Back in June a bright, young, soon-to-be Deutsche Bank intern prepared for his first summer on Wall Street, and told us he knew what he was getting into.
He was right.
On this 21-year-old’s very first day, he was staffed on a project at 8 p.m. and ended up working until 2:30 that night.
His hours have let up somewhat since, but he rarely leaves before 10:30 or 11:30 p.m.
On weekends, if he’s not working and can meet a friend for lunch, he’ll choose a table near an open window because the fresh air is such a welcome treat.
Inside the life of a Wall Street intern
Most interns at investment banks are rising seniors, recruited in their junior year of college for 10-week summer programs. If they succeed, they’re usually offered two-year analyst gigs or full-time jobs at the banks.
The internships are very competitive. They’re seen as an important stepping stone to careers at banks, hedge funds, and private equity firms.
They’re also typically known for gruelling 90- or 100-hour workweeks, filled with fruitless busywork assigned on very tight deadlines. It used to be normal for interns to keep sleeping bags under their desks and regularly stay the night at the office.
Then, in August 2013, a sudden death sparked a change.
A London-based Bank of America intern was found dead in his dorm room, in the midst of a summer internship. Though his death was ruled due to natural causes, it raised questions about young Wall Streeters working excessive hours.
That led to a top-down effort at banks to change the internship experience. Two years later, there are new policies in place — and interns will occasionally say that the work isn’t as hard as they thought it might be.
But from the perspective of anyone outside the industry, life for Wall Street’s most junior workers is still pretty insane.
After the Bank of America intern’s death in 2013, Goldman Sachs was the first bank to make a change. It began “protecting” Saturdays for junior bankers, including interns and analysts, forbidding them from being in the building on that day.
Morgan Stanley doesn’t have set rules for junior banker hours. That bank leaves it up to the discretion of individual groups. We understand from interns that some, like the technology banking team, get weekday curfews, while others, like mergers and acquisitions, do not.
Bank of America interns and analysts must take four weekend days off a month, and during the week they are not expected to work between midnight and 9 a.m. Similarly, at Goldman, junior bankers are expected to be out of the office weekdays from midnight to 7 a.m.
For more on bank policies, there is a full breakdown here.
Shut up. You only worked 90 hours this week.
While we were reporting this story, one Morgan Stanley intern insisted that his peers exaggerate how much work they do.
“They will say they worked 110 hours one week, and you’re like, ‘Shut up, you only worked 90.'”
That said, 90 hours is almost double the average working week in America, according to a 2014 Gallup poll.
And, despite new policies, most interns still feel they’re expected to follow the “FILO” (first in, last out) rule. This rule even applies those in sales & trading, who usually aren’t working on specific projects but rather shadowing traders on the floor.
Interns frequently find ways to work around other polices meant to protect them.
One Citigroup intern said that junior bankers and interns are still able to work on Saturdays, so long as they get permission from a managing director or human resources. At other banks, bending the rules is said to be even easier.
But Wall Street intern culture has changed some. Gone, it would seem, are the days of office pranks, which were traditionally aimed at bank rookies.
The fact that a second-year Barclays analyst “left the company” shortly after sending a prank email to incoming interns this summer might be evidence of that.
His satirical email outlining the “Ten Power Commandments” of banking was leaked to the media and, despite rumours of it being an old joke recycled each year, he lost both his position at Barclays and, reportedly, his buy side job offer for next year.
These interns have options.
Avoiding tragedy is only one reason banks are trying to make internships more bearable.
The current class of interns grew up during the financial crisis, not during the heyday of 1980s or 90s. They’re not as easily sold on finance as former generations. For many elite students from top universities, other career paths — in tech, start-ups, or even in fashion — are just as attractive.
And within the finance sector, talented young Wall Streeters are starting to see the banks as just one of many options.
A growing number of exceptional young people are finding their way directly to hedge funds and private equity firms. Many of those students see investment banks like Goldman Sachs as “a backup plan.”
Some hedge funds, like Steve Cohen’s Point72, have even developed two-year programs for recent grads — much like the investment banking programs. Point72’s new academy only accepted 14 of 400 applicants for its first year.
The draws to hedge funds and private equity firms are obvious: better hours, more rewarding work, and the potential to make many times more money in the long-term.
One hedge fund intern told us that she actually gets overtime pay if she works more than 40 hours a week — which she does, but not by too much. She’d been working closer to 60 hours the summer before, but HR told her to cut her hours down.
When she’s at work, that intern said, she gets to do analytic work, like building company models. At Wall Street investment banks, on the other hand, a typical project might consist of researching companies and making PowerPoint presentations about them.
Another hedge fund intern told us “a monkey could do the job” of a first- or second-year analyst at an investment bank. And those factors are what led one 19-year-old Wharton student to turn down an offer at Goldman Sachs in favour of interning at a hedge fund instead.
But for now, those students are still the exception. Most young Wall Streeters still begin their careers at banks, which have yet to completely lose their allure.
Back in June, when the Deutsche Bank intern was gearing up for his summer, he told himself, “If I absolutely hate it, I don’t have to go back full-time.”
Now, a few weeks away from wrapping up his internship, he’s eager to find out whether he’ll get a full-time offer.
If given the chance, he said, he would definitely go back next year.