Graduating in 2009? Should you study or work?

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This is for all those people who haven't managed to secure a full-time graduate position for 2009 at an investment bank. What are your options? Should you stay on in full-time education and trying your luck in 2010? Or should you brave the world of work, gain hands-on experience, and earn some cash?

Further study?

Most investment banks take first degree graduates from a wide range of disciplines. However, at Masters level you will need to study a Masters in Finance or a related discipline to make a difference.

Will this really improve your chances?

If you've studied a humanities or arts degree, the answer is probably yes. In both of these cases, a Masters in Finance will sharpen your quantitative and analytical skills and polish up your maths. This will help differentiate you - a crucial point in the current climate.

However, for a Masters to add value to your CV you will need to select your institution carefully.

Some Masters courses are for post-experience students only. These are closer to an MBA in the quality and content of the course.

Others Masters courses might provide a firm foundation in finance skills for people who've just finished a first degree. But they may not be targeted by investment banks. Before you apply for a course, find out which banks recruit there.

Also, be sure to consider which area of investment banking you want to go into - if you're keen on trading then you will need strong quantitative skills. If, however, you are looking at corporate finance or advisory work, then a quantitative Masters courses will be less necessary.

Work?

If you opt to spend the next year working in financial services, and you don't have a job already, you will need to be incredibly proactive about finding a place, and incredibly flexible in what you're willing to do.

In the most recent Association of Graduate Recruiters Survey (Winter 2008) the major investment banks reported a 28% reduction in graduate vacancies for 2009. They also warned graduates not to automatically choose to stay on at university and study for a Masters.

Why? The rationale was that candidates who gained practical work experience (even temporary) over the coming months would enhance their chances of securing their dream role in future.

If you want to gain work experience in this market, you will need to cast your application net as wide as possible. Consider firms that you may not have looked at in the past. Do your research and monitor the press closely - are there firms in the news that you may not have considered before? Do they run graduate programmes? And even if they don't run graduate programmes, would they take you on for work experience?

These are difficult times for students embarking on the first rung of the career ladder. But if you are flexible and focused you may find an opportunity to differentiate you from the mass of others in the same position.

Helen Bostock is the former global head of campus recruiting for Credit Suisse.

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