by Brian DeChesare Comments (713)

Master’s in Finance Programs: The Best Last-Minute Path into Investment Banking?

Investment Banking Masters Programs

NOTE: This is a new version of an ancient article on the site (from ~2009); quite a lot has changed since then, and we wanted to explain Master’s in Finance programs in more depth.

If you don’t succeed the first time around, should you try and try again?

It depends on your reasons for not succeeding the first time around, but most people ignore that point and jump straight to the “try and try again” part.

And one of the most popular methods for getting a “do-over” is the Master’s in Finance (MSF) program offered at universities around the world.

These programs can be useful if you use them correctly.

But most students don’t understand when they’re helpful, which leads to wasted time and money and big disappointments:

Why Now?

Many students and professionals believe that a Master’s in Finance degree is a magical solution for getting into investment banking.

That explains how we get emails like the following:

“I’ve worked in marketing for two years, and I have a B.A. from a Top 50 university in the U.S. I decided to change my career a year ago, and now I am pursuing a Master’s Degree in Economics at a Top 20 university.

I have no experience in finance, but I am currently taking accounting and finance classes. Which area of investment banking should I apply to?”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but a Master’s degree is not a great idea in this case.

But first, let’s define a “Master’s in Finance” degree and explain how it differs from other options like an MBA.

What is a Master’s in Finance Degree?

A Master’s in Finance program is shorter, cheaper, and narrower than a traditional MBA:

  • Length: Usually one year rather than two.
  • Cost: Far less because of the shorter length, though tuition still adds up to tens of thousands of USD, GBP, or EUR.
  • Scope: Covers just accounting and finance; classes are more focused than those in MBA programs. You won’t learn about operations, management, or marketing unless it’s a Master’s degree in Management or another, broader area.

You might apply for this degree right after finishing undergraduate, or you might do it after working for 1-2 years.

Applying after 5-10 years of full-time work would not be useful – go for an MBA or skip the degree altogether.

There are also Master’s degrees in other areas, like Economics or Management, but you’re best off with Finance or the Finance track if you want the types of roles featured on this site (investment banking, private equity, corporate development, etc.).

There are exceptions to the rules above: For example, many top European MBAs last for one year (INSEAD, Bocconi, etc.), and some MSF programs last for two years.

Finally, there are some differences between the U.S. and other countries because 4- or 5-year combined Bachelor’s/Master’s programs are more common in the rest of the world.

What MSF Programs Can and Can’t Do for You

MSF degrees are most useful when you’ve decided on investment banking late in the process, but not too late.

So, you have some finance-related coursework, internships, or full-time work experience, but not enough to get into banking out of university.

Here’s a specific example:

  • Useful: You majored in accounting and became interested in banking in your last year of university. You have no IB-related internships, but you did win a Big 4 full-time offer. You’re planning to work there for 1-2 years and use that experience, plus a Master’s degree, to get into investment banking.
  • Not as Useful: You majored in biology, worked in a lab for 1-2 years, and you’re going to apply to MSF programs to make a career change into banking. You were not interested in banking until you started working full-time and got bored with your job.

In the second case, you’ll have no relevant work experience, which is a big problem since you need a sequence of finance-related internships or full-time roles to get in.

An MSF degree would make sense in the second case only if you could complete finance internships before or during the program.

Here’s another example:

  • Useful: You became interested in banking when you were attending university in China, but it was too late to win real IB internships. However, you did complete a corporate finance internship at a local firm. You’ll apply to Master’s programs in the U.S. or U.K., complete several internships, and move into IB from there (a similar story from a reader).
  • Not as Useful: You completed a technical degree in India and worked as an engineer for 1-2 years. You have no finance experience. Now, you want to make a complete career change and apply to Master’s programs in the U.S. or U.K. and get into investment banking from there.

It’s the same problem as in the first example: It’s a big leap to go from no finance experience to investment banking solely through a degree.

Even if you completed an MBA instead, you would still need a pre-MBA internship in finance or something more relevant to have a good shot.

A Master’s in Finance degree helps you with:

  • Re-Branding – If nothing in your background seems related to finance, the degree will move you closer if you also get work experience.
  • Boosting Your Prestige – If you went to a lesser-known university, you could make up for it by completing a Master’s degree at a top school.
  • Access to Recruiters – If you attend a program that offers on-campus recruiting, you’ll have a much easier time winning interviews.
  • Access to Internships – You’ll also have an easier time winning internships before and during the school year if you contact firms and say you’re an incoming or current MSF student at University X.

But there are also some limitations.

For example, you won’t win IB roles as an Associate from an MSF; banks recruit Analyst-level candidates from these programs.

The usefulness of MSF programs also varies greatly by region.

They’re the most helpful in the U.S. and U.K. because of the sheer number of IB roles and because many banks recruit students from these programs.

But they’re useless in a place like Australia because most banks recruit only top undergrad students with Law and Commerce degrees, and post-graduate recruiting is underdeveloped.

The physical location of the university is also important.

It’s easier to win investment banking roles if you’re close to London, New York, or another financial center than if you’re in a small town with only a few local firms nearby.

Finally, if you’re an international student, you have to look up whether or not the degree qualifies for STEM treatment.

If it does, then you can work in the U.S. for 36 months after graduation (the OPT program) without applying for an H-1B visa, which makes it far easier to win job offers.

You cannot necessarily go by the lists of the “top” programs – you have to make sure anything you pick qualifies as STEM.

For example, the Princeton and Vanderbilt programs both qualify, so they are much better options than programs that do not.

The Best MSF Programs

On that note: I am allergic to rankings, but I’ll link to a few lists here.

In Europe, places like LSE, Imperial, HEC, LBS, Esade, IE, and several others offer the best MSF options (the eFinancialCareers list here is a good starting point).

You can find a partial list of the “top” U.S. programs here.

Note, however, that many schools are not on the list because of terminology differences.

For example, the UVA program is well-regarded, but the school calls it an “M.S. in Commerce” and offers a Finance track within that degree, so, technically, it is not an “M.S. in Finance.”

You’ll see that many of the best schools for MSF programs are not Ivy League universities, but are good state schools (UT Austin, UVA, etc.) and Top 20-30 schools (Vanderbilt, WUSTL, Notre Dame, USC, etc.) instead.

Many of these schools have stronger placements into certain industries than others, so you should always look up or request placement stats from the school before applying.

There’s an example for Villanova here.

How to Apply and Get In

It is extremely competitive at the top schools, which is another reason why these programs do not offer a sure-fire path into IB.

For example, the admissions rate at MIT appears to be ~10%; at Princeton, it’s closer to 5%.

These programs aren’t as competitive as Ph.D. programs with ~1% admission rates, but they’re also far tougher than community colleges with ~80% acceptance rates.

So, your GMAT or GRE scores must be high, your personal essays must be great, and you must have glowing recommendations and interview performances.

It goes back to the point I made in the beginning: Master’s programs are appropriate if you became interested in IB too late to get the required internships, but they aren’t a panacea.

We don’t do admissions consulting here, but a few application tips include:

  • Show That You Can Win Job Offers – These programs, especially the ones with smaller class sizes, care a lot about placement stats, so they’re more likely to admit someone who has front-office (or even middle-office) finance experience than someone who is coming in as a total career changer.

If you haven’t had full-time work experience, play up your internships and finance-related coursework. You need to give the impression that you could have won a front-office finance job if you had applied for one.

  • Show That You’re a Real Human Being – Have at least one solid interest outside of work and academics. It’s the same as telling your story in interviews, and your interests, or lack thereof, will come across in admissions interviews.
  • Show That You Can Bring Something Unique to the School – For example, some programs are more research-oriented, so if you have published research, emphasize it (even if you have no intention of pursuing a D.).

What to Do When You’re There

Much of the advice in our MBA-level IB recruiting articles applies here as well:

  • Get Internship Experience ASAP – Many of these MSF programs are full-time, so you’ll have to go for part-time, school-year internships. You should try to take time off before the program to complete a “pre-MSF internship” as well, especially if you’re making a big change.
  • And Maintain Reasonably Good Grades – Now you have two sets of grades, and they both have to be reasonably good.

As with MBA programs, the notion that you can “reinvent yourself” in MSF programs is completely false: You have to prepare for recruiting long before you set foot on campus.

Master’s Programs: The Ultimate Second Chance?

If you use a Master’s in Finance program correctly, you won’t have to try and try again because you’ll win the offer you want the first time around.

But that only works if you’re the right candidate for MSF programs and you approach the entire process correctly.

Get any of that wrong, and you’ll be back in the “try and try again” camp for a long time to come.

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. Brian,

    Since graduating from Florida State in Applied Economics, I’ve done primary and secondary market research for a private equity consulting firm, and now I’m working in the derivatives operations department at a large custodian bank. By the time I plan on entering grad school, I’ll have been out of undergrad for 4 years with the CFA level I passed and solid Bloomberg experience.

    Should I be shooting for an MBA or MSF? Any tips?

  2. Konstantin

    Hi Brian!
    What do you think of Master in Finance program at the London Business School?
    Cheers?

    1. Please see the comments below, someone already asked about this.

  3. Dear Brian,

    Thanks for your comprehensive article!! I totally agree with most of your opinions and this is also a path that I am planning to walk. I had 1.5 years experience in one of the Big 4 as an auditor already and I am really decisive to enter into an IB. However, I just get a MSc Finance and Accounting from Imperial, which is not a pure finance degree. My worry is that: will such a master help me achieve my target? Btw, my undergraduate is a non-target but not bad school in accounting and finance. I know a master may soly be a ticket for IB’s interview but surely not a guaranteed offer. I am doubting that if such a master can work as MSF.

    Appreciate so much if you can come up with some advice.
    Regards

    1. Yes, it will help. The fact that it’s Accounting + Finance doesn’t really matter as long as there is a Finance component and you gain access to recruiting.

  4. Hi Brian,

    It’s Sumit from India, currently I am doing Chartered accountancy course and I want to break in IB can you please tell me that MSF add any value after Chartered..??

    1. It’s hard to say because I don’t know your previous work/academic experience. But in India, as in other smaller markets, MSF degrees don’t help much because most recruiting takes place out of the top schools (Mostly the top IIMs with a bit from the top IITs) and, to a lesser extent, out of CA courses. I don’t think banks in India recruit much out of Master’s programs. An MSF would be more useful if you planned to work in another country.

  5. Thanks Brian,

    I have been researching MSF’s for several months and looking particularly at UT and Vandy for their 2018 matriculation. I’m currently 3.8 gpa in accounting at west coast non-target and will graduate Fall 17 with 2 boutique IB internships.

    I don’t think getting a regional or smaller IB gig would be out of the question next fall, but realistically, there’s a decent chance Big4 could be best offer upon graduation (practically no one recruits at my school).

    My current thought process is that I ought to pursue MSF right now rather than working and then maybe MBA down the road. My reasoning is that I have a VERY GOOD resume qualifications that I am confident could get me into top MSF, but would not hold the same weight for MBA admissions. (current Student-athlete, Honors College, oversee student-led VC fund, multiple other leadership positions within school and business school)

    In my mind, once I start working, no one will care that I was student-athlete, honors, etc. However, MSF would! I’m curious to hear your thoughts as to whether you agree I should utilize the strong leverage I currently have with MSF admissions rather than working Big4 for a couple of years than maybe trying to do MBA.

    1. If you already have multiple IB internships, then yes, an MSF now is better than working at a Big 4 firm for a few years and then doing an MBA.

  6. My question is a slightly unrelated, but I recently graduated and had two IB internships, but was not able to hit on my super days. I still got a FO role in NYC that I have been in working in for a couple months. I was wondering if you think that it will look bad that I had two internships in the field but was not able to break in when I try to lateral into IB in the near future? Appreciate the help.

    1. Yes, it could potentially hurt you. The best way to explain it depends on why you didn’t convert the internships into full-time roles and why you didn’t succeed in the Superdays, and you probably need something better than just getting unlucky since it wasn’t just one opportunity.

  7. Syrone David

    How about internships in BO roles in a BB? Are they relevant? Soecifically client onboarding

    1. Yes, they can help. It’s not as ideal as front office experience, but it’s better than nothing and better than non-finance experience.

  8. That is a very interesting article. I like the fact that you revisit topics already covered to provide alternative perspective of opportunities.
    Hypothetically, suppose if a person did undergrad in Bachelors of Business Admin with major in Finance from a non-target school with okay GPA (3.45) and after graduating he worked in a company’s finance dept for a year.
    Would you recommend pursuing MSF or MBA if he wants to pursue a career in IB, PE or similar area?

    1. Probably an MSF in that case because you have a relevant major and experience and a decent GPA. An MBA is more expensive and time-consuming and wouldn’t necessarily get you better results.

      1. Thanks for the prompt reply.
        On a side note, I am currently studying for CFA Level II. In your opinion, do you think MSF would just be an extension of that. I mean it would definitely make me more specialized but not quite versatile.
        Also, although not exactly relevant, but what is your opinion on pursuing Masters in Financial Engineering? Do you think that facilitate a transition for the quant side of the business?

        1. An MFE is better if you want to do trading or quant trading or other roles that are more quantitative (rather than working on deals).

          An MSF would add value over the CFA mainly because it would give you better access to recruiting. So it depends on how comfortable you feel networking on your own vs. how much you want to rely on structured recruiting.

          1. Thanks for your insight

  9. Apologies for the second comment box, but I wanted to ask what you meant by:

    “Get Internship Experience ASAP – Many of these MSF programs are full-time, so you’ll have to go for part-time, school-year internships. You should try to take time off before the program to complete a “pre-MSF internship” as well, especially if you’re making a big change.”

    What do you mean a pre-masters internship? Like apply for internships who hire university students in their penultimate year?

    1. Yes, go for internships where they don’t care that you’re in between schools or degrees. You can always spin it by saying that you’re still “in school” and just moving to a Master’s degree soon. I don’t know if pre-MSF internships really exist like pre-MBA ones do, but many smaller firms should be open to the idea.

  10. Hello Brian,

    I’m currently an Engineering Student in the last year, from a top School in Brazil. I have done so far 2 internships (both of them for a long time), but none of them was finance related. I’m planning to enter in a top 2 year MSF in Europe, so I can get a propper internship experience to land IB jobs.
    Considering that i would be at a Target European School, do you think i would be able to get into a summer internship at a BB in London at my master’s School year?

    1. Yes, you should be able to, but you’ll probably need to get some time of part-time internship first to have the best chance. Otherwise, it’s hard to move directly to a large bank with no previous finance experience.

  11. Hey Brian.

    I am an international. I have admits to Simon Business Schools STEM designated MSF and WashUs non STEM MSF. WashU ranks 4th and Simon 7th. As an international, which of these schools are a safer bet for me? From my interactions, both schools offer great education but recruiting is better at WashU.

    Background, CFA Level 2 candidate. Have an ER internship with a brokerage in India, worked in the PMO for regional bank in the UAE, had detailed exposure in FPandA and project planning for banking projects.
    PS, mechanical engineer.

    1. I think Simon is better if it’s STEM-designated. “Better recruiting” doesn’t mean much if companies are reluctant to hire you because they have to sponsor a visa.

  12. Awesome article.

    It really has given me the confidence to stick to my plan. Of course, I won’t underestimate the admissions processes for the reasons you stated, but it still helps. Thanks.

    Especially the bit that says to “Show That You Can Win Job Offers” with the fact that I do have front office experience (and may have middle/front depending on how my next job change goes) and a relevant undergrad degree with the highest grade classification.

    Honestly, for London especially, branding matters. My undergrad is a non-target and I’m confident that there’s an open secret that I don’t land other FO roles because I lack the prestige.
    Yes, I found that can overshadow experience. Also, as harsh as it is, there are recruiters who will not take you as seriously if you lack the prestige if their client wants that.

    I agree completely that prestige isn’t enough (believe it or not readers, there are still a large number of being who have prestige that don’t get the job easy). So you may be better off going to City than Oxford, for instance… though efinancialcareers tend to have a good list.

    I was told in a networking event by a number of bankers and traders that you’ll also want to select a top tier school whose lecturers/staff are connected to the industry and not just academics.

    Even MFin programmes which also have decent placement states such as Cambridge and London Business School’s MFin programme which are basically masters programmes that do not accept you unless you have about 2 years of relevant experience. (The fact they say “relevant” illustrates your point).

    Good thing is you qualify for “graduate roles” again. As some of you would’ve noticed, after some time graduate targeted roles don’t seem to like you much if you’ve got experience (or more than they want to deal with). And you won’t be flogged off for not going to a top 20, or top 5. Though, bear in mind: if your undergrad wasn’t top 5-20, there are still some places you can’t apply to.

    Though, I don’t think this is a full checklist… personally I reckon if you meet most of what you stated, you’ll be fine e.g. the head trader in my firm started his career in an operational role (in finance) and did use a masters at a top school in the UK (Reading) with their best placement programme to land a FO role at a BB bank.

    But this was in ’02-’03, so I reckon things might’ve changed, would like your take on it.

    Overall, great stuff! It is like this email came to me in the perfect time, I was actually debating whether I stood a chance of getting into some of the top programmes and if I was saving for nothing. Well, now I know I can! (Well, to sound less cocky, I know I have a feasible chance!)

    1. Yes, I think those points are generally correct.

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