Last summer, David Wang had an internship at an investment bank in Stamford, Conn. He loved it like a kid first learning about the stars, and deciding to be an astronaut. "I was speechless, really, at how amazing a career this was," he says. "This is where I really want to be."
But the timing's a little awkward. From Occupy Wall Street to an ex-Goldman Sachs exec's public slapdown of the money-lust at Goldman, investment bankers have become synonymous with sociopathic monopolists who have giant flashing dollar signs where their souls should be. Just this week, in the first vote of its kind, Citigroup shareholders rejected the hefty pay packages of executives.
Financial firms are losing some of their appeal to American MBA students, according to Universum's 2011 survey, while tech companies are rising in the rankings.
Yet a sizable minority of business students still are desperate to land a job at Goldman or JPMorgan Chase. In some cases, the stormy press around investment banking has piqued their passions more. They want to show all the haters they're wrong.
"Personally, I almost feel more motivated to pursue investment banking as a career, given all that's going on," Wang, a junior at Miami University, says in an interview. "It's a personal crusade to go out there and prove people wrong."
While Wang and other aspiring bankers acknowledge that some bankers have been guilty of serious ethical and legal lapses, they believe that shouldn't overshadow the good work the financial services industry does. In fact, the students maintain that money isn't their main motivation for entering the field. It's to be around hard-working people, and to serve the U.S.A. "Without financial innovation, how can this country keep its position as No. 1 in the global economy?" Wang asks. "If you don't have people working every day to figure out the next best financial thing, and doing it in America, how will we stay on top?"
Not All About The Money
No one would deny that the money is part of the appeal. Since the 1980s, bank executive salaries have exploded exponentially. Three decades ago, a young person who decided to become a research scientist could expect to earn 10 or 20 percent of what an investment banker would earn, Elliot Gerson points out in The Washington Post. Today, the finance guy's salary may be 100 times bigger than the scientist's, or more.
But if you break down the first-year salary by hour, the aspiring bankers say, it's not so absurd. "If you think about those outrageous salaries, bonuses, on an hourly basis -- it's not that much at all," explains Jon Quintero, who's a member of Miami University's Investment Club, like Wang. "These are some of the hardest working people in society. As an analyst, depending where you are, you'll be putting in 100 hours a week on average, more than half the hours in a week."
An entry-level analyst at a bank makes around $70,000 a year, and could get a bonus of $60,000 to $70,000 in 2011, if they performed extremely well. With a more likely bonus of, say, $35,000, and 100 hours of work a week, these upstarts are earning the equivalent of $20 an hour.
Investment bankers have grueling hours, especially in the first few years, which suck up much of that find-yourself, embrace-life leisure time you're meant to have in your 20s. So if money's your only motivation, you better love money a whole lot.
"I don't think everyone is simply motivated by money," says Ben Loveland, who plans to go into investment banking when he graduates Stern in May. "That's too simple."
All the business students gushed about the diligence, the drive, and smarts of investment bankers, and the kids who want to become them. "Even on campus it's very evident that they're the hardest workers at the business schools," Wang says about the investment banking hopefuls. "I really respect all the hard workers you see at the library at two in the morning. That work-hard mentality really inspired me to go into investment banking."
In fact, the personal virtues of investment bankers -- intelligence, ambition, industry -- seemed to attract these students far more than the work of investment banking itself.
The 'Higher Purpose' Of Investment Banking
What about the actual work? Students had good things to say about that too. It may not be apparent to many, they say, but investment banks provide an essential service. "I view it almost like a watering can," says Quintero. "If you're a startup entrepreneur and you need capital, and there are no investment banks, they couldn't start their company."
These men often talk about a higher purpose. Quintero says people often ask him: "Why don't you go into engineering instead of investment banking, and help society?"
"Well," he replies. "You can help society either way."
And when it comes to hurting society on occasion, investment bankers aren't alone. "I think across all industries you'll see people who fail ethical standards," says Wang. "I think people are more focused on that in banking than in other industries."
That's because people don't really understand the service that investment bankers provide, according to Quintero. When it comes to other professions, the positives and negatives are much clearer.
"Doctors provide an important service, but there are also big malpractice suits," he says. "People realize they wouldn't have their iPhone without computer programmers, but in that industry you have a lot of piracy and hacking."
With investment banking, "it's the negatives that are magnified," he adds, "because they're easier to digest."
Investment banking is just too opaque for people to see all the good. As Loveland admits, "My parents don't know exactly what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis."
Turn-Off For Some, Turn-On For Others
Everyone isn't as immune as these gentlemen to the bad press surrounding investment banks. Hiring was also slightly down last year, claims Julie Morton, the associate dean of career services and corporate relations at the University of Chicago Boothe School of Business, which may have turned-off students who were just "dabbling" with the idea of investment banking.
"Students who really understood both the potential risks and rewards of a banking career," she adds, "continued to pursue that career path -- and the banks hired them."
Indeed, many students are well aware of the rewards, and able to shrug off the risks. "There are scandals all the time in politics," says Loveland. "But if someone was really interested in politics, would that lessen their desire to go into it?"
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