From Visa-Less Foreigner in the UK to the FICC Trading Desk at a Top Bulge Bracket Bank: How to Make the Leap
It’s already tough enough to break into finance coming from any background, but what about when you’re a foreigner, you don’t have a work visa, and your school is unknown?
Oh, and you’re set on going to a bulge bracket bank.
As Aleksey Vayner might say, “Impossible is Nothing” – a bad idea for his infamous video resume, but a good idea for our interviewee here, who was smart enough to apply the sentiment, but not the execution, to his recruiting efforts.
Here’s how he made the leap from visa-less foreigner and non-target student to sales & trading at a bulge bracket bank, and how you can do the same – plus:
- The top challenges you’ll face as a foreigner breaking into finance in London – and how to overcome them.
- Whether or not there’s a glass ceiling in finance if you’re not from the country.
- What to expect in Fixed Income, Currency, and Commodities (FICC) recruiting and how to prepare for interview questions.
- A day in the life of a FICC junior trader.
Let’s dive right in:
Stranger in a Strange Land
Q: So how’d you end up in the UK to begin with? Can you walk us through your story?
A: Sure. I’m from an “emerging market, think BRIC” – I’d rather leave it at that or I would be too easy to identify – and went to a good university there to study engineering. By “good university,” I mean that it was good locally, but no one outside of my country had heard of it.
Halfway through my studies, I realized I didn’t want to spend my life being an engineer – so I decided to do something else.
At that point, I went to Europe for a summer holiday – it was for 2 months initially, but I wanted to get a job and then travel around to each country there, which would take longer than 2 months.
Q: Right, but I’m guessing that you ran into visa trouble there before you even got started finding this job – how did you get around that?
A: I started applying to English courses (even though I didn’t need them) and found a school that had an offer for a 12-month course for the price of 6 months.
I applied to that, got a student visa, and then went to the UK and decided to stay longer-term after a few months there.
Around that time, I realized I wanted to go into finance and went to complete a degree program in development economics, and then another degree in math and statistics at two of the top schools for finance recruiting here.
Q: So essentially to get around the visa issue you got a student visa from that English course first, and then you enrolled in university there to further extend your visa. And effectively you stopped out of your original degree program in your home country mid-way through.
How did you suddenly “realize” you were interested in finance?
A: Being in London, I kept hearing more and more about it and saw lots of share trading and investing courses – companies here would do 2-hour introductions and then offer weekend courses for 2,000 GBP.
I was not in a position to pay for those, but I applied for a 3-day course and won a free scholarship – so I learned the basics, opened my own trading account, and started trading online.
Around that time, I was finishing up one of my degrees – so that experience, combined with my interest in trading and personal portfolio, set me up for trading roles.
Got Work Visa?
Q: OK, so on the surface your story makes sense – but there are still a few details I’m skeptical over.
First off, how did you pay for all of this education? Using degrees to get visas is a good idea, but what about the money?
A: This was actually the biggest challenge. In the UK, you pay 3x – 5x more as a foreign student and my family was not supporting me or paying for anything.
Also, due to the way the UK system works, I couldn’t get loans or other financial support – so I worked throughout university doing random jobs like waiting tables and working in restaurants to support myself.
This would not have worked well in the US because tuition there is much higher to begin with. Plus, getting a visa there can be almost impossible due to the immigration policies.
Another good idea to save on money is to rent out a whole flat through an agency or landlord and sublet the rooms; there are risks if you get empty rooms for a while but in a decent location that never happens, and everyone else’s rent will cover your own. I lived rent-free for 2 years by doing that.
Q: So then once you figured out how to pay for everything, how did you actually break in as a foreigner?
What were the key challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?
A: First off, note that student visas are increasingly difficult to come by each year. So if you have any interest at all in working in the UK, apply as soon as possible because it’s only getting harder over time.
If you’re a foreigner and you want to work in the UK, you should:
- Focus on bulge bracket banks – visa sponsorship at smaller firms is spotty, at best.
- Do multiple internships, if possible – you can still complete summer internships even when you’re on a student visa. It’s easier to get these internships, turn one of them into a full-time offer, and then get the bank to sponsor you like that. It is nearly impossible to get a full-time front office position without an internship.
In my case, I completed internships at a few bulge bracket banks and ultimately won a full-time offer from one of them just before my final year.
I wouldn’t even bother with boutique banks unless you have an EU passport.
Q: So besides the visa and financial issues, did you run into other difficulties when applying?
A: People tend to look down on you if you’re not from the country or you don’t look like the stereotypical banker / trader (i.e. blue eyes, blonde hair, Caucasian), so you need to bring a lot more to the table and be more impressive than the average candidate.
And then in addition to not being from the country, I faced a second barrier: my original undergraduate university in my home country was not a “target school,” so they were skeptical of my educational background.
I dealt with those by adjusting my own self-image and the way I thought of myself compared to others – I realized that a lot of the people who went to assessment centers were book-smart, but didn’t have any real-world experience trading, investing, or doing business of any kind.
The fact that I had my own portfolio was also a big selling point. When I was applying for full-time roles, I had already been trading for several years – so I actually brought all my positions, trading ideas, and strategies to interviews and showed them everything.
Anyone can say they’re “interested” in trading, but showing your track record over several years proves your interest and aptitude.
Traders are not into BSing and talking endlessly like some bankers are – they want to see results, and if you can make money, they don’t care as much about other factors.
Q: So you didn’t play the “emerging markets expert” card at all?
A: Not really. It didn’t make much sense because I was never trading securities that were related to my own country – they were always UK or Europe-related.
The “emerging markets expert” story would have been better if I had applied to banking or PE groups with an emerging markets focus, or banks that did a lot of cross-border deals.
But in trading, I didn’t find it terribly useful.
Landing the Interviews – Got Diversity?
Q: Right, that makes sense. What about getting all these interviews in the first place?
You attended some good schools in the UK, but there’s a lot more to it than that – what was your secret for landing interviews at bulge bracket banks?
A: Easy: diversity programs. You’ve written about them before on M&I, and they’re highly useful in Europe as well.
Q: But wait a minute, are you actually an under-represented minority?
A: I was from a country that didn’t have much representation in the UK, so technically, yes. I didn’t fit the definition of the typical groups they considered “under-represented,” but as you’ve pointed out before, it’s all about how you spin your story.
Once you get into such a program, the alumni and staff there will pull strings for you and help you get interviews at banks.
Don’t get me wrong: a diversity program is not a magical ticket into Goldman Sachs. You still need to do a lot of work, network on your own, be proactive, and make sure your applications are perfect.
But I highly recommend them – if you can use them – because they give you a big advantage.
Q: Any tips on applications for those diversity programs?
A: Assume that everything is an interview and prepare accordingly.
People get notification emails about “coming in for a chat” and think that it’s just a casual conversation – but it’s not. Every interaction you have with representatives from the program is an interview and they are judging everything you say and do.
The questions you get on the applications and in interviews are similar to what you’ve covered before, so I won’t re-hash all of that here.
Another tip is to approach as many people as possible, even if it’s seemingly random. One time I stopped a woman on the way out of a diversity networking event, and found out that she had been to a restaurant that I had worked at before.
We hit it off well, and she told me to contact her when I applied – I don’t know for sure whether that exchange actually helped me to get in, but it couldn’t have hurt.
Q: Yeah, I see lots of fearfulness around going up to people randomly and asking for help – hesitation is a big mistake.
Having gone through this process, what advice would you give to someone in an emerging market who wants to work in London or New York? Is it even worth their time, or should they stay home and work there instead?
A: It depends on what your goals are – if you just move to the US or UK right away and look for a job there, it will be close to impossible because no one will know your school and because the economy in developed countries isn’t so great.
The better plan is to do a 1-year Master’s program and use that to meet recruiters, network, and gain some credibility in the country you want to move to first.
If you go the education route, you need to earn First-Class recognition; 2.1 is only acceptable if you’re from a top-tier school, such as Oxbridge or LSE. Anything less than that, forget about it.
Some people plan to work in the UK for a few years and then go back home after working here – but in my experience, that’s tough because experienced professionals back at home can feel threatened when you go back and know more than they do.
So it’s not quite as easy as, “Go to London, get some experience, and go back home” – no one may even want you when you go back home.
All About Fixed Income, Currency & Commodities (FICC)
Q: Interesting to hear that – it makes sense that people back home might feel threatened, but you’d think they would be more professional about it!
We’ve been focusing on visa issues and how to break into finance as a foreigner, but I want to switch gears now and talk about sales & trading recruiting, specifically for FICC desks.
What should you expect, and how is it different from the existing S&T recruiting tips on the site?
A: Sure. So first off, there’s a big difference between internship and graduate program recruiting.
For internships, they’ll go through the usual brain teasers, math questions, and competency-based questions that you should expect in S&T interviews and at assessment centers.
For full-time positions, banks often fast-track candidates and may even skip assessment centers to “snag” interns quickly – they even hold networking events to recruit interns from other banks. If you don’t get an internship here, it is exponentially more difficult to land full-time offers.
And if you don’t go to these networking events, it’s almost impossible to move to another bank for your full-time role.
I went through around 15 interviews total across several banks; I had 7 interviews at the bulge bracket bank where I ultimately ended up winning the offer.
They’ll usually give you a pen and paper and start asking math questions right away – lots of interview questions for S&T desks were about options: how to draw delta, how you hedge delta, how to calculate gamma, how to draw diagrams for different positions, and so on.
If you don’t know much about trading, “delta” is how sensitive the option value is to the change in price of the underlying stock; “gamma” is the rate of change of delta with respect to the change in the underlying stock.
They asked very little, if anything, about my hobbies, interests, or “story,” and focused on technical questions.
And if you interview for something even more math-intense, such as the Exotics desk, be prepared to suffer: that was the hardest interview of my life, and involved multiple pages of diagrams by the end.
Q: Sounds intense. I like answering simple questions about the 3 financial statements better, but I guess that’s not hardcore enough for traders.
So how do you prepare for those types of interview questions? Any recommended resources?
A: To be honest, it’s much harder to prepare for S&T interviews because you have no idea what they’re going to ask you.
At least with banking it’s limited to a set number of topics, but on the trading side they could ask you an unlimited number of crazy math questions.
If you’re interviewing for options desks – or really anything in trading – I would recommend “Options, Futures, and Other Derivatives” by John Hull to learn the fundamental concepts.
I also read loads of trading blogs, forums, and similar sites because interviews are so unpredictable.
A Day in the Life of a FICC Trader
Q: Thanks for the tips there – trading interviews do sound much more intense.
Now that you’ve started working on the FICC desk of a major bank, what’s an average day in your life like?
A: I usually arrive at 6:45 AM and start out by catching up on the news, looking at our book, and maybe coming up with trading ideas based on our existing positions and what happened overnight.
As a junior trader, you can’t do much when you first start because you’re not working with clients or trading the firm’s capital initially. So you’re mostly a bridge between the senior trader(s) and everyone in the back office – if the trader is having a problem, he’ll call you to sort it out and you have to ask the support team for help.
After the market opens, you spend a lot of time booking trades and hedges for the traders – so if the trader takes a position in a stock or bond, I record it and then find another trade to reduce the risk of whatever he just did.
Then you get to do grunt work like getting lunch and coffee for everyone – senior traders can’t step away from their 8+ monitors for even 30 seconds, so it’s up to you to do this.
I also have to send out market commentary to clients each day and explain what happened and how it affected their investments. And at the end of the day, I have to update our trading book and look at risk across the board. I might finish at around 6 PM and go home shortly after that.
Q: What about those trading ideas you mentioned before, and the technical work? You said that FICC has more math than equities, so what’s involved?
A: For both of those, it depends on which specific desk you’re on – I focus on bonds, so I know more about Fixed Income than Currency or Commodities.
We trade European bonds, which are the main source of financing for countries and organizations alike. The math involves the way that bonds are priced – it could be against the swap curve, against a benchmark (i.e. another more stable instrument such as German bonds), in cash terms, in asset swap terms, OAS spread, and so on.
We also spend a lot of time looking at the yield curves for different bonds and seeing whether the bond is currently cheaper or more expensive than the rest of the curve – and as those curves change over time, you start to see trading opportunities.
In terms of trading ideas, we come up with a lot of strategies based on how we think these curves will change over time and what bonds are currently cheap or expensive – and we pay attention to changes in yield, maturity, and so on.
So as a simple example, if the curves suddenly change and we think that one sovereign bond is now undervalued and another one is overvalued, we might long the undervalued one and short the overvalued one.
My desk focuses on vanilla products – no derivatives or structured products, only swaps – so there’s not too much intense math here. When you introduce derivatives and exotics into the picture, the quantitative side gets more complicated.
Q: That makes sense – I really want to do an interview on exotics one of these days, but I’m worried I might not be able to understand any of it myself.
What about the pay at junior levels on a FICC desk? And how does it change as you become more senior?
A: I just started recently, so I don’t have exact figures for you – but at the junior levels the salaries are the same as investment banking base salaries.
Bonuses sometimes aren’t quite as high as what you see in banking, but it depends on how well your desk and your firm are performing.
As you move up, it becomes more and more performance-dependent – even more so than in banking – and base salaries don’t increase by a huge amount. So past a certain point, it comes down to your P&L and how much you’ve made for the firm.
You don’t see too many people making millions of dollars or pounds anymore – post-crisis, banks are under more scrutiny, and the markets haven’t been spectacular.
And as always, the linkage between your bonus and your P&L is fuzzy at best – no one has ever been able to explain exactly how it works.
Unlike in, say, prop trading, where your performance is easy to track and office politics are minimal, bonuses in trading tend to be more discretionary and are based on what your MD thinks of you.
Ceilings & Exit Opportunities
Q: Earlier you mentioned how people may “look down on you” if you’re a foreigner trying to break into finance in the UK.
Have you seen any discrimination in the workplace?
A: Not really. Trading is very results-driven, so no one cares much about what you look like or where you’re from as long as you make a lot of money.
I actually know quite a few people from emerging markets at very high levels in my firm, so I don’t think there’s much of a glass ceiling once you’re actually working.
Q: What about the ever-shiny exit opportunities? And what are your future plans?
A: As you’ve pointed out many times before, you develop a very specific skill set in trading so your exit opportunities are more limited.
If you move anywhere, you’re most likely to move to another desk at a different bank or go to a hedge fund that trades similar securities.
The majority of traders here are on the young side, but you do see traders who are older – maybe in their late 40s or early 50s – but by that point they tend to be MDs and senior guys who are still trading.
The stereotype is that traders burn out early and move into another field, or they make so much money that they can afford to retire early. But so far I haven’t found that one to be 100% true, given that there are some older traders here.
As far as my own plans, in the long-term I do want to relocate back home or go somewhere else with better weather than London – but I don’t have an official 5-year plan or anything.
I just started, so I’m not about to leave early and go through the entire recruiting process again in yet another new country.
Q: Awesome! Thanks for your time.
A: Sure thing, enjoyed speaking!
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