by Brian DeChesare Comments (286)

Breaking and Entering into Investment Banking as an Accountant

breaking_and_entering_into_investment_banking“It’s tax time. I know this because I’m staring at documents that make no sense to me, no matter how many beers I drink.”

-Dave Barry

Got “stuck” in accounting or auditing and now you want to break into investment banking?

I discussed this exact topic with a reader recently – as one of the bonus consultations for the Investment Banking Networking Toolkit – and covered what to do.

So here’s your step-by-step plan:

What You’re Up Against

Think of every recruiting effort as a battle. Depending on your background, you’ll have some advantages and some disadvantages over the enemy.

  • Consultants: You can deal with crazy people and work long hours, but can you count? Do you know how to use Excel without the mouse?
  • Liberal Arts Majors: You can communicate, but can you crunch numbers and burn the midnight oil?
  • Engineers: You can stare at computer monitors without sleeping for days at a time, but can you talk to people? Are you really interested in finance?
  • Lawyers: You can deal with psychotic people and work until you bleed, even tracking your time in 6-minute increments, but do you know how to value a company? And give up your career?

If you’re coming from an accounting or auditing background, here’s your challenge:

“I know that you know accounting inside and out, and that you’re an Excel wiz. But are you motivated enough to work 100 hours a week? Why didn’t you do investment banking from the start if you’re really interested in it?”

So you need to have good answers to those 2 questions, because they’ll be the key “objections” that any banker speaking with you will have (keep reading for suggested answers).

In Your Favor

On the other hand, you do have some things in your favor:

  • They know you know how to “count” because accountants are pretty good at that.
  • You “get” what any professional services business is all about – doing menial work for annoying and high-maintenance clients and changing periods and decimal places in documents.
  • You may have better access to networking opportunities, depending on what firm you’re at and what group you’re in.

Telling Your Story

Before you even start recruiting, you need to lock this one down.

You want to use a variation of the following answer:

“I was really interested in accounting and finance all throughout school, and the opportunity to work at [FIRM NAME] just fell into my lap. I liked the [exposure to clients / culture / group], so I took the offer and have done very well over the past year there. But during that time, I’ve gotten increasingly interested in investment banking, because I’ve [been exposed via clients / heard a lot about it from friends / met bankers at such-and-such event]. I’m eager to move into something faster-paced that lets me actually work on transactions instead of just handling the paper-work and fact-checking afterward.”

You might expand on that (interviews) or shorten it (networking) depending on the context, but that’s the basic sketch you want to use.

Similar to any “Why investment banking?” question, specific events or people are almost a requirement. So if you had a revelation one morning after going to an alternative investments conference and meeting the top brass at SAC, make that part of your story.

Bankers love to think they are important and lead interesting lives, so play on their egos and emphasize how fast-paced it is and how you would get more responsibility / meaningful work.

Networking Ninja Tactics

Once you figure out what you’re going to say, you need to figure out who you’ll say it to.

Even if you’re working full-time, networking is not much different from what MBA/university students do: you still use alumni, referrals, and possibly cold-calling depending on what you’re aiming for.

The difference is that you’ll have a lot more co-workers, former co-workers, and clients/former clients that you can use for networking purposes.

You do have to use discretion, but all of these sources give you a big advantage over students who need to network to get in.

Unless you have amazing connections at bulge bracket banks, don’t waste your time applying there. Go for boutiques, middle-market firms, and any group where in-depth accounting knowledge might come in handy: Financial Institutions / Restructuring – you bet. Technology – not so much.

If you truly have no alumni connections, no professional referrals you can use, and no other links to finance, then you’ll need to get them.

Join professional societies, go to conferences, and look up events on nearby campuses if you want to start building these connections.

Otherwise you’ll need to do a lot of cold-calling, which is covered in this podcast, in this video, this case study, these case studies, The Investment Banking Networking Toolkit, and probably other places I’m forgetting about right now.

Transaction Advisory Services

Networking is great, but there’s another method available to accountants as well: get into the Transaction Advisory Services (TAS) group at your firm.

Not all accounting firms have these, but the Big 4 and some smaller companies certainly do.

In the TAS group you work with bankers and client companies on transactions, assisting with valuation, due diligence, and sometimes effectively acting as the M&A advisor on the deal.

This helps you in two ways:

  1. Your work looks much closer to banking.
  2. You get better access to contacts in finance.

Do you transfer to TAS first, or do you try to move into investment banking from another group first?

If it will take 1 year+ to transfer, test the waters right now and see what response you get from banks.

But if you can do it more quickly than that, make the transfer first and then think about banking after you’ve been there for awhile.

Spinning Your Resume

So now you have your story down and you’re in the midst of networking and working the phones.

Almost everyone will ask for your resume, so you need to get that right.

The number one mistake you can make as an accountant is writing too much about accounting and not enough about finance.

If you start going into details on general ledgers, journal entries, SOX controls, and other accounting topics, any banker looking at it will think, “Ok, he’s accountant material. PASS.”

Instead, you need to spin what you did to make it seem more relevant to finance.

Use the “Experienced” template here and make every client into a “Project” entry on your resume – but remember that you are applying for finance jobs, not accounting jobs.

  • “Performed Sarbanes-Oxley testing and found that client’s controls were sufficient; reviewed journal entries and determined that client’s reserves were appropriate, which allowed them to project prices of raw materials for upcoming construction project.”

This would sound much better if you titled the entry “Raw Material Price Prediction Model” rather than “SOX Testing” and wrote:

  • “Worked with client to develop Excel model that allowed them to project prices of raw materials based on previous historical patterns and proven reserves; client later used this as supplement to financial statements and in own internal projections to validate potential return on new construction project.”

In this case, we’ve shifted the focus to a very, very small part of what you did – this Excel model – and removed the parts that sound too much like accounting.

Think about which projects can be spun into sounding finance-related, pick those, and then focus on the relevant parts and cut anything that doesn’t sound banking-related.

In Interviews

Most interviews will be focused on the “Are you motivated enough to work 100 hours a week rather than 60?” and the “Why didn’t you get into finance earlier?” questions.

For the first one, you need specific stories of when you’ve burned the midnight oil over an extended period in the past. Examples:

  • Talk about how busy you get during tax season and how the hours and client demands spike up.
  • Talk about commitments outside work and how those also take up a lot of time and effort, which requires you to juggle a lot all at once.
  • Talk about any projects / commitments from university (it’s better to go more recent if you can).

For the “Why now?” question you should pretend that you weren’t fully aware of all the options early on, and only became truly interested in the past year (see the story outline above).

Much of your effectiveness is determined by your body language and expressions in the interview – if you don’t seem enthusiastic and energetic, they’ll assume that you’re not.

Technical Questions

Everything’s fair game here – since you have an accounting background, they’ll assume that you know more than an engineer or lawyer trying to move into the field.

So learn financial modeling, review all your technical interview questions, and make sure you can walk through the basics in your sleep.

You may also get more advanced questions on accounting and tax-related questions.

I would be shocked if they asked a student something like, “What’s the flaw with using book values of assets when determining the goodwill allocation in an asset purchase vs. a stock purchase?” or “Here are values for the 20 different items in this purchase price allocation – walk me through the resulting Book vs. Cash Tax Schedule and how the corresponding Balance Sheet items change in future years.”

Most full-time bankers don’t even have the technical knowledge to answer those questions, but you could easily run into these topics if you have a more technically-adept interviewer.

Plan B Options

If you don’t get great responses when networking, you don’t get interviews, or you don’t get any offers, what do you do next?

1. Move to the Transaction Advisory Services Group

It’s still easier than getting into a top business school. If you’re in a situation where it will take a year or more to transfer, still consider doing it if all your other efforts have failed.

Also think about moving to another firm if it’s too difficult to move internally – some large companies are resistant to change.

2. Business School

No, business school is still not a magic bullet – but it will give you a big boost in terms of networking and access to recruiters.

If you go this route, I strongly recommend doing some kind of pre-MBA opportunity, or even taking time off before and doing an informal internship.

While they’re normally reluctant to let you do this if you have full-time work experience, they’ll be more open to it if you explain that you’re going back to business school and want to do something in the interim.

3. Keep At It

One common networking question is “When do I give up?”

I would give it at least 6-9 months before you throw in the towel.

In a down economy it will often take a year or more to find anything – so you can’t get discouraged by rejections. Networking is a numbers game past a certain point.

Just look at Rocky: he got rejected 1,500 times before claiming victory.

So unless you’ve gotten at least 150 rejections, don’t even think about quitting.

Series: Career Transitions

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. Hi guys,

    I just got off an interview with a middle-market IB firm in South East Asia. The interview went quite okay except for 2 questions that I didnt answer well. The MD asked me to go back to give it a few thoughts and then come back to him. Given my current position as a manager in a Big 4’s Transaction Service Group focusing on financial due diligence (joined this team straight out of college and has spent almost 5 years here), the MD concerns how I can make a smooth transition from a TS person to an IB especially on (a) adding value to the whole deal process rather than the execution part and (b) managing analysts / associates who probably have a lot more experience and knowledge on sell-side M&A than I do. Would greatly appreciate if you could give me some guidances on how to best address the MD’s concerns

    Lastly, the position that I’m applying to is VP. Many thank in advance for this.

    1. Maybe cite past examples of how you’ve helped win clients, bring in deals, move deals forward, or get clients to agree to certain prices or other terms in contracts with your firm. For managing analysts and associates, point out that you’ve had to manage team members at your current firm as well, and that getting deals done is more about process and organization than pure technical prowess. And give an example of when you had to move a deal along and manage someone else who knew more about the details of a specific client issue than you did.

      1. Many thanks for your prompt reply. Appreciate it.

  2. Hello,

    I did Accounting and business diploma 2 years ago and then got job in retail sales until now for some reasons. Meanwhile , I continued studying and got enrolled in CPA. So, currently I am in advanced level of CPA and still in retail sales work(soon to quit this job).

    I am very much interested in IB but I don`t have any kind of previous accounting or finance related experience, neither I am a fresh graduate now.

    what should be my next immediate step besides networking in order to land a IB job?


    1. M&I - Nicole

      In this case, perhaps getting some experience at a local/3rd tier firm can help, even if you maybe unpaid. Otherwise, I’d try to get into a top tier university for your MBA to rebrand yourself. I’d also explore options outside of IB to broaden your scope.

  3. Hi,

    I am a junior at a target, and since I have been unable to receive an IB internship primarily due to my below par GPA (3.2), do you think it is better for me to switch to the CPA/Accounting track. My school offers a BS/MS Accounting program where you complete both BS and MS in Accounting in 4 years + summer. This essentially guarantees me an Accounting job. Would the switch from Accounting to IB be easy after I start working or should I put in my 100% to getting into IB while during college.

    Basically, my question is: does having a CPA and BS/MS in Accounting, which guarantees a job, better than taking the risk of having no job or a low prestige job after college?

    I am an international student, thus can’t really work for botiques. If I’m unable to find a job in the U.S, I would have to leave the country.

    1. Yes, switch to the CPA/Accounting track if it guarantees you an Accounting job and helps you get a better GPA. You can always move over to IB later on, even if it’s an indirect path:

  4. AccountingStudent

    Hi there,

    Not super relevant, but I’m about to leave for university (I live in the UK) to do an accounting course – I was wondering if you had any advice on what kind of things I could do while there in terms of extra-curricular stuff and course specifics later on that would make me more attractive to banking recruiters?


    1. M&I - Nicole

      Yes joining a finance and investment club.

  5. Hi,
    First of all, great website, good job!
    Just had a quick question. I’m currently at a big four in financial services audit on a school leaver program, but can get a degree alongside the ACCA qualification + an MSc in Accounting from UCL for a little more effort. I’m hoping this will get around the problem of not actually going to uni!
    I was wondering if I would get a look in at bulge bracket banks or should I focus more on landing a job at a boutique?
    Thanks very much for any response!

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I’d focus on boutique firms as well as TAS groups at Accounting firms.

  6. Gayatri Nayak

    Hello, I need a suggestion, my brother currently preparing for CA final and he aims to make a career as a Investment Banker. So which are the audit firms in newdelhi who are providing opportunity in this field to gain few experience and make a career in the same.

    Kindly suggest me.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I am not 100% sure regarding audit firms in New Delhi, but this may help.

  7. Sajith Menon


    I am a CA(freshly qualified) from India. I had done my interns in a small firm, and this turned out to be a barrier to me to get into TAS of any of the Big 4s. I too dreamt a lot about IB. Peresently I got a job in Audit of a Big4. What is my future?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I am not 100% sure but going to a target school for masters/MBA may help you

  8. Hi M&I,

    I’m currently working as an operations internal auditor for an oil, gas and petroleum company for almost a year. Before this, I’ve was with a big 4 firm for almost 2 years under the assurance and taxation service line. I’m 23 and I’m really motivated in shifting to Investment Banking but I currently can’t find hits in my resume to match. My company is giving top MBA opportunities, however, that would still require about 3 years of tenure. I’m wondering if there’s still hope for me in getting a career in Investment Banking. Do you think I should I quit my current job to get leads as soon as possible?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      If you can get into a top Masters/MBA program this may help you.

  9. Hi M&I,

    I’m in a bit of a conundrum. I work in big 4 audit in one of their largest groups and have been offered a lead advisory corp finance role at a smaller firm (think no.6). Their deals are mostly small to mid cap at most. Both jobs are based in London

    Are there any decent exit opps a few years down the line? Or should I stay in audit and keep trying my luck elsewhere? TAS at the moment is full in all the others

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Yes, I think this is a good role, even though it is at a smaller firm.

  10. Hi guys, I’m currently working in audit and am due to qualify with the CA in a few months. I have been offered a position in a rival big 4’s valuation control advisory team. My long term goal is to move into ER after a year or two and I want to do at least level 1 or 2 of the CFA.

    Is it a sensible move to take on this role? or should I hack it in audit for a bit longer. The valuations role is on the markets side i.e. financial assets and liabilities,complex derivatives etc, its more quantitative in nature with some modelling I assume, but with less emphasis on financial statements which is what I am worried about

    P.S. I’m in the UK so its a bit easier getting ER interviews

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Yes I think analysing financial statements are important so maybe I’ll stick with your current role for a while if you can…

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