Just days ago I was writing about how incredibly prepared I felt. Now, before I've even had one single class, the first feeling of "Oh My God -- what have I gotten myself into" has already crept into my mind.
Today I went on a full-day recruiting event from one of the bulge bracket (i.e. top) Wall Street investment banks. We were taken up to the 27th floor of their office building in downtown Chicago where senior executives of the firm were put in front of us to tell us how delighted they were to speak to us and why their firm is truly one of the best to work for. Fortunately it wasn't all sales pitch and they had some interesting (and way over our heads) explanations of what investment bankers actually do, how the different divisions work, and what historic current events are currently taking place in the financial markets.
During lunch and dinner (on the 57th floor with spectacular views over the Chicago skyline at night) we were put into groups with junior investment bankers who we could ask more forward questions and who would be able to give more forward answers. Invariably, the one topic that kept popping up was "lifestyle issues", the euphemism for not seeing your friends and family because you work seven days a week. The responses were basically different spins on the truth most of us already knew: during the first years you have to be prepared to make big sacrifices, but if you last long enough to make Managing Director (which in the i-banking world is higher than VP or SVP), you will be able to "leverage the resources that are available to you", i.e. let others do the grunt work. Moreover, you'll actually have time to spend the extraordinary sums of money you are making.
The associates (which is the level you start at after your MBA) defended their career choices by saying that workweeks are not always 120 hours and can get "as low as 60-70 hours", and that "if you work until midnight on Friday and are prepared to work long hours on Sunday, you can actually have the full Saturday off, if you plan well." And, unlike consultants, who are on the road 4 days per week, bankers mostly get to sleep in their own bed, albeit for short nights.
No shattering new insights if you had read up on i-banking like I had, but the kicker for the day for me personally was that you truly get an idea of the competitive nature of recruiting. There are limited spots available, and the lengths you have to go through to secure one are daunting.
There were tips on how to behave at recruiting events, how you should and shouldn't network, how one screw-up in approaching recruiters can easily destroy your shot at a summer position, and even how and when to send thank-you notes after recruiting events. One associate recommended flying to New York and trying to set up 30-minute meetings with bankers in order to build your network. He laughed: "I know it sounds crazy, but I've seen people who do it and they were generally successful." If you want to work in Sales & Trading it's even more difficult because this division doesn't recruit on campus and you have to reach out on your own to find recruiting opportunities.
On the bus ride back to Evanston, I sat next to fellow Kellogg students to discuss the day. I sat next to an Israeli guy who had been an intelligence officer in the Israeli army, then had done real estate investing in Eastern Europe, and another guy who had been setting up divisions at various service companies and was looking to break into a competitive hedge fund. Another guy had been run the armed forces training academy in the country of Georgia. It's great to study business with people of such impressive backgrounds -- until you start competing with them for a job.
The bank tried its best to convince us that career switchers have a perfectly good shot at landing a job, but among the career switchers there were many with a finance background, which I don't have, and according to the bankers that means you'll have to work extra hard to get up to speed. In the last 6-12 months I had been reading up on financial markets and thought I had a pretty good rough understanding of how the banking industry worked and what forces were at play in the current downturn in the credit markets. Today, however, I learned that I know nothing.
So in short -- not only is it going to be tough to get considered for a job at a bulge bracket bank, I'm also going to have extremely qualified Kellogg students competing against me for the same positions.
In a way I have known this all along, but seeing it with your own eyes has a way of letting reality kick in, nice and hard.