A veteran of the City of London, Chris Wheeler (MA Modern History, 2021) spent more than 40 years in banking, working, and travelling across the globe. But he swapped investment banking for US antebellum history and Irish diaspora and fulfilled his childhood dream when he began furthering his education journey, first studying History at the University of Oxford before completing an MA in Modern History at Warwick. Chris embarked on his PhD at the University of Edinburgh in September 2022.
Tell us about life before Warwick.
When I took my A-levels, I told my sixth form tutor that the only subject I was interested in studying was history. He asked if I wanted to be a teacher. I answered no, and consequently, didn’t apply. Of course, far fewer people went to university in 1972!
I had no background in maths, but after completing my A-levels, I trained to become a chartered accountant. At that time the accounting industry wasn’t a graduate market. In truth, the real reason I chose the job was because of the regular Monty Python skits about the chartered accountants, which intrigued me. Needless to say I didn’t mention that in my interview! After qualifying I spent ten years at Barclays Bank in various planning roles before spending the next thirty or so years in investment banking, the first ten at Lehman Brothers. I had a flat in Marylebone and working in the equity markets as a research analyst following banks. I’d be up at 5.30am, in the office by 6.30am, and home at around 8.00pm on most evenings. There was lots of international travel visiting investing clients across Europe, the United States, and East Asia. It was hard work, but I loved it.
Why did you return to education?
I had a big debate with myself and my family in 2015 about what to do next. I knew I needed to slow down, but I have a very active mind and can be quite manic. I was planning to retire to the Cotswolds and Oxford was the nearest university, so I went through the tortuous application process and in 2017, at 63, I began my BA in History. There wasn’t much time to look up and smell the roses as the work was intense, but I made some good friends and even organised the 2019 college ball. I have long had an interest in Ireland and Irish history, partly due to the fact that my wife’s parents are Irish, and as a result my undergraduate dissertation was on the last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Brian Faulkner. I remember a conversation my wife and I had at a formal dinner with one of my tutors in my second year, when he asked: ‘How would you like to be known as Dr and Mrs Wheeler?’ It was a tongue in cheek comment, but I hadn’t really thought about continuing my studies beyond Oxford. The conversation got me thinking. What I did realise was that if I wanted to continue my studies, a Master’s was the next obvious step.
It was local, famous for its lovely campus and had a really strong reputation for its history faculty having been the home in the 1960s of E.P Thompson, one of the leaders of the Communist history group which pioneered bottom-up history. Furthermore, Professor Tim Lockley stood out as an academic who specialised in the period of US history that I wanted to cover in my dissertation. I am delighted to say he agreed to be my supervisor. Unfortunately, my time at Warwick clashed with the worst of the Covid lockdowns, so I didn't get to experience all that Warwick has to offer. Nevertheless, I was awarded my MA in October 2021, and by that time I’d decided to try and win a place to study for a PhD at Edinburgh. It had specialists in the period I was interested in, and I was lucky enough to obtain an offer study for a PhD in Mid-19th Century US History and the role of Irish immigrants in New York City politics, which is what I’m doing now!
How is life as a mature student?
I’ll say one thing, you certainly stand out! Doing a PhD you might see a few people of a similar age but you’re generally with younger people. I remember going to the bar as an undergraduate and often offering to buy someone a drink. They’d always be very grateful but protested that they couldn’t buy me one back. I’d laugh and say don’t worry; I have a pension!
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your career?
There are lots of things you pick up when you’ve had a long career. The need to be diligent, punctual, think outside the box, and so on. But actually, I think it comes down to two vital lessons: willingness to work hard and being able to work as part of a team. Working hard and putting in the hours is partly down to doing a job you enjoy. I loved my job and loved the challenge, so this felt like less of a compromise. However, I met so many bankers in my time who were arrogant and just couldn’t fathom the importance of teamwork. If you’re someone who enjoys sharing and is willing to take advice, you’re already halfway there.
Do you think art degrees are valuable today?
In my time I’ve interviewed plenty of historians because they have developed a good set of core skills. Arts and humanities students hone certain expertise – discipline, the ability to conduct thorough research, how to write well and argue your case – they are skills that are very valuable in business and which you don’t necessarily pick up following other paths. Arts students offer a broad-based ability to research, write and communicate.
I also remember hiring three candidates who had studied at Warwick. They were all international students and spoke a range of languages, which I admired. They had also shown they could operate in an unfamiliar environment and be successful. The one regret they didn't realise it was a lot cooler to live in Leamington Spa than Coventry, which always made me laugh!
What’s your most valuable piece of advice?
The most important thing I learned in life is to be flexible. I didn’t start my career thinking I wanted to be a banker or an equity analyst or to be lucky enough to attend some wonderful academic institutions. You have to focus on what you are doing at any point in time but be brave enough to assess new opportunities when they arise and if appropriate, take them!
“If you’re someone who enjoys sharing and is willing to take advice, you’re already halfway there.”