You don’t need a finance degree to enjoy a challenging and rewarding career at a bank. Lucy Mair meets four graduates from non-finance backgrounds at Goldman Sachs and finds out how they're doing
Chemical engineering graduate
I studied chemical engineering at Imperial College London, but when I did an internship in engineering in my penultimate year I found the pace too slow and that the responsibilities given to juniors weren’t very motivating. I participated in a one-day banking event for students, which gave me a glimpse of the financial sector. It seemed exciting, so I decided to take some financial electives during my final year at university to give myself a bit of background and to deepen my knowledge.
I was selected for an internship at Goldman Sachs. It was frightening and fantastic at the same time because you get thrown in at the deep end, but you also get exposure to many different teams and desks, which helped me choose my current role in the commodities team. In finance, if you show that you have the motivation to learn, you then get given a lot more responsibility than you would in most other sectors.
My team and I provide hedging services to companies with exposure to commodities. We spend a lot of time on the road meeting clients in Europe, as well as updating them over the phone on market fluctuations and pricing, and discussing different structures with them. Having a background in engineering instilled a strong work ethic in me, and taught me discipline and perseverance, which come in very useful. At university I also did an Erasmus year in Spain, where I developed my Spanish. Foreign languages aren’t a prerequisite for working in finance, but they’re definitely a plus if you’re in a client-facing role.
My role has evolved as I’ve learnt more. You start as a generalist, helping various people in the team and doing lots of different things, and then as you progress you work directly with clients and manage projects.
If you haven’t studied a finance-related subject, you might sometimes feel that you need to do some catching up, but I think that can be an advantage rather than a disadvantage. When you come across a concept that’s new to you, you’re more likely to read up about it and make an effort to understand it fully, whereas someone who had studied it at university might be more blasé.
Political science and history graduate
The best advice I can give is to keep an open mind about the different job opportunities you consider. Having studied political science and history at university, I didn’t initially picture myself in finance. But, by doing an internship I discovered that it’s a stimulating environment where I can combine my interests with my skills. After my internship I was certain that I wanted to pursue a career in finance because I’d had the opportunity to both deepen my knowledge of some of the things I’d studied at university, and also to learn about areas that were new to me, which I found very exciting.
I work in the sovereign and financial institutions team, so we look at countries and governments and assess their creditworthiness. Much of my day is spent keeping up with the news and understanding developing situations in countries throughout the world. It involves quantifying risk and understanding financial structures, but it isn’t as mathematical as I expected working at a bank to be. My background in political science is helpful for analysing different countries, and I was also involved in the Model United Nations at university, which has helped me to understand and interpret different political situations. Whatever you study at university, your time there is important because it helps you become an analytical thinker.
It doesn’t matter if you have little knowledge of finance when you apply. I’d never taken a finance course before I came to work here, and I haven’t done maths since I was at school! In the interview, what they’re really looking for are dynamic thinkers and people who can master a certain topic, whether it’s finance-related or not. If you don’t understand a question you’re asked in the interview, it’s important to be honest and admit that you’re unfamiliar with the concept, but to show that you’re eager to learn.
When you start the job, the bank focuses on making sure that you have the skills and tools you need to be able to contribute as much as possible so within a few weeks you’re on a par with people who have finance backgrounds. You’re encouraged to continue learning on the job, I’ve been here for two months now, and I still have several training sessions a day.
Art history and music graduate
Ithink it’s a myth that you have to have completed an internship to work at a bank. I applied for a graduate role without having a numerate degree or any work experience in finance. Although I took a risk by jumping straight into the industry, I had spoken to friends and acquaintances in banking before I applied. After talking to them about the different departments at the bank and what the various roles involved, I was convinced that research was right for me.
I’ve played the violin from a very young age, and initially I wanted to be a classical musician. After I graduated from Cambridge with a degree in art history, I spent two years at a music conservatory in Berlin. That was the first opportunity I’d had to look at what a career in music involved, and although it was going well, I decided I didn’t want to do it long term. I realised that I wanted to learn about business and finance, and to work extremely hard with clever and interesting people.
My experience in music has helped me enormously in my role at Goldman Sachs, where I use financial models to make assumptions about a company‘s business and see whether its share price is accurately reflecting them. The discipline of preparing for a deadline, the experience of playing with a group of musicians, and the pressure of performing in front of an audience have all been extremely valuable. I can apply those skills to my work, because maintaining a level of focus and discipline under pressure is essential.
You don’t need to have any prior financial knowledge before going into a bank as a graduate. In my team, people come from a range of academic backgrounds; a fair few people did arts subjects, and someone was even on track to becoming a professional tennis player! The work is numerate, but you can learn the maths and the finance. Goldman Sachs provides exceptional training, which means people get up to speed relatively quickly.
If you don’t have any experience in finance, you should just be completely open about the things that have attracted you to the industry. In your interview, one specific catalyst that sparked your interest can be just as powerful as a long list of finance-related experiences.
When I was younger I was always interested in the business world. I decided to study physics at Imperial College London, but when I was working on my final-year project, I realised that I’m not well-suited to a career in this area. It involves a lot of waiting for equipment and results, and also a lot of repetition of experiments. Whereas I like to have a new problem to fix each day, and I wanted a career that’s fast-paced and challenging.
I went to a networking event for women in technology, where I discovered that I could apply my physics background to a career in finance. I then did an internship, which was a fantastic opportunity to see what working at a bank is like. The interview was nerve-racking, but rather than looking for someone with lots of technical knowledge, I think they wanted to see whether I had the ability to learn. I had very little programming experience when I started the internship, but it was fantastic because my manager gave me a project that was tailored to my skills, so I was able to contribute to the team’s work. The biggest challenge on the internship wasn’t learning new coding languages, but getting up early and adapting to the work environment!
Studying physics has taught me to be very analytical, and my colleagues have noticed that I’m very thorough and like to understand the root cause of things. I also developed strong problem-solving skills, which I can apply to my role in programming. My team and I are responsible for developing applications to process equity derivative trades, and I meet problems that I’ve never encountered before on a daily basis. I don’t get intimidated though, because I’ve learnt how to work through challenging issues and find a solution.
The best thing about being a graduate at a bank is the training you receive. Goldman Sachs invests so much time in it and the managers make sure you’re developing at a very fast rate. If I don’t understand something, someone in my team will spend ten or fifteen minutes explaining it to me, which is very reassuring. I’m also a member of a committee for Technology interns and graduates at the bank, which runs weekly training sessions for people who are new to programming. It’s a great way to network with other new starters who come from different academic backgrounds, and to talk about any problems we’re having and support each other.
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