by Brian DeChesare Comments (718)

Age and Investment Banking: How Old Is Too Old to Break In?

hand of a old man holding a cane

UPDATE: Please see the “Part 2” follow-up article to this one, on 6 ways to beat the odds and break into the industry as an older candidate. That article expands on what’s here and gives you tips and advice for what to do as an older candidate.

There’s no issue more sensitive than age.

Ok, maybe the CFA, GPA rounding, and Brazil come close.

But I’ve gotten many panicked “How old is too old to break in?” questions over the years.

Rather than skirting around this issue yet again, let’s jump in and see:

  • Why the problem is not your age at all
  • Why some experiences make you “older” than others
  • Why banks like less experienced and capable recruits
  • What to do if you are “too old”

Misnomers

The question “How old is too old to break into finance?” is a misguided one: in the US it’s not even legal to ask for your age when applying for jobs.

Internationally, this is not true and in some countries they will ask for your age, photos, and other information that would result in lawsuits in the US.

Still, most large banks are US-based and have standardized recruiting processes – so even if you apply in another region they’re not likely to ask explicitly how old you are.

Which means that most of the time, banks cannot measure your age precisely.

Or Can They?

Instead, they assess your “age” by looking at how much full-time work experience you’ve had after graduating from university.

Chances are that 10 years of full-time work experience makes you at least 30 – unless you were a child prodigy and graduated university at age 15, but then you wouldn’t be doing finance anyway.

And when banks see those 10 years of experience they mentally switch into “Too old / experienced to be an analyst” mode.

This has some interesting implications:

  • If you’ve done military service, worked full-time, or done something else full-time for a few years in between high school and college, this won’t necessarily “count against you.”

So even if you’re slightly older than a 22-year old college graduate, banks won’t say “You’re 3 years too old for this job! Go away!”

If you’re a recent graduate, you’ll be placed in the same category as everyone else – unless you have a really unusual situation (you started a business when you were 18, ran it for 10 years, then sold it and started college at age 28).

Yes, finance is the only industry where experience can actually count against you.

This applies to both Analysts and Associates – it’s tough to do something else for a few years after business school and then move into banking.

  • Full-time experience after university makes you “older” than full-time experience during or before university.

So if you’re tempted to take a year off and become a ski bum or do volunteer work or anything else “full-time,” then taking a leave of absence from school and returning once you’re done is a better idea.

This isn’t logical in the slightest, but nothing in finance is.

Guidelines

In the FAQ I gave 30 as the upper limit for Analyst-level hires and 40 as the limit for Associate-level hires.

Those were both under the assumption that you graduate around age 22-25.

And those guidelines are mostly correct, but it’s not because of your age itself – it’s because of how much experience you’ll have by then.

  • Analyst-Level: Banks rarely hire anyone at the Analyst level with more than 2-3 years of full-time experience.
  • Associate-Level: If you’ve done an MBA banks usually want 3-5 years of experience but not more than 10.

For Associates, it’s less about the years worked and more about the level you’ve attained.

Someone at the mid-level could potentially come in as an Associate, but a top executive will not take a pay cut and start correcting spelling mistakes in pitch books 100 hours a week.

Keep in mind that these are guidelines rather than absolute laws.

I’ve seen relatively senior people join banks as Associates, despite having more than 10 years of experience – if you find the right group and tell the right story it’s doable.

…But Realistically

On the other hand, no, you will not be hired as an investment banking analyst if you are 50 and have 25 years of work experience.

You won’t even get hired as an Associate with that kind of background.

Yes, you can break in coming from very random backgrounds, but there’s a limit when it comes to years of work experience rather than the experience itself.

Why Do They Do It This Way?

If you’re in this category you might now be asking, “Why? Shouldn’t they want people with more experience who are better leaders and problem solvers?”

And I agree with you – it’s silly to be this rigid.

But banks don’t see it that way – they have 2 main concerns with more experienced candidates:

  1. You can’t prioritize work above all else and be on-call 24/7.
  2. You won’t do whatever senior bankers ask you to without questioning orders.

Concern#1 applies mostly to Associates.

Banks assume that if you’re older you might have a family and actual responsibilities outside work, reducing your willingness to stay at the office until midnight all the time.

Concern #2 applies to everyone – banks know that only less experienced hires are likely to follow instructions all the time without pushing back.

This is why it’s difficult to break in if you’ve started a company or done something off the beaten path that required a lot of independent thought – you might not be able to follow orders.

No, not everyone in the industry thinks like this.

But it is a numbers game, and bankers want to maximize their chances of finding workhorse Analysts and Associates – so they target people in very specific categories.

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So What Do You Do If You’re “Too Old”?

It might be difficult to break into investment banking if you have too much experience, but there are other options:

And if you’re frustrated with the rigidity, find a less structured industry.

As bankers might say, “It is what it is.”

UPDATE: Please see the “Part 2” follow-up article to this one, on 6 ways to beat the odds and break into the industry as an older candidate. That article expands on what’s here and gives you tips and advice for what to do as an older candidate.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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  1. Philippe

    Hi Brian,

    I will have 40y old soon and have more than 10 years experience in financial markets (middle office in Europe). And have a master degree.
    Do you think it’s possible to switch into PE since i already have experience in financial market ? Also, i wanted to get an MBA at a top business school if that help.
    Thanks for your response

    1. No, probably not. Think about other options such as working at a PE portfolio company, corporate development, corporate finance, etc.

      1. Philippe

        Thanks for your response Brian.
        The use of the term corporate finance varies between Europe and U.S. Does that include M&A (i would like to work in M&A actually).

        And last question, is it still possible to try an MBA or not worth it ?
        Thx

        1. No, corporate finance is different and refers more to budgeting and planning. Corporate development is for M&A. I would not recommend an MBA at this stage because banks usually want candidates with less work experience.

          1. Philippe

            Thanks Brian, really appreciate your help.
            And love your website.

            Plz keep up the good work !
            ;-)

  2. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for publishing the article – it was very informative. I was wondering it if you could let me know your thoughts on my current situation would really appreciate any advice you could give:

    I graduated in 2014 from a target UK undergraduate uni and tried to get into IB back then but did not get any offers (had quite a few interviews/assessment centres with bulge bracket banks for summer internships). So with no IB offers i ended up taking a job with one of the big 4 firms in tax. I have been working there for almost three years now and am close to complete the ACA (UK equivalent to CPA). I am thinking of giving IB recruitment another try and have applied and got an offer for a masters at a UK target uni with the intention to apply for IB summer internships/full time roles while doing the masters. I am just wondering if you think this is a good approach and would my 3 years spent in big 4 tax disadvantage me? Many thanks.

    1. It will be tougher to win a role as an Analyst with 3 years of work experience already, but yes, it is possible. Please see:

      http://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/investment-banking-masters-programs/

      1. Thanks Brian. So in this case would you recoomend going down the masters route or going to business school to do MBA instead?

        1. I would go for a Master’s degree. 3 years is borderline in terms of work experience, but it’s still almost always better to enter as an Analyst if you can do so (especially in Europe, where there’s less MBA-level recruiting).

          1. I see. Thanks very much for your advice Brian it was very helpful. Looking forward to more contents on the site in the future! :)

  3. Hi Brian – I graduated from UC Berkeley back in 2011 (GPA 3.5 in biology) and did a lot of random stuff after. I volunteered a year abroad, traveled, and my only work experience is as a medical technician for 2 years. Basically I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

    I am a bit unsure how I can get into IB at this point. Starting Jan 2017, I am back in school and taking undergrad classes in math/stats/econ. My main goal is to try and get an analyst internship over the summer (I realize it is quite late already). Worst case, I might take classes for another semester, and later apply for masters programs. What do you think of this plan? Thanks for any advice

    1. It will be very tough to get into a formal IB role at this stage if you graduated 6 years ago. My advice would be to go for Big 4 roles, valuation roles, or corporate finance roles, and then think about an MBA or MSF and move into banking from there.

  4. March 13, 2017
    Thanks for the article.
    I attended the military after high school, and attended a solid but non-target state school. I have been at a top restructuring/advisory firm for the last two years (promoted with excellent reviews), but would like to make the jump to to a Restructuring/Special Situations banking group. I am about to turn 30, so the natural fear of being too old has crept in. Thoughts?

  5. to point #2:
    If one is used to working in an ambiguous environment with only a order of “just get it done by day xyz,” and thrives in that environment, then IB is not for him/her?

    1. ??? Not sure I understand. The point is that if you’re older/more experienced, bankers will assume that you won’t follow orders as blindly as a fresh graduate would.

  6. Left being an FA because it was entirely sales, no analysis*

  7. Series 56*

  8. Spent 1 year as a prop trader after earning my bba in finace (series 57), 7 months as financial advisor (series 7, series 66, insurance license), then decided to go back to school for MBA. Finished mba in august while working in aerospace project finance 3 1/2 years. I left trading even though i loved because I am passionate about building relationships and working with people, left being an FA because it was entirely sales and no relationship building. I want to pursue IB because I love finance and have all my life, greatly enjoy analysis and can sit for days on end doing analysis, work with people and build relationships, and very interested in structuring transactions. Im approximately 30. MBA was a 1 year while in Aerospace at a non-target. Thoughts?

    1. I think it will be tough to get in if you already finished the MBA because banks mostly recruit from MBA students at top schools who are still in school. Maybe focus on smaller firms and see if you can gain traction there.

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