like seven in real life. “Yeah, but it’s well-paid, so how bad can that be?” was his reply.
Forewarned is always forearmed. At recruiting events, banks make no bones about the long hours in junior M&A. “Rigorous,” they say. “Hellish” is how ex-bankers, who have nothing to prove or hide, would better describe it.
It is a true test of endurance, sleep deprivation, human relationships and the ability of well-educated, smart human beings to do mind-numbingly boring tasks for very long hours, day after day.
You will sacrifice your personal life because you have to be always on call, checking your Blackberry and ready at short notice to jump into the nearest taxi to take you to the office. And as is often observed, all this is done for less than the minimum hourly wage.
How can that be, given the high salaries paid to even the most junior front-office banker? Well, if one assumes that entry level salaries are roughly twice the UK average, but bankers work three or four times the normal thirty-five hour week, it’s not hard to see how that calculation adds up.
If you are determined to do well in M&A, I can give you four solid pieces of advice, based on my experience:
Accept you won't get much, and learn about sleep cycles. Quality of sleep is far more important than quantity. This is because the kind of sleep you get is key to how rested you feel, and you cycle between so-called deep sleep and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Wake up during deep sleep and you will feel awful, but waking from REM sleep leaves you refreshed. Learning a little about how to control this kind of sleep will pay huge dividends to you. A friend of mine even practiced practice sleep deprivation in advance of starting his graduate analyst programme, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this tactic!
Get your diet right - long hours lead to bad habits and abuse of corporate expense accounts. There is a proven business model in delivering highly priced comfort food to bankers working late into the night at their desks. Know which heavy foods not to eat, and be aware that lack of sleep releases large amounts of the brain chemicals which make us crave those rich, stodgy foods which slow our brains down in the long-run and make the lack of sleep feel far, far worse.
Here you will have to accept that sacrifices need to be made. Your insanely busy work lifestyle will mean you will lose some close acquaintances. All you can do is warn them that you are about to go to ground for at least the first few months of boot camp. Until you get to grips with your new life, you will spend very few hours outside of the office at all. Some of your loved ones will not like this and you will lose their friendship, which you are just going to have to come to terms with. The ones who stay faithful to you will benefit from you future success, although that thought might not be very comforting to you at the time.
Take it whenever possible, in even small ways. The endorphins will keep you sane, as will just being out of the office, around normal people with normal lives.
Your mental preparation will be made easier by all of above.
The author worked in M&A until he saw the light and moved to another, saner part of the City.