So You Want to Work on Wall St.

You've seen the clever full-page ads put out by investment banks, promising "dynamic and rewarding" careers upon graduation. And you might have been to a reception where this rhetoric is accompanied by platters of cheese and fruit (shrimp, too, if you're lucky). The lovely folks in Human Resources set the stage, and all you have to do is sign up for a part. The name of the play is, of course, "The Good Life. "

I spent ten long weeks this past summer in New York, finding out what fresh-faced college graduates really do on that stage. And I can say that whoever wrote the name of this play clearly was never an analyst.

Most of the 80-plus hour workweeks that consume the lives of junior bankers are not about participating in high-level negotiations--or high-level anything. They're about scouring through hundreds of pages to find a number for a spreadsheet on a company's financials, running back and forth from the copy center to finish a presentation book, Fed-Ex-ing things at all hours of the day and night and keeping a smile on your face when you haven't slept in three days.


Now you may be telling yourself, "I work 100-plus hour weeks at school, running from activity to activity and pulling all-nighters to finish papers." This very energy is why the banks are so eager to recruit people like you. But don't think it's your exceptional intelligence or your creativity that will help you move forward on Wall Street. What will make or break you in banking--at the entry-level--is your tolerance for grunt work. Lots and lots and lots of grunt work.

The perks of being in an exciting city cease to exist when you discover that all of your waking hours are spent at work. One of my mentors at the firm, a third-year analyst, told me not to stress about the exorbitant Manhattan rents. "Just get a studio large enough for your bed," he said rather gravely. "You won't do anything else in your room. "

When I was a sophomore, three senior guys lived next door. One was Ec, another Gov and the third Biochem. Two of them went into banking (the Gov concentrator went to D. C. ). In my first week on the job, I learned that one of the guys quit after two weeks; he said he couldn't take it any more and is now running a startup with his dad. The other is responsibly finishing his two-year contract and will run straight to B-school next year, hoping to find a new career that will restore his "self-worth. "

Many do stay in banking, even after years of misery. There are two understandable reasons why people endure the lifestyle of an analyst. One is a need for the comfortable sum of money they pay you. Where else will you be able to earn nearly six-figures your first year out of college? (Though broken down on an hourly-basis, you may be earning scarcely more than your secretary.) Maybe you have two siblings in college and want to help out your parents. Maybe you want to get rid of your college loans as soon as possible. Maybe you even have lofty dreams of setting up a foundation to give away all your millions to those in need.

The other reason analysts stick to their work is because they are truly drawn to helping companies make financial transactions and want to take the shortest route possible to senior-level positions where the work weeks become more reasonable and people actually make decisions.

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