Charlie Park (a pseudonym) started university in 2008, the year the financial crisis struck. Bear Stearns had already collapsed and been assimilated by J.P. Morgan and Lehman was about to go the same way and have its carcass picked over by Barclays. The financial world was falling apart, but Park didn't care: he was studying mathematical economics, and when he graduated he wanted to work in finance. There was no other option.
"I went to a school of mathematical economics so I could go into finance," says Park. "Everyone in my immediate family had done finance. My mom worked in finance, my dad worked in finance. It was something I grew up with and what I wanted to do."
Park was lucky. He secured a job before his course finished. Even better, the job he got was with a hedge fund - and hedge funds are notoriously frugal about hiring juniors. Before it even began, however, Park's fledgling finance career was derailed. "A week before I graduated, I got a letter from the hedge fund telling me they needed to delay the job for a year," says Park. "What was I supposed to do? - I'd missed the hiring round anywhere else."
With 12 months to burn, Park halfheartedly looked for short term entry-level contracts in finance. "When you're looking for a finance job you need put 1,000% of your effort into the application process," he says. "I didn't do that - I knew I still had my offer to join the hedge fund after a year, so I took it easy." Even so, he eventually got a short term contract with a private equity fund, and then left for the fund that had put him on hold.
If you join an investment bank as an analyst, you'll benefit from an extravagant training program. At the hedge fund Park joined, this wasn't the case. "There wasn't much of a nurturing atmosphere," he says. "I had to teach myself everything - the only way I learned how to build a financial model, for example, was by dissecting the models they already had and seeing how they worked. It was like I was thrown into the fire-pit and they wanted to see if I burned."
He lasted just over 24 months, at which point the fund made a round of layoffs after losing 30% of its assets under management. "It was last in first out," says Park. "Irrespective of how well you'd been performing."
Aged 25, Park was therefore given his first experience of finding a new finance job when you're on the street. It was even harder than finding a first finance job from college. "It's very difficult to jump back into a fund when you're out of the market," he says. "Everyone assumes your exit was performance-related and no one will touch you. The only way to move between hedge funds is to jump from job to job when you're still employed."
Even so, Park did manage to get back in again. This time, he was given a six month internship with another hedge fund. "It was kind of an extended interview," he says. "They wanted to see how I did and then decide whether to hire me." At the end of the six months, he was out again - even though he'd recommended some of that year's best performing stocks.
These days, Park is done with finance. He's spent the past eight months as a business analyst in the tech sector and says he's never going back. "You look at these finance jobs and the financial incentive is very high," he says, "But there are also huge downsides. - They promise that the workload gets easier over time, but it doesn't. The reality is that you just get used to the long hours. It's nepotistic and political. - I tried to incorporate regression and analysis and other more complicated data analyses techniques into my financial models, and was met with harsh resistance."
In his new role, Park says his contribution is actually appreciated and the culture is far more nurturing: "There's a "higher tide raises all ships" mentality here, rather than the constant "dog-eat-dog" and face-time mentalities at the hedge funds." He's now 26 and says he only wishes he gave up on finance sooner: "I've seen the light - and I've seen how people work in other sectors. There's no way I'm going back into that deep, dark world."