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Why the banking culture at LSE is toxic

When I imagined going to university, I don’t think my 18-year-old self expected to be confronted by a wave of names and words that sounded somewhat distant, but nevertheless scary. From the moment I first stepped on campus in 2019 as a first-year undergraduate, there were endless echoes of “investment banking”, “spring weeks”, “cover letters”, “CVs”, “Goldman Sachs”. I was utterly dumbfounded about being thrown into such panic. This idiosyncratic focus on careers in finance has become an inside joke in our Economics Department and the wider LSE community. However, if we stop to think about it, this “harmless” banter is also hinting that what is ingrained in our culture at LSE is unhealthy. I’d say it is even toxic.

I remember feeling lost in the frenzy. Having just finished my A-levels, I anticipated an easier and happier university life. But what I got is definitely not what I signed up for – although I suppose I partly have myself to blame for my lack of research and for foolishly wishing to attach myself to the LSE brand. Despite their determined marches towards the City of London, many people I have spoken to are not entirely sure that finance is their ultimate aspiration. Yet everyone seems to be galloping towards the finishing line – if there is one at all.

In the eyes of my first-year self, the pathway of “spring week to summer internship to graduate scheme” seemed to be a solid one. This path is the norm and has proven its efficiency and success for many LSE students obtaining permanent jobs at investment banks. I felt left behind because I feared I was the only one on my course who had been reluctant to apply for spring weeks in November 2019. I didn’t think it was worth the time going through a long and daunting application process only to receive  a three-day insight into a firm that I had heard of but didn’t care about in return.

I found it hard to stay afloat in that environment, where the topic of internships came up without fail in every conversation I had with friends in the economics department. I was hearing stories of people skipping classes for job interviews, friends receiving offers from renowned investment banks across the world, and peer pressure taking a toll on everyone’s mental health and confidence – something that was always talked about but never actively discouraged.

Are we really supposed to know what we wish to do for the rest of our lives on day one? This certainly sounds counter-intuitive. However, by the start of my second year, I was already part of the “finance gang”, gathering pace for the fierce competition for penultimate year summer internship applications. I worked and worked and worked, trying my best to stay on top of my course content whilst completing endless applications which all meant very little to me emotionally. I felt miserable. I was stressed and constantly comparing myself to my diligent peers who I felt were always one step ahead of me. Eventually I snapped; I felt like I was going to explode under the pressure. I felt like a failure.

It was my tutor who kindly acknowledged my panic and advised that applications should be something extra that you try to squeeze into your already very hectic schedule. This is significant because I don’t think we’ve ever been told that internships are meant to be “extras”. They’ve alway felt, at least to me, very much like priorities. We are meant to showcase our charisma and competencies assiduously to the banking giants, to plead for a foot in the door to the world of finance. We are meant to expect no work-life balance in our future career. We are meant to welcome the prospect of spending more than 80 hours in the office every week slaving away on Excel spreadsheets. We are meant to accept hurtful rejection after rejection, having our self-worth stomped on, again and again and again, just because we put down our choice of course as economics on our UCAS applications. This is the logic that has quietly grown inside many of us since starting at LSE. Frankly, I concede that for all intents and purposes, this seems to make sense.

However, I realised all this had to change when I got burnt out and found myself struggling once again with depression. At one of the lowest points in my life I could not get out of bed – not even to make myself a meal to feed my empty stomach. I was exhausted – both mentally and physically – and could not bring myself to think about the number of lectures I had missed. That was when my parents and I started talking about the possibility of taking a year off.

It was a turning point for me. It may seem like a “surrender”, but it meant more than just a pause on my studies – it was an opportunity to take a step back and re-examine the route that I had embarked on. For the first time in my life, I started to see my future, my life, as properly mine instead of following mandates that I believed I needed to conform to.

It was in another conversation with my tutor that I recognised the elitist investment banking bubble for what it is. This sense of urgency to secure an internship so early on is largely fabricated. It is part of the cunning marketing and branding design of these banking giants, establishing an almost abusive relationship between us and them. We are made to feel worthless in the face of ruthless competition and the institution’s alluring reputation before we even have the time to think about the important question of whether this is the kind of company we really want to work for.

What are their values and how do they treat their employees? These are the questions that we neglect asking ourselves before plunging into the hysteria of applications, praying that our profile will impress at least one of these firms. However, as profit-maximising businesses that they are, they maycertainly have something to gain from constantly dispatching their employees to various networking events throughout the academic year, inflicting extra costs on themselves. Indeed, they benefit from maintaining their prestige with thousands of students flocking to their doorstep every single year, all praying for a piece of the palatable investment banking pie. 

I am aware that this article risks sounding like a conspiracy theory against investment banks. Yet it does seem convincing when we start seeing them not only as employers trying to reach out to poor LSE students, but as a part of the profit-driven corporate world. Of course, this is not intended to discourage anyone with a genuine interest in finance from pursuing a career in it. 

The problem is that no one, not even experienced teachers, is publicly speaking out on this issue. We are thereby endorsing the toxic culture that has persisted for so long in our community, continually diminishing our chances of enjoying a fulfilling university life as well as choosing the right path for ourselves.

I think we all need to be told right from the start that we are still a group of clueless students and it is okay not to have it all figured out. I find it difficult to follow the crowd and bury myself and my individuality during the process. The negativity associated with this LSE culture is something that should be talked about more often. I believe something needs to change. We need to reassure those who have not made up their minds about their future occupation – who are lost and confused under the pressure of it all – that they can build their paths individually instead of following what everyone else is doing.

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