From Physics Major with Low A-Levels and No Finance Experience in the UK to Investment Banking… in India
When I first started doing interviews about 3 years ago, one question in the comments of an early interview really surprised me…
“Long time reader, first time poster, big fan of the site.
Question – how do we know that these stories / case studies are true?”
I see where he was coming from… many of the stories are pretty amazing.
But they are all true. I couldn’t make up this stuff if I tried, nor would I have the time for it.
And today you’re going to get another unbelievable, but true, story from a reader who just made an incredible career move:
- He started out as a Physics major in the UK, with no finance experience and poor A-Levels…
- Then, he completed a Master’s Degree to rebrand himself…
- Unsuccessfully applied to dozens of banks and other finance firms…
- And finally, ended up landing an offer at an investment bank in India.
In this wide-ranging discussion, we go over how he accomplished this, what helped and hindered him along the way, how a foreigner can work in an emerging market like India, and yes, even how deals and models (both kinds) differ there.
How the Universe Began: The Big Bang Theory?
Q: Let’s go back to the beginning and hear your story from start to finish… and then I’ll dig into the details.
A: Sure. I completed my undergraduate degree in Physics in the UK, after which I realized that I didn’t belong there. The people were too strange, I didn’t fit in at all, and I didn’t want to work in academia.
I tried to get a few business-related internships before even graduating, but I failed due to my poor A-Level scores (3 C’s) – which are sure to sink your chances of success in the UK.
I ended up with an internship doing headhunting work instead – much different from banking, but surprisingly I learned a lot from it that I could apply to my future job search.
Next, I decided to re-brand myself by completing a Master’s degree in Natural Resources Finance and moving closer to business. I kept applying to jobs throughout the year, but didn’t get anywhere.
I was getting pretty depressed, but then I found a job listing for an investment bank in India on my school’s website.
I contacted them, they seemed very interested, and I did a phone call with the CEO and Director there… and didn’t hear anything for 2 weeks.
Then, I decided to call back and contacted the CEO… only to catch him when he was in another meeting. But he was impressed by my initiative, and a week later I won an offer!
I moved to India and started working at the investment bank shortly after completing my degree.
Q: Wow. We’re going to jump back into that story later on because you made the entire saga sound quite simple… but I’m sure there’s more to it than that.
Why do you think you didn’t have much luck landing internships and full-time offers in London?
A: There were a couple factors working against me:
- Low A-Level Scores: It sounds insane, but these follow you around forever in the UK and they’re harder to remove than a tattoo.
- Lack of Relevant Internships in Undergrad: The headhunting internship sort of helped (see below), but it wasn’t enough to make myself competitive with other applicants.
- Lack of Language Skills: Technically, these aren’t required in London but you are competing against people who know multiple European languages… so it definitely helps.
I actually won a few interviews and spoke to several banks, including both European and North American-based firms – but all of the points above hurt my chances.
Q: So what helped you win the offer? How much do you think the Master’s degree helped compared to other factors such as what you studied and did your dissertation on?
A: I think a few factors helped me win the offer in India – besides the recruiting process and my interactions with the people there, which I’ll get to later:
- Major Other Than Finance: One of your previous interviewees in the UK also mentioned this point. I’m not sure how true it is, but it definitely sparked a lot of questions and conversations about my background since it was unusual.
- Master’s Dissertation: I did something financial modeling-related, which helped me tell a good story when networking and in interviews – especially in emerging markets, where commodities-related deals and investments are more important.
- The Headhunting Internship: This helped prove that I could work in an office environment, as opposed to a science lab. And while many bankers view this field in a negative light, it helped me learn how to network, talk on the phone effectively, and build up a solid list of contacts – all of which you need in finance.
- Previous Study Abroad Experience: I had studied in the US before (Florida) and had performed well there, so I was able to convince the Indian firm that I could move somewhere else, do well, and start contributing immediately. Oh, and the hot climate in both places also helped because, oddly enough, that was one of their key objections (“It’s HOT here – can you handle it?”).
India Industry Landscape and Overview
Q: A previous interview on investment banking in India mentioned a couple key points, such as the huge number of KPOs, few real banks, how they like the Chartered Accountant (CA) designation, and how buy-side opportunities are limited and how the culture is more conservative.
What’s your take on all of that?
A: I agree with most of it. I realize the interview was from a few years ago, but not much has changed dramatically in that time, and those points hold true based on my experience so far.
Even at bulge bracket banks here, such as JP Morgan, if you land a job you won’t exactly be in the “front office” – you’ll be helping their teams elsewhere with pitch books, fixing formatting errors, and assisting with other random requests.
So a lot of people here “working at large banks” are doing more back / middle-office type work.
I’ve seen this firsthand because many people go study or work abroad, return home to be with their families and attempt to transfer to the local office… and then end up disappointed when they realize that there isn’t as much “real work” as they expected.
A few other points:
- Boutique banks sometimes have more front office activity because they’re not supporting a giant bank’s infrastructure and client-facing activities in other countries.
- CA / CFA / etc. – I don’t think these are as helpful as the other interviewee described. Many aspiring bankers do have MBA degrees, though.
- MBA Differences – It’s more common to get your MBA right after finishing up with undergraduate here. It’s not like Western countries where you need 3-5 years of full-time work experience first. But many people would still rather go abroad to do this anyway to get a better brand name on their CV.
- Very Few Buy-Side Roles – And you’ll be competing with everyone else at banks here to win these roles. The PE, VC, and HF industries are nothing like what you see in the US / UK and other Western countries.
Q: That sounds pretty bleak, at least if you’re a local candidate there, you’ve been raised in the country, and you want to work in finance. How can you possibly stand out in that situation?
A: As your other interviewee mentioned, it’s still all about networking.
People will try to claim that “it doesn’t work” in India, but that’s not the case from what I’ve seen… and as you’ve covered before numerous times, it certainly works in the UK.
Another important point about networking here is that there is A LOT of “sourcing” work (finding new clients or investments) at most finance firms in emerging markets.
So if you’re great at networking and talking to people on the phone, that will actually help you with interviews and even on the job itself because you’re doing that all the time – far more so than what you’d see at firms in developed countries.
To give you an idea of what I mean, basically everyone here above the Analyst-level will place cold calls and pitch clients on why they should work with us.
Since deals are smaller (generally under 50 million GBP), you don’t necessarily need a Managing Director to wine and dine potential clients.
Q: Right, and I think you make some good points there about the disproportionate importance of networking on the job in emerging markets…
But your answer is a little too “easy” for me – everyone knows you need to network, but what else can you do to stand out?
A: All you can really do: get unique experience or knowledge that sets you apart from others… and that applies everywhere, not just in India. Examples:
- Industry Expertise in an area where they need it – we’ll get to the top industries and deal types here in a bit.
- Geographical Expertise in a region where they’re doing cross-border deals.
- A Great Track Record if you’re more senior and need to prove that you can run deals and win clients.
- Relevant Academic Background such as a study abroad experience in a certain region, an interesting dissertation or thesis, IB case competitions and so on.
Q: Thanks for your thoughts on that one – I think, ironically, many people would be better off becoming more specialized even if it seems to limit your options… because in reality, it makes you far more appealing to certain firms.
Let’s talk about recruiting. It seems like the process was quite random, but did you have anything to add over your previous description?
A: First off, I think there’s a big difference between what local candidates here go through and what I (and other foreigners) went through.
I’ve seen local people go through 8 rounds of interviews in some cases and get endless questions, case studies, and so on.
By contrast, I only went through 3 rounds of interviews:
- Round 1: Brief phone call with one person there.
- Round 2: Spoke with multiple people there and it was more of a traditional interview.
- Round 3: This one was longer and more complicated, and they went into more depth on traditional finance interview questions.
Overall, I don’t think the questions themselves were that much different from what you see in an interview in the UK, US, or anywhere else:
- They asked about my CV and educational background (“walk me through your resume“).
- Standard questions on accounting, valuation, determining the NPV, etc.
- “Fit” questions to see how well I’d fit in with the culture both at the company and in the country – this is the one part that might have been different.
Q: So let me stop you right there… how do you prove that you “fit in with” the culture in a country?
A: A lot of it is about dropping subtle hints that you’ve had experiences that match the experiences typical in that country.
For example, I mentioned at one point that I came from a big family (true), which fits in well with India and many emerging markets, where family sizes also tend to be bigger.
That may sound silly / ridiculous / inappropriate to you, but they never asked me, “So, tell us about your family” – I threw it in because I knew that the more similar to them I could make myself look, the better my chances would be.
And then there were other points that I mentioned before, such as how my study abroad experience in another culture and in a similar climate showed how I could adapt to another country.
Q: I have to admit I’ve never thought about something like that before, but then I’ve also never interviewed for jobs in emerging markets.
What about the technical side? Were there any tricky questions there?
A: Not really, but again, I’m assuming that the process and questions would be different if you’re a local candidate instead.
The “modeling” work you do here is not terribly complicated because the companies are small, data is poor, and analyses like the DCF are relatively useless when companies are growing incredibly quickly.
So they only tested basic points and ensured that I knew enough to value companies.
A Day in the Life
Q: Thanks for clarifying that. Based on interviews and discussions with local candidates in India, I think the technical rigor would be higher and that case studies would be much more likely in interviews – especially for buy-side roles.
What differences have you seen with deals and the industry focus so far?
A: The main difference so far is that “Stuff Goes Wrong” FAR more often here.
As an example, the other day one of my colleagues was working on a bond issuance deal… and a few days before launching it, one of the executives at the company got busted in a corruption scandal.
The company’s credit rating was downgraded, and now it will be much harder to get the deal done.
The political state of India is also a mess, and that creates market volatility as well. For more on this, see the “Coalgate” scandal, where the government was accused of allocating coal blocks inefficiently over 5 years.
As you might expect, there’s also a ton of negotiation around valuation here. Here’s what usually happens:
- Firm that’s advising the company comes to us and wants a valuation that’s 10x higher than what it should be.
- We propose something much lower and say their valuation is unreasonable.
- We haggle back and forth and meet somewhere in the middle.
You definitely see negotiation in developed markets as well, but the range you negotiate over is far narrower and no bank comes in and tries to argue that a $50 million company is worth $500 million.
Q: Somehow, I’m not surprised by anything that you just said. But the valuation point is interesting – I didn’t realize that expectations could be that far apart.
What about the culture at your office? Is it strange being one of the few foreigners there?
A: Your previous interviewee from India said it was very conservative at his firm; I think that can be true, but it’s not especially the case where I work.
People will wear sandals to work on Fridays sometimes, and they tend to be friendly at the office.
That said, when a deal blows up or something goes wrong, you see the normal “Stay until 2 AM to finish it” type of work that you’d see at any investment bank.
Language is one issue I’ve encountered so far. Yes, technically everyone knows English and English is used for business purposes…
…but Hindi is most peoples’ first language here, and it’s what they use in casual conversations with each other.
I’ve been learning and picking up more of it, but “the language barrier” has led to some awkward situations when we go out together – but people overall are friendly and try to include me as much as possible.
One great part about working here is that you get more free time than you would in the UK. There are tons of national holidays and the expat lifestyle is quite enjoyable.
In London, I would have faced an hour-long commute each way and wouldn’t have even saved much after taxes.
Here, by contrast, the commute is much shorter, I can pay for a maid, eat breakfast before going to work, and always see something interesting on my way to work each day.
Q: All that sounds nice, but don’t you also get paid way less in India?
A: Yes, that’s the major downside. At a local boutique here, you might make the equivalent of 18K GBP (around $30K USD) per year for your base salary, and maybe 50-100% of that for your bonus as an entry-level Analyst (NOTE: These figures are as of late 2013 / early 2014).
But the cost of living is also far lower here and you can afford a really nice lifestyle with much less money than you’d make in the UK or US.
Q: So how many bottles per week can you buy with that kind of income?
A: Hah! Well, let’s just say that you can go out and have a good time for far less than what you’d pay in major financial centers.
Where I am, the party scene is focused on 2-3 areas and most expats tend to hang out with each other since there aren’t a huge number of them here.
You see lots of drama such as police chiefs shutting down clubs, arresting people, etc. so sometimes house parties are more common.
As far as the models here… well, let’s just say there are lots of “advantages” over my experience in the UK.
I’m a fan!
Q: Yeah, I think we should skip that part in the interest of not (further) offending my female audience.
Thanks for sharing so much about the work and culture there – what are your future plans?
A: Eventually, I would like to get into venture capital. I don’t mind doing valuation and analytical work in Excel, but I’m more of a people person – which is the entire reason I switched out of physics back in the UK in the first place.
I might leverage my background in physics and energy to move into something like cleantech-focused VC, or even a VC or investment fund that focuses on conventional energy.
There isn’t as much movement from investment banking to the buy-side, simply because there are very few buy-side roles. So you see people sticking around for 5-6 years or more in many cases, which is a big departure from the rapid turnover in places like London and NYC.
The good news is that as a foreigner, I’m not necessarily expected to stay here for so many years.
Previous “trainees” here have gone to work in NYC, London, and Singapore after working here for 1-2 years, and I could see myself going to any of those cities as well.
Q: Great! Thanks for sharing your story, I learned a lot.
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