The City of London, where most summer finance internships take place.
The City of London. Image Credit: GJMarshy

Compound interests: internships and a failed audition for finance

“You’ve spent a lot of your time at Oxford doing student drama and music. Why haven’t you fully engaged with finance societies?”

Up until this point, I’d thought my interview for a summer internship with a big bank was going well. I’d prepared a decent stock pitch, extensively researched the firm’s values, and flawlessly taken the (very) stern interviewer through a DCF model. The moment those words came out of his mouth, though, I was paralytically rooted to my seat and speechless. It took me a solid few seconds before I could muster up any kind of answer, which, to the best of my memory, was a jumbled concoction of words including such esteemed waffle as “varied range of experiences” and “multidisciplinary skill set”.

The prospect of a finance career hadn’t even been on my mind in Michaelmas of my first year, which is when one ought to catch the ‘spring week’ boat (at least, as someone on a three-year course); spring week insight programmes in banking are ideally converted to full internships the following summer, and then, fingers crossed, a conversion to a job offer following graduation.

So, having not applied to any spring weeks and only just beginning to consider finance (a combination of inevitability regarding studying PPE and having spent a brief period of time interning at a friend’s mum’s private equity firm), the grind began. The grind, however, is ruthless and intensely demoralising, and 40+ applications returned only one final-round interview offer. A lot, therefore, was riding on the interview, so it was especially kind of the bank to offer me a whole 2 (two!) days of notice, and to schedule it right in the middle of show week of Clarendon Productions’ ‘Amadeus’ at the Keble O’Reilly.

I didn’t get the internship. Obviously.

The grind, however, is ruthless and intensely demoralising, and 40+ applications returned only one final-round interview offer.

The question felt particularly cruel. Three years is a short time to be at university, especially one with such a varied and fantastic cast of extra-curriculars to be getting involved with. And, within such a limited time, I don’t regret having spent most of my time engaging with things not relevant to equity research; having fun little roles on OUDS productions, falsetto-ing it up in Brasenose College chapel choir, or even writing the odd article on sport for the greatest Oxford student newspaper – all things that are distinctly fun, and distract from the monotony and, well, pain of a PPE degree.

Maybe the interview, or, more specifically, the rejection, ought to have been a wake-up call that finance isn’t really my true calling. I mean, if I were really that passionate about it, I would’ve gotten involved with OFS, or CapitOx, or one of the many other student finance societies, much earlier. Following the rejection, a couple of friends questioned whether I’d have even enjoyed being shackled to a desk for ungodly hours for two months in the summer. And, truthfully, maybe I wouldn’t have.

Then again, the point of an internship goes beyond simply securing a job after graduating. It functions as a trial period, to try to eliminate career options I wouldn’t enjoy. I arrived in Oxford not having any idea what I wanted to pursue following my studies (or even with regards to my studies themselves, having chosen PPE due to its range). Even if I went on to hate an internship at a big bank, it would have provided a little more context on which I could base any subsequent decisions.

I don’t regret having spent most of my time engaging with things not relevant to equity research; having fun little roles on OUDS productions, falsetto-ing it up in Brasenose College chapel choir, or even writing the odd article on sport for the greatest Oxford student newspaper.

I can’t blame the interviewer for asking that question, or even for not offering me the internship. After all, why would they have any reasons for taking a 19-year-old PPEist, who’s acted in a couple plays and cannot even justify his lack of interest in finance student societies, over the 24-year-old French student with a Master’s in economics that has already managed several investment funds? (This is someone I was actually up against, by the way. I definitely didn’t take a peek at his LinkedIn after meeting him.) And why should I feel bad about that, when I can’t envisage myself in a Patagonia quarter-zip, strutting around Canary Wharf at ungodly hours, and being truly happy with my life?

Naturally, this article wouldn’t exist if I got that internship. Rather than expressing bitter judgement toward finance, I would certainly be justifying it to my friends with classic lines of “it won’t be that bad!” or “don’t worry guys, I’m not a sellout, I promise!” And, indeed, I cannot put all the blame of not securing the internship on my answer to that question; perhaps if I had been more confident on my technicals, it would not have mattered. Evidently, the relative lack of finance representation on the CV was not a barrier from me securing a final-round interview.

But what I’ve taken from the entire process is that it is an example of how ‘not having a plan’ has seemingly come as a detriment to my prospects. If I had a plan to go into investment banking, for instance, I would have channelled as much of my extra-curricular interests as possible into finance, applied for spring weeks from the get-go, et cetera. If I was 100% set on journalism, I would have written far more articles than I have ended up writing by now (sorry, Martin!). Hell, if I was set on acting, talent permitting, I would have attempted to act in more productions than I have so far. Instead, by arriving at university with the hope of spreading myself as widely as possible, I have been left even more aimless than I had been before matriculating.

But what I’ve taken from the entire process is that it is an example of how ‘not having a plan’ has seemingly come as a detriment to my prospects.

And that is a shame. After all, assuming I do end up on the corporate ladder (something that will always be likely as an Oxford PPE graduate), I will never be able to sing in a chapel choir or act in silly little productions ever again; I will, however, have the rest of my life to build DCF models or slave over Excel spreadsheets. And yet, I don’t blame the interviewer for disagreeing, and preferring people who have a set plan to become a corporate sell-out whose life goals do not extend beyond their base and comp salary aged 30.

It’s normal to have anxiety over career decisions as a second-year, especially in a world where, unlike 50 years ago, graduating with an Oxford degree won’t necessarily allow you to walk straight into a top job. Everything starts catching up to you, and it all starts getting far too real. Despite my apprehensions over the world of finance, I was inconsolable after receiving my rejection email; I thought it would give me a career path, even if not necessarily one I would particularly enjoy. (They didn’t even give me any feedback!)

I’m sure I’m not alone in not having everything figured out yet, or even in not having secured any sort of internship in anything yet. But I’m glad that my goals still align more with happiness than they do with salaries. The rejection will sting for a while, but by the time I arrive at a full-time job I genuinely enjoy, I’m sure I’ll view it as a blessing in disguise. I’m happy with the things I’ve been involved with at Oxford so far, and none of that is worth trading for a soulless internship.

I say, through gritted teeth.