Two economics professors describe how investment banks lure their students, and why students should resist

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Joris Luyendijk, anthropological investigator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joris Luyendijk, anthropological investigator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joris Luyendijk, the anthropologist and journalist who’s been interviewing bankers and their friends for the Guardian, has spoken to two professors of economics, one at Oxbridge, one at an unnamed university in London (probably the LSE) about the career choices of their students.

Both paint a remarkably similar portrait of naïve undergraduates tempted into banking by the promise of a glamorous life and insufficiently engaged with their studies. Here are the best bits from both interviews.

1. Students are panicked by banks’ demands for high grades

“The grades we give students determine if they are going to get that job in a bank and some don't hesitate to pass on the pressure, so to speak. I get students saying 'if I don't get that grade, my career is over'. I tell them that's rubbish, but this is how they are made to feel by the recruitment circus that banks and financial firms roll out.

I speak to students who are beginning to realise they won't get the grades necessary to even apply. They literally think their lives are over, 21-year-old kids who have been led to believe that either you get into a top paying bank, or it's a cardboard box under London Bridge.”

2.  Students spend so much time applying to banks that their studying suffers

“Banks send out their offers for summer internships between February and April. These offers are always conditional; if you don't end in the upper-second class, there's no internship for you. Some students invest so much time in applications, they don't have enough time to actually study. They fail, then come to me and beg for a better grade.

3. Students aren’t really interested in economics as a subject. They just see it as a box to be ticked in order to get a banking job

“Most of our students could not care less about all this. They conceive of us as a hurdle; a selection station to get through. They aren't here to learn, they are here to pass.

My impression is that this is what recruitment people tell students, too: 'Doesn't matter how you do it, just meet your target. Get the right grade.' The right grade, then, is anything above the cut-off line established by banks for applications.”

"The thing is, 25% of our students are genuinely interested in economics. They lose out. We are thinking about offering special arrangements where they can meet like-minded students. So they can organise a lecture about an interesting economic topic, rather than how to get into Barclay's bank.”

4. Asian students are especially ‘programmed’ into going into the City, but also more down to earth

"We will ask students, why economics? The English-born Asian and Chinese ones appear pretty programmed. They don't admit directly to wanting to go into finance. They will tell me that they won't mind being a teacher, 'give something back', work against world poverty … The truth is that their parents will throw them out of the window if they do that. They are expected to make it in the City and increase their parents' status in the community. Many hopes are pinned on them and they know that.”

The other professor says:

"The students of Asian or Middle Eastern origin are very clever and engaging and fairly nuanced. They are not the cliche single-minded, robotic types at all. And they have a lot of time because they don't go for the things that 'William Smith from Surrey' goes for. William is clever and he could get a first. But William plays rugby, he chases girls, he drinks a lot and he likes to do a line of cocaine every once in a while.”

5. The peer pressure to go into banking is enormous. It’s like students are brainwashed.

“It's striking how quickly they get trapped in the nets cast by the financial industry. Student associations organise CV classes, literally from the first week. Students come under intense peer pressure to apply for internships, all highly competitive.

It's crazy but they've heard little else for three years. I like to say, provocatively: if this kind of brain washing were done by a religious movement rather than the financial sector, it would have been banned long ago.

I tell students, look at how banks treat you - do you really want to work for an employer that treats you like this? And I point out that there's a whole world out there between the bank where your bonus exceeds my yearly income, and that cardboard box under London Bridge. Most companies don't have the money for the kind of recruitment circus that big banks and financial consultancy firms put up. They still need graduates.

6. Banks operate finely honed psychological strategies to suck students in

"I know that the major banks work with some of the top-drawer recruitment companies and they have global operations. That's something you have to give to them; investment banks are organic learners, at the speed of light. They will pick up some effective recruiting trick in the US and tweak it until it works in Frankfurt and London; a particular story their recruiters tell at universities or job fairs; a very effective question they ask.”

7. Once students have done a summer internship, they’re hooked

"So, there they are, studying economics in their first year and then it's summer time; time for the Square Mile. To be sure, some go off travelling or do a different kind of internships. But most of my students will go to a major bank. And there the change begins. Three weeks into the internship they have already spoken to someone who makes £600,000 a year. They see the cars in the car park. One day someone in the office says, let's go to the vintage champagne party and they get to join in. So there they are, having vintage champagne with established bankers, the alcohol loosens people up and stories start to flow. 'Did you see Jimmy's Lamborghini? You haven't? Come on, let's go check out Jimmy's Lamborghini. You know what, come on let's smear chocolate on it. Let's smear chocolate on Jimmy's Lamborghini.'

My students will be 19 years old, and they come back after summer with their heads full of this.”

8.  Students start to get snobby about which banks are better or worse, and then to broadcast their successes on social media and use them to boost their status on campus

"Then there's the peer pressure, which is colossal. Someone will say, Citicorp have a hiring buffet, they've taken a hall in one of the colleges, are you going? And the other student will think, 'What hiring dinner? Why didn't I know about that?' And then the other says, 'here's a number you can call to get on the list'. Students are competing all the time, 'How many job interviews do you have? Where did you go? You went to SocGen [Société Générale]? Why would anyone go interview at SocGen?'

"Now they say, 'I'm with this bank, they're thinking about flying me to New York' So this SocGen student is going to think, 'Oh my God, I seem to be slipping here.' All of this is amplified even more by bloody Facebook and Twitter and social networks. These are clarions for peer pressure, with everyone advertising their successes.”

9.  Banks don’t necessarily wanted mathematical geniuses

"What kind of people do banks come looking for at Oxbridge colleges? They want well-rounded types, social skills, team players, people who think in answers not problems, slightly pushy but not overly, social connections really help.

"The banks are not necessarily looking to find mathmo types.  These potential quant recruits are really in a group on their own and they don't seem to go that far in banks. Not to disparage them but they are regarded a bit as screwballs, so monist, so core-centric. To reach the top you need social skills and that's often hard for quants.”

10.  Most economics students seem to go into banking, even now

"In the end almost all of my students go into banking. It wasn't always like this. When I first started teaching, there were more opportunities for economists in the civil service, in consultancy. I once heard senior economist at the Foreign Office give a talk. That was one of the smartest people I have ever met, and my guess is that such a position still comes with almost unmatched cachet. People like that are what you might call 'beyond money', they may be on £120k but their prestige is equal to that of the senior economist at Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan.”

11. Students who go into banking get locked into a very specific career and have no option to move into anything else

""I tell my students, if you go into the City you are very likely to end up in a field you haven't even heard of yet. Finance is now so over-specialised, and this brings risks. If you find yourself the specialist in some arcane area, some cluster of two or three rundown emerging-market countries, and you are focused on two or three staples grown there … Yes, you have your career but you're locked into a particular area. What if the bank decides to turn away from that? Your skills are not so readily transferable.

"So that may be your future; locked into a career path with, next to you, somebody who studied chemistry, another one who did maths, another with a physics degree, and then this guy with a double first in history from Oxford. What is he doing here? Oh wait, he is one of those smooth upper-class guys called Rupert who made it on the strength of his connections.”

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