Getting a job in finance, after your PhD

Are you interested in breaking into financial services and/or banking? I recorded a 10-minute guide on how to get your first job in finance, for the PhD Career Stories podcast. I’ve included the 7 actions you need to take to get started – listen here:

PhD Career Stories Episode 69: Chris Humphrey on how to break into a career in finance and banking.

If you enjoyed listening to this episode, take a look at this article covering my top 5 careers podcasts for researchers, to find out about other great shows.

My original transcript for the podcast is given below.

‘Hello I’m Chris Humphrey, I’m the founder of the careers website Jobs on Toast. Having originally worked as a PhD and post-doc in Medieval Studies, I left academia for a career in business, and today I work as a project manager in a UK bank.

In this podcast episode I want to introduce the range of careers that are available to PhDs in the Financial Services (FS) sector. I’m going to give you some tips and tricks for how to break into this line of work. You don’t need to have studied a finance degree to get a job there – certainly I didn’t. But I did use the transferable skills I gained from my PhD and my previous employment experience, to land my job as a project manager with a medium-sized bank.

So let’s start by looking more closely at Financial Services as an industry. Financial services are a key sector of the economy – after all, we all need bank accounts where we can pay in our grants or salaries, pay out for our bills and living costs, and save something for the future. And we need insurance to protect against something going wrong, covering our possessions, our health and our pets. Certainly, I insure Ned my cat, paying a small amount monthly to protect against a large vet bill!

In the UK in 2017, the financial services sector contributed £119 billion to the UK economy, 6.5% of the total economic output. The sector was largest in London, where 50% of the sector’s output was generated. There were 1.1 million financial services jobs in the UK, 3.2% of all jobs. So it’s a serious industry, much bigger than academia, and hence potentially more opportunities for you to find work and apply your skills.

Because capital and credit are so central to modern economies, if something goes wrong, like it did in the financial crisis of 2008-9, the consequences can be severe and long-lasting. So the financial services sector is very highly regulated by governments. This provides further opportunities for employment e.g. at central banks like the Bank of England, and the industry regulators – in the UK, the Prudential Regulatory Authority, and the Financial Conduct Authority.

OK, so having looked at the broad nature of the sector, we can now turn to look at the types of job roles that available in Financial Services. And consider, how can PhDs of any discipline enter this line of work?

Let’s categorise jobs into 3 types – front office jobs, back office jobs, and core financial services roles.

First, let’s look at Front office jobs

By this, I mean roles where you’re dealing directly with customers, either face-to-face or remotely. Although many banking and insurance processes are now automated, companies still employ large numbers of people to deal with work that can’t easily be done by machines e.g call centre work, opening more complex kinds of accounts, and assessing insurance claims. If you’re dealing with business customers, for instance helping to arrange loans and overdrafts, this is also an area where a human touch and personal relationships are key. And of course there are sales roles where you are helping customers and clients purchase the right products and services.

In my view the administrative and customer contact work is work that any researcher could do. Right after I handed in my PhD on the Thursday, I started working as a temporary administrator for an insurance company on the Monday, generating quotations for life insurance. This helped me pay the bills over the summer, while I waited for my post-doctoral fellowship to start.

I appreciate that these kinds of jobs are not using the full range of your skills, and you might feel they are a step down. But on the other hand, you can see such a role as a stepping stone into the sector and gaining access to more senior roles. You’re using your communication skills, your organisational skills, you’re getting paid and gaining experience and seeing what opportunities exist for you.

The second type of job is in the back office.

Although our typical experience of financial services is going into a local branch, calling a phone number or using a website or app, remember that banks and other FS companies require a whole host of specialist services behind the scenes to keep them going:

  • IT services – to ensure that employee’s have computers and phones to do their work
  • Software development – for external websites and mobile apps
  • Human Resources and training – to keep employees paid, trained and happy
  • Project Management – to make changes to how the organisation works
  • Marketing – to makes customers aware of the company’s products and services
  • Building facilities management – to operate local branches and head office buildings, keeping them secure, warm and clean
  • Legal and compliance – to ensure the organisation operates within the law and regulations
  • Risk management – to consider what might go wrong and act to mitigate those risks – fraud, natural disasters, economic downturns
  • Archivist – managing the historical records of the organisation

As a researcher you could join a financial services organisation in any one of these roles. You are going to be relying on your transferable skills and applying them to the specialist role, rather than using your subject matter knowledge. For instance, in my current day job I’m a project manager. I help the bank I work for make changes to IT systems, launch new products and deliver training. I learned project management as a researcher, doing academic research projects, and I’ve since applied my project management skills in the transport sector, IT and now banking.

Another example of a PhD working in banking is Dr Patricia Bouteneff, who works as the chief of staff and resident historian at Citibanks’s Center for Culture in New York. Patricia holds a doctorate in Modern Greek literature. In her account of a typical week on the website, Patrica says ‘A short list of what we might do in a given week might include write histories, build timelines, mount exhibitions, provide images and art from our collections, give tours, research questions, conduct interviews, and hang art.’ How’s that for a job?!

The third type of job is core financial services roles

Within a FS company, there will be a core group of people in specialist financial roles e.g. chartered accountants, credit analysts, investment managers, product managers, financial analysts, financial advisers. They typically hold professional qualifications that demonstrate their capability to do the job.

If your PhD is in a core FS discipline, you can consider applying for these roles. Certainly, I’ve seen job adverts where investment banks are directly advertising for PhDs with statistical and financial backgrounds. Organisations may even have programmes to assist e.g. the Bank of England has a PhD internship program, so you can get valuable work experience while you’re doing your PhD. The Bank of England also directly hires PhDs with more than 3 years of work experience, check out their website for more details.

So we’ve spent some time looking at the 3 main types of job roles that exist within financial services companies. I hope that’s whetted your appetite and given you a better idea of the possibilities. If you fell that you are interested in a career in FS, here’s my 7 steps for what to do next:

1. Get going with some background reading – read an industry newspaper like the Financial Times. Listen to podcasts too, such as those produced by the Financial Times or BBC Money programme.

2. Make a list of your transferable skills and think about how you can apply your skills to the roles I’ve introduced

3. Decide how how you want to get into FS – in the front office, back office or in core financial services

4. Start looking at some job descriptions online and match your skills to the skills listed in the job description

5. Get some work experience in a FS company or in a relevant role

6. Network and do informational interviews with people who already work in FS

7. Come up with a good explanation of why you want to get into FS, to include in your CV and application letter. You are then in a position to start making applications for jobs, as you come to the end of your PhD.

OK so that completes my introduction to the career opportunities available to PhDs in the Financial Services sector, and some tips how can you make a transition into this line of work – I hope you’ve found that helpful. If you have any questions, by all means email me via the contact form on my website. Happy job hunting!’