Would a career in finance suit me?
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There is a huge variety of jobs available in finance, for school leavers and graduates. It’s important to consider carefully which sector – accountancy, investment management, banking or insurance – and, within your chosen sector, which job role would suit your personality, mix of skills and preferences.
Accountants help organisations – from small charities to global businesses – and individuals to manage their finances so as to comply with relevant legal regulations and plan appropriately for the future. Accountancy would therefore suit people who enjoy working with numbers, are able to learn quickly, can communicate and work as part of a team, and have an interest in the business world.
Accountants have to be able to grasp concepts quickly – whether it is assimilating new information or data, managing a new project, or meeting a new client. If something is new to you, you need to be able to ask the right questions and follow the right leads as you research it, which is why a basic interest in the business world and how it works – how companies make their money and interact with each other, for example – is essential. After you’ve grasped a new concept, you need to be able to convey complex information in a professional and jargon-free manner to a client, so excellent communication skills are vital. You also need to be able to work with colleagues, often in a team, at all levels of the business.
There are many different job roles in accountancy. Although the above qualities are essential for all accountants, the ideal skills set of a forensic accountant, for example, will differ from that of a tax accountant – for more help in deciding which particular sector of accountancy would suit you, see our summary of the different accountancy sectors on TARGETjobs.
The ability to combine meeting business needs and maintaining strong moral principles is highly important for all accountants. They are expected to manage their client’s financial affairs so that they achieve the best outcome possible for their client, while ensuring that public interest is not compromised.
Probably the most important trait for a would-be accountant is a willingness to work and study at the same time. Although jobs in accountancy generally have reasonable working hours, the first few years can be quite intense. Whether you choose the university or the school leaver route, you will be working towards gaining your professional qualifications, which will involve attending lessons, studying and sitting exams while holding down a job (don't panic – most employers will offer you study leave). If you can’t face the idea of studying for another test, accountancy is probably not for you.
There are two main aspects of investment management: making intelligent investment decisions and client service. You’ll be expected to become an expert in a particular area of the financial market that your employer operates in, and become a ‘go to’ person for both clients and colleagues. If you enjoy extensive research and building specialist knowledge, and are interested in and able to understand the financial markets and the implications they have on something you’re responsible for, then this area of finance could be perfect for you.
You’ll also have a heart to serve and do the best possible job for your clients, because investment management is all about ensuring clients’ needs are met (investment decisions are made on behalf of clients). A lot of your time will be spent on the phone with clients and, when you’re not doing that, you’ll either be working individually or collaborating with colleagues. So you’ll need to be comfortable working on your own initiative, good at teamwork and confident dealing with clients.
Whether you enter the sector as a school leaver or graduate, you’ll have to study for specific qualifications and undergo training while working. So you’ll need good time management skills (able to manage a jam-packed schedule) so you can perform well at work while taking exams. You’ll also spend a lot of time working with numbers – both in and out of the classroom – so ask yourself if you’d enjoy this and be good at it.
Working hours will often depend on your workload. At least ten-hour shifts are common, with early starts being typical in this area of work. Your working week will often include a mix of office-based responsibilities (for example, calling clients, meeting with the team and responding to queries) and meetings with clients in their offices or elsewhere. If you don’t want a job where you’re stuck at a desk or constantly on the road, investment management might suit you.
The fundamental aim of investment management firms is to make money, and they do this primarily by investing their clients’ money as well as their own. Investments can be made in a variety of ways across a complete range of businesses, countries and products, and clients can be any individual or company with enough cash or assets. Investment management might not be right for you if you’re likely to have strong feelings about which of these you are and aren’t comfortable working with or investing in.
The nature of the roles within each division vary, as do the skills and personal qualities required to succeed in them.
Retail banks serve individual customers who can range from a teenager opening their first current account to a pensioner seeking a high-interest account for their savings. If you enjoy interacting with and serving people from all walks of life, retail banking may well be a good career choice for you.
Customer deposits accumulated by retail banks are their ‘bread and butter’. So customer service (to keep customers happy and loyal) and product offering (to prevent customers going to other banks) are very important. Employers prioritise, and aim to achieve, excellent customer service. The best retail bankers are those who take time to understand the needs of their customers and recommend the best products or services for them. So you’ll need to be patient, a good listener and empathetic, and will be able to combine meeting business needs with meeting customer needs.
Flexibility, adaptability, geographical mobility and the ability to build good working relationships with colleagues across the business are also required, because during your time with a bank you might have to move to a different division, branch, call centre or regional office for training, continued professional development, a new role or to fill in for a colleague. School leavers, for example, may spend a bit of time in a call centre before joining a branch, while graduates may have to move to another bank or division to climb the career ladder.
Like all areas of finance, working hours in retail banking can exceed 9.00 am to 5.00 pm. Project work and deadlines make it necessary, at times, to work longer shifts. And, as retail banks open on Saturday, you could find yourself working over the weekend. If a predictable schedule and guaranteed weekends off are what you’re looking for, retail banking might not be the best career option for you.
Investment banking is suited to people who enjoy working with, and can get their head around, data. This is why analytical and numerical skills are often favoured, and sometimes also a numerical or technical degree. You’ll also need to be good at teamwork, confident dealing with clients and prepared to put the hours in. One of the main lifestyle factors that distinguishes investment banking from other areas of finance is the long working hours. You’re likely to often work more than 12 hours a day, and some weekends. So you’ll need resilience and endurance. If you’d prefer to work from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, knowing when you’re going to clock off each day, investment banking isn’t for you. Likewise, this may not be the best career choice if you don’t want to live in London – all investment banks are based in the capital.
Every area of an investment bank wants to make a profit because the bank is publicly owned and answerable to shareholders (individuals or small groups that own parts of the bank). This is particularly evident in the trading division, where financial products are bought and sold – and money is made and lost. You are likely to work in a target-orientated environment with colleagues who will sometimes be under immense pressure to make the right decisions at the right time about huge amounts of money.
Insurance suits people-oriented types who are good listeners, observant and able to pick up on subtle cues from people. Take broking as an example: Toby Wemyss, a chief executive officer at insurance company Willis Towers Watson, said: ‘As a broker, emotional intelligence [the ability to pick up, verbally and non-verbally, the mood of other people] has an important part to play because if you sense that someone’s reacting positively to a certain theme you continue to go down that route.’
Confidence and excellent verbal and written communication are also essential qualities and skills to have, as you’ll have to liaise with people from other areas of the business and third parties, such as lawyers. You’ll also need attention to detail and negotiation skills, as, depending on your role, there may be times when a client makes a claim and you have to sieve through documents for information to negotiate a settlement.
Employers pay for their school leaver and graduate hires to study towards relevant qualifications for their specialisms while gaining practical experience. You’ll have to be prepared to commit to study and work, and be able to manage the demanding workload. But, when compared to other areas of finance, insurance professions are often described as offering a better work/life balance. For example, working hours tend to be from 9.00 am to 6.00 pm in the initial years. Insurance companies are also dotted around the UK, so there could be the option of living closer to home or at least having the choice not to work in central London (which often requires a considerable commute).
Insurance companies make money, by and large, from individuals and companies who buy their insurance policies, so sales are an important part of the business. Therefore, your working environment will probably have a performance culture (regular targets and objectives to meet). But the business won’t just be about selling and targets; financial products and services will often distinguish one insurance company from another, so you can expect your employer and colleagues to place equal emphasis on creating new products to meet the changing needs of customers.
The best actuaries have a good head for numbers and are highly self-motivated. They are astute problem solvers, hard workers and effective communicators – both in writing and when speaking. The work can be changeable so being flexible is essential. Owing to the technical nature of the job, specialised maths knowledge (at least maths A level) is sought by employers. Many actuaries also have a degree in maths, applied maths or statistics – it’s an area of work that’s most suited to people who enjoy and are good at maths.
Actuaries are mainly based at a desk. However, some actuaries, particularly consulting actuaries, travel to meet with clients. Similar to their insurance counterparts, actuaries, on average, work an eight-hour day early on in their careers. But working hours can vary, with consulting actuaries and actuaries who work in the investment banking field, for example, having more unpredictable schedules and often working more than 40 hours per week.
If you join the actuarial profession you’ll be expected to attain specific qualifications, which your employer will fund you through and give you study leave for. This will involve studying, attending lessons and taking exams while doing a full-time job. If the blend of work and study appeals to you and you’ve got the academic smarts to pass the exams, the actuarial profession could be a good choice for you.
Most actuarial jobs will be with financial organisations in the private sector, where an underlying aim is to make and retain money. However, you’ll help achieve this by providing expert advice to your employer and clients to facilitate them in making the best decisions for their financial futures. So while profit is important, specialist knowledge, intelligence, precision and delivering dependable information is the priority.