A Helping Hand to Humanities Students

Hey WSO,

I've been a lurker on the site for a while and only recently posted my first discussion thread.
One thing I've noticed - other than, of course, the site's immense usefulness and the general goodwill of its community - is the lack of advice specifically targeting humanities students looking to break into investment banking.

While my own career has gone slightly off-course lately (see my aforementioned post), I have completed a number of internships at bulge brackets and the like. As such, I feel reasonably well placed to offer advice to others from a similarly "soft" background that I hope will prove at least somewhat useful.

For full disclosure, I studied History at a top UK uni, taking a gap year beforehand to work as a consulting analyst at a large consultancy firm. I spent the summer of that gap year and the first summer of uni working for a large British "universal" bank, before undertaking spring and summer internships on the trading floors of Swiss BBs. I now work as a freight trader.

1) Be sincerely passionate about what you want to do

If you intend to dedicate the next 3-4yrs of your life (assuming you start after A-levels / high school) grafting to get a job in any area of big finance, make sure you have a genuine interest in the subject matter.
For me, this was markets. I've never actually watched Wall Street, while The Wolf of Wall Street was released long after I'd already embarked on my chosen path. I didn't want to become a trader to drive a Lamborghini or date models; I wanted to become a trader because I found the marketplace fascinating and loved the competitive aspect of trading and investment. I'd dare say it was this interest alone that inspired me to learn the fundamentals of a lot of the products I've encountered (fixed income swaps, basic equity and FX derivs, as well as more complex option structures).
Put simply: love what you intend to do (not why you intend to do it), and pursuing it will become a lot more easier and enjoyable.

2) Study SOME mathematics

This was a f*ck up for me - I didn't do A-level maths. While I managed to take some basic maths courses at uni, my stats knowledge is still weak.
Almost every interview I have been in - be it for a BB or a boutique - has asked me why I studied history and why it is relevant to what I want to do. Interviewers from cultures that place a premium on numerate-intensive educations (read: Asia, India) have been particularly aggressive in this respect.
Coming up with a plausible reason is easy enough. After all, you eventually learn what "trigger" terms interviewers tend to look for and to consistently drop them in. What is harder is dispelling skepticism and proving numerical competency.
Taking basic qualifications as school is a great way to do this, as are courses at uni. Failing that, the GMAT (or GRE) provides another option. Combine a solid numeracy score (80+ percentile) with awesome verbal results (90+ percentile) and you'll not only move up in the eyes of interviewers, but will also stand yourself in good stead when applying for MBA and more quantitative master's programmes.

3) Apply everywhere

Literally apply to everything that aligns with what you want to do. Sure, not all firms have the same brand, but material experience - walking into an office for eight / ten weeks straight during your summer - is gold dust.
It will provide you with an opportunity to gain technical experience, allowing you to apply the lessons and insight from the articles and academic papers you should definitely also be reading.
During my second and third years at university, I must have sent out easily more than 100 applications. If I saw something and, after doing some research, thought the firm / work looked interesting, I applied. As humanities students, we're unfortunately not MIT mathematicians researching perpetual American options in diffusion-type models. Getting a foot in the door as early as possible is therefore crucial.

4) Have a personality / interests outside of your chosen career

This may seem counter-intuitive considering the thrust of this article thus far. I can assure you, however, that it is just as important.
A lot of the MDs that interview you (especially on the trading floor) will likely not have had the same technical background as some of the quant students they also grill. It's even a possibility some won't have gone to uni. Yes, this class of senior trader / sales person is in decline, however - especially in London - they do still exist. I remember interviewing at one American BB for a summer placement and, all morning, only discussing rugby. They cut half of the interviewees at lunch, and yet I got through.
Being able to discuss something - anything - in common with the people interviewing you is vital. It can be sport, politics, culture, television - as long as it's something.

5) Hone a top-tier brand

Brand, for me, has been critically important. Firstly, it helps to have gone to a target uni. Even then, make sure you're performing at the top of your year group. Indeed, this factor (i.e. top performance) can prove the difference if you don't have top-tier uni branding. Ultimately, banks like to think they're smart, and so try and hire people they identify as smart. Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred, the bank will back itself to teach you the relevant technicals: it just has to have the confidence that you will be able to pick them up quickly and to apply them accurately.
That said, banks also understand not everyone can go to Oxbridge, etc. and that some people fall through the net / make the decision for a different quality of lifestyle while at uni. Being able to quantify your performance versus peers will help banks more quickly identify this and make them more likely to give you a chance. Honestly, you will be surprised how quickly you are able to roll one brand into another once the ball gets going.

6) Know your skills and their value

It's incredibly tempting - especially when you go to uni with STEM students, are mates with STEM students, and apply to similar opportunities to STEM students - to compare yourself directly with them. After all, they are what banks want right now. However, while it's perfectly ok to measure you attainment relative to them, it is a mistake to try and market yourself to firms on the same basis. Very few humanities students can stand toe-to-toe with a 2nd or 3rd year maths student and hold their own quantitatively.
Instead, focus on the skills you and your degree can bring and how they differentiate you from the quant rabble. The most obvious are writing and communication skills: being able to express your thoughts clearly and succinctly. For English Literature majors, maybe big up your ability to understand the wider "narrative" of a development, and the qualitative understand that entails. For History / Politics students, discuss the ability to aggregate a wide number of sources and form a coherent viewpoint. Or to quickly gain familiarity with unorthodox geo-political trends and their impacts - traditionally, developments that algorithms and models struggle to capture.

7) Play the game

Be polished. Be confident. Be affable. Early on, present yourself as someone quickly capable of meeting with clients and understanding their needs. Be witty and urbane. Leverage the huge amount of literature you've not doubt read at uni to appear sophisticated and professional. Deploy quotes and aphorisms when providing answers in interviews (a favourite being Mark Twain's saying that, "history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme"). Despite what others may say (even, sadly, on this site), humanities students do have value and can provide the sort of nuanced insight other, more numerate-focused people cannot. Be unabashedly certain of the skills your degree has taught you, of your ability to learn, and the breadth of your interests. Be a humanities student. The grafting may be hard going, but it will eventually pay off.

Hopefully this has proven useful - I certainly wish you all the best of luck.
I'm sure I've omitted some useful info / examples, so if you have any questions, feel free to ask them below and I'll endeavor to answer them as best as possible. :-)

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Comments (6)

Jul 28, 2019 - 5:21pm

There isn't a ton of info on this site for London recruiting so thank you for sharing your experience.

Could you elaborate on how the recruiting process works? I know everyone gets a hirevue --> online numeracy and verbal tests --> assessment centers. Does the HR or current analysts/associates do these screenings and decide who moves on to the next round? I'm studying a humanities subject as well. If my resume is screened by say a French associate am I doomed?

For interviewers coming from a more numeracy-focused background (continentals, asian, indians), what would you say to address their concerns?

Most Helpful
Jul 28, 2019 - 5:44pm

In terms of who screens the application, this varies from firm to firm depending upon which area of finance you pursue / the size of the firm itself (e.g. bank vs fund vs energy company, etc.) For banks, HR alone will likely do the screening - any (senior) employees that subsequently interview you will literally see your CV for the first time the same day as the interview. As a result, you just need to tick HR's boxes: demonstrable ability to work as a member of a team, under pressure, be of sufficient intelligence, etc. Naturally, depending on how technical the role that you're pursuing is, additional attributes may be necessary (e.g. cash equity sales vs government bond trading).

There will always be bias from interviewers based on their own background and experiences - all you can hope for is that they're at least willing to hear you out in interview. This may well mean more technically demanding questions in terms of how products are structured / price (if you're going for a markets role) as well as moderately difficult mental maths questions (e.g. "What's the square root of 1000"). Naturally it helps to answer these questions well, but it's equally important (possibly more so) to also be extremely eager and passionate about what it is you want to do. If you do come across an interviewer that's extremely sceptical about your numerical skills it also helps to have made at least some effort to improve your ability (e.g. entry-level courses at university, an interest in games of chance like poker).

The hardest part is undoubtedly getting your foot in the door. Once you're "in," life starts to become easier: you're able to show competency in your discipline and so develop a reputation and further improve your skills. It's also important to push yourself when in the role. I started off trading physical freight which was, in my opinion, the most basic, knuckle-dragging market out there: I then moved to basic energy derivatives (futures and forwards) and am now moving into options. The upside of this, of course, is that people then stop questioning your numeracy and you feel less of an impetus to "prove" yourself in that specific respect.

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes" - Oscar Wilde
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Jul 28, 2019 - 6:07pm
"Work is the curse of the drinking classes" - Oscar Wilde
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