How Hard Is It To Get A Job In Investment Banking?

Are you interested in working in a bank? More specifically, are you interested in working for an investment bank? One of the questions I often get on this website is this: "How hard is it to get a job in investment banking?"

There are variants of this question, e.g. getting into private banking, retail banking and such - but the essence is the same.

Getting a job in investment banking is not easy. I live here in Singapore and it is probably one of the most buoyant employment markets in Asia right now.

Even so, I see graduates and mid-career professionals struggling to get into the likes of UBS, Credit Suisse, JP Morgan, CitiGroup or Deutsche Bank.

And if you're looking for a front-office role, e.g. institutional sales in Credit Suisse - it'll be even more difficult. For these roles, prestigious MBAs or a special X factor is usually needed to get in.

How many times have you surfed on the website of the big name banks ike JP Morgan or Credit Suisse, exploring their job openings, and (almost) salivating at the propsect of being a "Head of FX Trading" or "Head of Institutional Sales" in one of them?

I know I've done that when I was looking for jobs in banks.

In this article, I'm going to wrap our heads around this "getting into banks" issue. Let's focus on investment banking for now - as the principles apply similarly for other types of banks.

What I'm going to tell you will help you understand, at a high-level (1) what kind of roles are available in investment banks and are they right for you, (2) how do you get an interview for these roles, and (3) how to excel at the job once you're in.

Let's get cracking and I hope you'll learn more about investment banking by the end of this article.

1. What Job Roles Are Available In An Investment Bank?

The first thing we should understand is this - what kind of jobs are available in investment banks? Well, in my mind, there are three kinds of roles, which we can classify as:

Front-Office Roles

These front-office roles are either sales or trading.

Often called the "Sell Side" in industry jargon, the sales people in an investment bank go out and work with "institutional clients' (i.e. big companies, think e.g. Procter and Gamble, Starbucks) and try to get them to buy the bank's services. These could be anything from Mergers & Acquistions, IPO advisory or Corporate Finance.

On the other hand, the front office of an investment bank also has traders, often called the "Buy Side". These traders could be "proprietary traders" - meaning they take the bank's money with the sole purpose of making a profit for the bank. Or they could be "principal traders" - meaning they trade on behalf of a client, earning spreads or commissions.

how hard is it to get a job in investment banking 1Front office roles in an investment bank are typically sales and trading

These roles are notoriously difficult to get into, especially if you're a mid-career switcher. Usually, banks look for the top of the class from Ivy League institutions to fill these ranks.

If you were not top of your class and already one or two years out of college (say a non-Ivy League institution), it is wise to plan to do an very high quality MBA (think Harvard or Wharton) and then apply.

Middle-Office Roles

These roles tend to fall into Product Control and Compliance.

To me, these roles "check on" the front office and make sure the traders are not doing something fishy.

how hard is it to get a job in investment banking 2Middle-office investment banking roles involve e.g. product control or compliance

Take, for example, the job of Product Controllers. What they do is to review traders' "blotters" (i.e. a list of trades booked for the day) and make sure the traders are not exceeding trading limits, or taking on too much risk for the bank.

Compliance folks tend to look for suspicious transactions, e.g. a trader buying and selling a lot of stock within a short period of time.

Middle office roles are more "risk aversion" type of roles - so they can be "boring" as such (personally, I've always avoided these kind of roles, I find them too robotic and by the book - but that's my own opininon only).

Back-Office Roles

These are the "engine room" roles - think huge departments of Operations and IT folks fulfilling trades across asset classes like equities, FX, fixed income, derivatives, etc.

Operations roles involve checking, matching and "reconciling" trades, usually late into the night. IT roles involve developing technology and systems to uplift revenue and reduce costs.

These are good roles to get into to "break into investment banking" - because granted, the entry barriers are lower than the front office. However, do take note that it is not easy to transition from a back-office role to the front-office (e.g. without a good MBA or a special X factor, like a flair for sales)

how hard is it to get a job in investment banking 3Back-office investment banking roles are usually in Operations and IT teams

Let's now move on to how you can get a job interview for these roles in an investment bank

2. How Do You Land An Interview At An Invesment Bank?

In this section, let's try to understand how to land a job at an investment bank, be it a front, middle or back-office role. Each type of role needs a different strategy as compared to the rest.

Landing an interview for a front-office role

There are three ways I can think of to land an interview for these roles.

Network. One of the best ways to get inside the front office is to "talk to a friend". If you know someone in the bank you want to work for, get a referral from them and land an interview. That is a thousand times better than apply straight on a job portal or on the bank's homepage. The truth is, in the corporate world (and many other arenas in life), to land the juiciest opportunities, you have to be on the "inside circle".

Get a very good MBA. This is a tough journey, as you will need to prepare for, apply to and complete an Ivy League level MBA program - the likes of Harvard, Wharton, INSEAD, Oxford, etc. The schools will have investment banks recruiting talent before students complete their degree - so this is a good route to take if a MBA is something you've always wanted to take anyway.

Apply through a job portal / headhunter. This is my least recommended option, as you will be up against thousands of other applicants and your chances of getting seen by the investment bank's hiring manager will be really slim.

Landing an interview for a middle-office role

For these roles, there is less competition and again, a couple of ways you can land an interview.

Network. It's no surprise - networking will get you into ANY job role you want. If you know someone from the compliance or product control worlds, then talk to them, say you want a job and learn what you can do to maximize your chances.

Get into a compliance related role. One option to "break" into middle office roles in investment banks is to come in with strong compliance credentials. If you work for a regulatory body (e.g. in Singapore that would be the Monetary Authority of Singapore, or the MAS) - you have a very strong understanding of regional regulations - and banks like that. If you can't immediately land a job in the bank, take an extra step to join e.g. a regulatory body or similar role in a financial institution for a couple of years, then jump into the investment bank when you get a chance.

Apply through a job portal / headhunter. Of course, like in the front-office roles, applying through this channel is always an option. One thing I'd like to point out though - compliance roles have lately (post financial crisis of 2008 to 2009) become very popular - banks are hiring very strongly in this space. Just check out sites like eFinancialCareers to see what I mean.

Landing an interview for a back-office role

For a back-office role, you'll have a lot of opportunities because a LOT of people move in and out of the back-office, creating opportunities for people who want to join.

Now, of course, networking and applying through job portals and all that still apply, but I'd like to highlight something new in terms of back-office roles for you here.

Getting into Operations. I'll be very candid with you - Operations roles in banks are easy to get into, especially the junior roles. I've seen banks here in Singapore - if you're young, have a degree and a right attitude, you'll get in quite easily.

Do you need requisite product or domain knowledge? Well, you do need some background - so go take some courses in banking or a part-time degree like a CFA or MFE - show the bank you're making effort to learn about products like equities, fixed income, structured products, etc. and also the "trade lifecycle".

The trade lifecycle is what gets trades in a bank executed and fulfilled and is fundamental domain knowledge for Operations teams. A good book for giving you basic knowledge of the trade lifecycle is over here Or you can read my article on domain knowledge here.

Getting into IT. Ok, for IT roles in banks - I'll be honest with you too. Many of these "pure IT" roles are now outsourced or are easy replaced. Trying to get into an investment bank as an "IT guy" will be a hard-sell.

What differentiates you from the next guy? You need something else.

The best way to get into a bank in an IT capacity is to sell yourself not as a Microsoft, Java or IT architecture kind of person. Instead, sell yourself as a Business Analyst - someone who can bridge business and technology - THAT kind of role is ALWAYS in demand in banks. And I speak from experience, having worked with so many banks here in Asia and in Singapore.

Pick up a sub-domain you'd like to specialize in - it could be a core banking system like Avaloq, Temenos, or a Credit Risk or AML solution. Add that functional angle to your IT skill set and you will sell yourself better to banks.

I think that's very useful because as a project manager, I often waste a lot of time looking for a "starter document" to kick start things like my Project Charter, workplan, training plan, etc. Those templates have saved me a lot of time over the years.

3. How Do You Excel In An Investment Bank?

Ok, now let's see what we can learn about doing a job well in an investment bank.

Honestly, I wasn't too sure if I should discuss this topic - since it seems so broad. But in my experience, there are three things you can do to stay relevant and excel at your job in an investment bank.

Show up. The first rule I have - and this applies to any job, really - is to just show up. I'm not talking about showing up for work. I'm talking about after work drinks, parties or get togethers.

Learn to network with the big bosses - let them know you exist. Let them know what you're interested in. Showcase your work - advertise yourself. In case you're thinking this is like shameless plugging, well - I've got news for you - the corporate world is about who you know, more than what you know. So, always remember - the FIRST rule - show up and be seen.

Know your stuff. Rule number two - learn in the background. Sure, show up for work and stuff. But behind the scenes, work on your MBA applications, work on your CFA - continuously improve yourself. Devote sometime each day to work on your longer-term goals.

I've seen too many employees just plug away in the "present". Not a good thing. What if you lose your job? What insurance do you have? What new credentials have you picked up? Get an edge - get a one up over your colleagues.

Be helpful. One of the most important rules I've learnt in my career is to stay helpful. Don't say things like "I don't have the time" or "I don't care" to your colleagues. PLEASE - those kind of statements KILL your career.

Instead, say "How can I help you?", "Let's see if I can help". If you stay helpful, people will remember you. They will come back to you if they need things done. And if you multiply this over the length of your career, you will be someone that others can depend on - to get this things done. And that, is what gets you promoted in any organization.

I know the above tips are not exactly investment banking specific, but I can tell you - very little career tips are industry specific. These days, its MUCH MORE about your people skills, your ability to pick up differentiating knowledge fast and your attitude that counts. ALWAYS remember that.

4. Closing Thoughts

In summary, let's do a re-cap of what you've learnt about getting a job in investment banking.

First up - front-office roles like sales and trading are extremely competitive. - If you're a fresh grad with good results, go ahead and try to get in. The banks love the cream of the top folks like you. - If you're a few years into the job, or a mid-career changer, then getting into through your network or getting a top notch MBA is a good bet.

If you're betting on middle office roles, try to network and / or get a role in a regulatory body. Remember that banks are hiring BIG in this space now and there are many opportunities available.

Next, for back-office roles - getting into Operations is not difficult. Learn some skills about product processing or the trade lifecycle. Then have right attitude and be willing to put in the hours to build your expertise.

For IT roles, position yourself as a business-technology person, with special domain knowledge in e.g. core banking, credit, equities - whatever solution area you've been working on before.

And finally, once you have landed that job in an investment bank, make sure you (1) show up (2) know your stuff and (3) stay helpful.

That's it! If you take the above tips and execute them, I'm sure you'll have a very successful career in investment banking! Ok, granted - this is by no means a complete guide to investment banking - but I hope it will at least help you understand the banking world a little bit more.

Heck, someday, you may be the next Head of Institutional Sales in Credit Suisse, or COO at JP Morgan! Good luck in your journeys!

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