It is no secret that investment banking isn’t an easy career path. The work-life balance tends to be skewed heavily toward the former at the expense of the latter, and pay isn’t what it was at the industry’s peak. Further, in some circles, there is still a bit of a stigma attached to investment banking, especially since the financial crisis, fair or not.
That said, many top students are still applying to investment banking analyst programs, with the most prestigious banks offering less than 5% of applicants a job. Clearly, the level of interest is still very high, but is that justified? Is investment banking still a good career option?
The short answer is yes, but why? Yes, there's the money, but that's not all. Banking appeals for various reasons. Here are a few of them.
Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman are fictions. Most bankers are smart, driven and competitive.
“The people who actually do investment banking are totally different than I would have said 10 years ago,” said Jeanne Branthover, a managing partner at DHR International, a recruitment firm. “Are you passionate about what investment banking is about – do you understand it?
“Some people want the aura but don’t understand it – do you understand the time commitment and life choice you’re making?” she said. “How exciting to you is the game? Do you really want to become a mergers-and-acquisition expert? Have you been investing since you were young? Do you want to compete against the smartest people in the world?
“If you say yes and you’re driven and understand what the job entails, then investment banking is for you.”
Yes, banks are cutting costs. Yes, banks are cutting jobs, but hey – banking is a growth industry. So say the analysts at Bernstein Research. Witness the chart below, which suggests the cycle is about to turn.
Remember that Wharton study? The one that said people who start out in banking earn more later on? Even if you don't plan to stay in banking, it makes sense to start out there. Two years in banking looks good on a resume and marks you out as a high achiever.
If you have workaholic tendencies or enjoy challenging yourself day in and day out, you might enjoy your career in banking. Branthover says she knows of bankers who work all the time, barely see their girlfriends/boyfriends, but are incredibly happy with their careers and get paid extremely well.
“Their parents look at them and say ‘You’re exhausted, we never see you, are you sure this is what you really want to do?’ and they respond, ‘I may not want to do this forever, but it is what I want to do at least while I’m young, because I’m stretching myself intellectually every day, and I’m lucky to have found this opportunity,” she says.
You might think banking serves no social purpose whatsoever, but you might be wrong. British business secretary Sajid Javid, says banks represent the best of capitalism and that they employ, “good, hard-working people who have … paid a lot of money in taxes.” Admittedly, Javid might be biased having worked at Deutsche and J.P. Morgan, but banks play an important role in funding the real economy, and – as FT journalist Martin Wolf puts it – “Finance provides a mechanism for shifting resources from those who own them but cannot use them productively to those who can use them but do not own them.”
If you can handle the heat in banking, you'll be able to handle the tepidity anywhere else. The only problem is that by the time you leave, you might be so inured to 14 hour days that you'll continue them elsewhere. A study into ex-bankers by academic Alexandra Michel found that most of them were so driven that they couldn't switch to a 9-5. "My standards of what constitutes normal had been so distorted from banking that what I thought was now a normal life still turned out to be unsustainable in the long run,” confessed.
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