My unexpected journey into finance and what I have learnt so far
Lessons learnt from transitioning from philosophy to finance, overcoming challenges and finding satisfaction along the way.
My first job was as a part-time waitress when I was twelve years old. Thereafter, I spent my holidays exploring different industries, working as an intern in the National Museum of Singapore and a non-profit organisation, and as an apprentice gardener.
I knew that I wanted to pursue an undergraduate degree in philosophy since I was fourteen. But I never thought that I’d love working in finance – until I stumbled into it.
What immediately attracted me to the financial industry was the dynamism, unpredictability, and accelerating pace of change.
As things move quickly, you’d have to be comfortable dealing with ambiguity and learn to adapt quickly. Regardless of your speciality, you will need to be curious and open to learn, unlearn, and relearn.
Here are some of the challenges I’ve faced and lessons that I’ve learnt along the way.
1. Be open
Every job is an opportunity to learn something new. Keep an open mind, as you may find that you really enjoy something you never imagined would appeal to you or that it would open doors to other opportunities.
In university, I took a semester off to undertake a six-month internship in an international bank. Even though it was not ideal to graduate a year later than my peers, and that particular role was not where I saw myself in the long term, it helped me to get my foot in the door and take a step in the right direction.
Without it, I would not have had the chance to develop professionally, broaden my network, and transition to other roles in the industry.
When you are first starting out, don’t shy away from opportunities even though it might not be exactly what you had in mind.
2. Be brave
Two years into my graduate programme in a private bank, I took some time to reflect on what I wanted to achieve in my career. For me, I realised that I wanted to leverage on some of my current skills, such as analytical and stakeholder management skills, to transition to a strategic planning role where I could work on high-impact business initiatives on a regional scale.
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic greatly impacted the labour market, and I was comfortable working in a company with great colleagues, managers and culture, I knew it was the right decision to start the job search and begin the transition to a different role.
If you are uncomfortable or nervous, you are probably onto something great! Fear means you are stepping outside of your comfort zone.
3. Be memorable
Whether you are applying for internships, broadening your network, or developing your career, you’d want to be memorable and authentic. A personal brand is a story based on your goals, strengths, skills, experiences, and motivations – which could be an especially important way to set yourself apart in a competitive post-pandemic job market.
The cornerstone of your personal brand is what makes you different. What do you do better than others? What do you enjoy or love doing? What are you working towards and why? What sets you apart from the other job applicants?
A crucial tool of the personal brand toolkit is the thirty-second “elevator pitch” that conveys your unique value, including who you are, what you do, and where you want to go in your career.
For non-finance majors, it also helps to identify the applicable transferable skills from your studies and relate them to a role that you are applying for.
As client-facing and consulting businesses value crucial transferable skills – flexible and critical thinking, persuasion, creativity, attention to detail, research and communication skills – that an education in philosophy cultivates, this became part of my elevator pitch during networking events and interviews.
Besides working on the basics (such as deepening financial knowledge and showing interest in financial news and macro trends), embrace what sets you apart from others and build on these skills.
4. Be visible
As you develop your personal brand, it’s also important to network to grow your professional circle. Networking opportunities hosted by financial institutions, universities, and industry associations are great ways to build new connections in the finance industry, especially for non-finance majors.
You could also grow your online presence on LinkedIn, join mentorship programs, or seek panel-speaking opportunities to help build your profile.
5. Beat burnout
Even if you are passionate about your work, it’s common to experience burnout from time to time, especially with the pandemic leaving many people fried from trying to juggle work, family, and other responsibilities. So, what can you do to stay sharp and recharge?
- Reframe your mindset: Acknowledge that it is fine to feel overwhelmed and focus on how to improve and adapt quickly. By adopting a growth mindset, you will embrace challenges, accept setbacks as part of learning process, and thrive in fast-paced environments.
- Invest in self-care: You can’t work well if you don’t feel well – I learnt this the hard way! Small adjustments in daily activities – getting enough exercise, eating well, improving your sleep, and practicing mindfulness– can make a big difference in how you feel and give you a sense of grounding and balance.
- Connect with others: Joining interest groups and trying something new can help counter the effects of burnout. During my six-month internship, I joined an interbank scuba diving club and received my scuba certification with the help of my colleagues (who are also excellent divers). Having a strong support system can be critical to helping you through the tough times.
6. Be persistent
Till this day, I can vividly remember how I bombed my first interview and I still wince when I think about it. But what I learned through that failure helped me in the next interview and the next.
It also took many months of job searching before I was able to land my ideal job during the pandemic. Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to have very supportive managers and colleagues who gave me the opportunity to take on new challenges and grow in my career.
In short, it will take time and persistence (and some luck) to shape your career into what you want it to be; taking action is the most important step. Be curious, be confident, and want it more than anyone else.
Alexis Phan is currently working as an analyst in a regional strategic planning role in a multinational bank. She is also a part of 100 Women in Finance, a global network of professionals in the finance and alternative investment industries working together to empower women at every stage of their careers.