From Nuclear Submarines to Investment Banking: How to Make the Leap from the Military to Finance

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From Nuclear Submarines to Investment BankingCan you get into finance coming from a military background?

Just how many bankers each year break in from the Army, Navy, and Air Force?

I get a lot of questions on these topics, but up until now haven’t had solid answers beyond “yes” and “quite a few.”

But that changes today with an interview from a reader who broke into investment banking from a military background – keep reading to find out how he did it and how you can do the same.

Plus, advice on part-time vs. full-time MBA programs and starting in a location that isn’t New York.

Nuclear Submarines & Business School: Perfect Match?

Q: Tell us about your background and how you got started operating nuclear submarines.

A: Sure. I accepted a Navy ROTC scholarship right before attending college, because my priority at the time was to serve my country.

At school I picked a highly technical engineering track, but ended up taking a lot of financial math classes on the side – that’s how I originally got interested in finance.

After graduation, I wanted to work in a high-impact environment and since I had a technical background, I figured that nuclear submarines would be a good fit for me.

The Navy has a rigorous selection process for this kind of role, but I passed and started operating nuclear reactors aboard submarines.

After a few years there, I decided to attend a top MBA program as my next move.

Q: I guess you had an easy time proving your “attention to detail” in interviews. Coming from that background, why did you decide to go to business school as your next move?

A: I got a lot out of the Navy in terms of leadership, teamwork, and meeting deadlines, but I wanted to hone my financial skills and learn more about business.

I knew that moving into finance directly would be challenging since my background was unrelated, so I decided to use business school as a steppingstone.

I still had a commitment to the Navy, so I decided to attend a part-time evening program at a well-known business school while finishing my obligation of service.

Q: Most people would say that it’s very tough to break into finance coming from a part-time evening program – why did you decide to go that route instead of waiting and applying for full-time programs?

A: I could have waited, but that might have cost me 1.5 – 2 years due to my Navy commitment. I figured that I would be more competitive if I made the move sooner rather than later, so I opted for the evening program instead.

If you have the option, though, I would strongly recommend full-time programs.

I had a unique set of circumstances, and I ended up transferring to the full-time program anyway to take part in recruiting – looking back on it, starting out there may have made more sense.

Transferring & Recruiting

Q: You mentioned switching to the full-time program for recruiting purposes. When did you decide to do this, and how did you make the move?

A: In the evening program I couldn’t even drop my resume for recruiting purposes – I could still go to events and network with bankers there, but I couldn’t formally apply for internships or full-time jobs.

Recruiters also viewed me with a lot more scrutiny coming from the evening program – they would ask, “Was he not able to get into the full-time program? Were his GPA or GMAT scores not up to par?” If you’re not in a full-time program, you need good answers to those questions.

So I realized early on that transferring would make recruiting much easier.

As for the actual process, I just applied through the school after going through all the core classes, earning good grades, and developing a competitive profile.

The key is that the school doesn’t want you to hurt their average GPA / GMAT scores – as long as you’re above the bar there, it’s doable.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy – only a handful of people do it each year – but it is possible.

I would also add that a couple of classmates stayed in the evening program and successfully landed investment banking internships, so switching is not absolutely mandatory.

Q: Right, that makes sense. What about your networking efforts? Once you made the leap to the full-time program, did you just rely on on-campus recruiting or did you also use alumni networking?

A: I used both – early on, I relied more heavily on networking with military alumni. I started months before the school year began, and began by searching for former naval officers who now worked in investment banking, via LinkedIn.

I got around a 40% response rate, and leveraged the responses into phone calls and in-person meetings during the weekend trips I took to New York and other financial centers.

As the school year approached, I widened my net and started going beyond naval officers to other “military alumni” and also went through the alumni at my business school.

I waited to speak with the alumni last because they were in the best position to get me first-round interviews. Additionally, they were bombarded with emails from all my classmates so I wanted to ensure that I always made a strong first impression.

Q: What about the networking process itself? What did you do, and how effective was it?

A: In my initial emails, I would usually ask for 30 minutes to speak on the phone – but as I moved further in, I took trips to New York and other financial centers and met with bankers in-person.

Most “target schools” have a pretty regimented process for MBAs, and I used recruiting events to make a better impression on bankers in a social setting. That’s a huge advantage of target schools – these investment banking information sessions are the key to receiving first-round interviews.

Because I was aggressive with networking and made a good impression on the recruiting teams, I managed to win first-round interviews with most major banks.

How to Convince Them You’re a Financier

Q: So it sounds like you had a lot of practice with interviews, whether they were official interviews or unofficial informational interviews. What were the key challenges you faced coming from a military background?

A: The advantage of a military background is that you can sell your management experience, leadership, and teamwork skills more easily than, say, an accountant looking to break into investment banking.

And since I had operated a nuclear reactor, it wasn’t hard to convince bankers of my attention to detail. The same goes for unpredictable hours – going out to sea on a whim’s notice or being extended during a deployment were routine in the submarine force.

But there are a couple problems you’ll face coming from a military background:

  1. There’s the perception that ex-military guys don’t know finance.
  2. We also have a reputation for being overly blunt and trying to exert too much control over a situation.

Q: So how did you overcome these problems?

A: For the first one, I pointed to my high GPA and GMAT score as evidence that I could do quantitative work.

I know you’ve criticized it before, but I also enrolled in and passed Level I of the CFA – which at least showed them that I knew something about finance. Plus, I had all my finance classes from undergraduate.

On the second point – about being overly blunt – you just need examples of how you’ve compromised and worked successfully in a team without being overbearing.

A lot of this also comes across in your tone and presentation – if you’re a direct person, sometimes you have to take it down a few notches.

Regional vs. NYC Offices

Q: You ended up accepting an offer in a regional office rather than in New York – how did you think about this one, and why did you decide to start there instead?

A: Most people tell you that New York is the end-all when it comes to finance, at least in the US – but I’m not completely convinced of this.

For one, lots of regional offices actually do full deal execution themselves – SF is a hotbed for tech and biotech, LA for media and gaming, Houston for energy, Chicago for industrials, and so on.

If you already have an industry you’re interested in, going somewhere other than New York could be a good move.

Also, the cost of living is much less in other regions, the lifestyle is not much worse, and the deal teams are leaner which means more experience for junior bankers.

The main disadvantages of not starting in New York:

  1. You do miss out on networking opportunities by being around fewer bankers / financiers.
  2. You’re more limited in terms of moving to different regions / groups.

If you’re just out of university and you’re not sure exactly what you want to do, New York could be a better bet – but if you’re older, you have a family, or you have a good idea of what industry you want to work in, there are considerable advantages to starting outside of New York.

Q: Right, I agree completely. The obsession with New York in the US is similar to the obsession with exit opportunities. Thanks for your time – you have a very interesting story, and I learned a lot.

A: My pleasure.

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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27 Comments to “From Nuclear Submarines to Investment Banking: How to Make the Leap from the Military to Finance”

Comments

    • says

      Let’s see. The interviewee here is currently working in investment banking / is about to start working in a region that is not New York, while the wastedpotentialz blog is from a laid-off banker in New York. So my educated guess would be no.

  1. Nick says

    So I recently moved to New York for an investment banking job and I don’t really know anyone in the city…The one question no one has discussed on this site is – where do you meet single women around my age group (22)?

  2. Chris says

    Ok, so with regard to obsession with exit opps and setting oneself up for it and I guess “the path”, I recently got an internship for dcm financial firms (assigned) for summer. I was wondering how hard it would be to move from there into LevFin (or M&A), in order to set myself up for PE in the long term.
    Is this possible, and if so, how would I set myself up for that?
    Also, I’m tempted to say that for PE LevFin is better than M&A, is that true per se?

    • says

      It depends on how well you can network with people in those groups / how aggressively you do it. If you can get several people who like you, it won’t be that difficult. I don’t think LevFin is necessarily “better” than M&A for PE.

      • Chris says

        We have a rotation at the end of the summer, so that would potentially be a way to do things, especially if I use that week to set up things.
        Let me rephrase the question then: Is there an advantage over doing M&A compared to LevFin (or vice versa) for an aim to PE?
        Will there be a DCM article on M&I at some point?

        • says

          M&A would give you more options if you wanted to do something other than PE, whereas LevFin is not as helpful for corp dev etc.

          DCM article: depends on who volunteers to be interviewed. I had someone willing to help but he has been busy lately so it’s up in the air.

      • c3 says

        i have a list of alumni MD to analysts.. i should go straight for the MD’s? Arent they too busy? Would they be irritated if I contact them?

        • says

          You have to look at the upside and downside here. Upside = fast-track to interviews if they like you. Downside = maybe they’re having a bad day and ignore you. Unless you do something really foolish (i.e. call them repeatedly at 3 AM) there isn’t much risk.

  3. P says

    I recently applied for a Investment baking Analyst position at a MM firm. I send an email out to the analyst (to his work email and also his personal email I aquire from one of the soceity in my area) whose name is on the job post. I have his phone number and was thinking of follwing up with him to see if he has received the resume. The problem is i am drawing a blank regarding what to say when i call, after the intial hi my name is “”, and i was calling to follow up on the Analyst position posted on the “blank” website. What should i say after this?

    Also there is a VP there who has a military backgroud like mine, and was thinking of contacting him for more information. Should i contact him directly(his phone and email are on the website) or have the analyst refer me to him. If directly which is a better approch email him and ask for a phone interview or call him directly.

    Thank you for all your help.

    P

    • says

      I would just call the analyst and tell him you’re really excited/interested in the position and wanted to see if he received your resume – then ask if he had any tips for applying, anything he could tell you about the group and so on.

      If you can, it’s better to get a referral from the analyst to the VP so I would bring that up in your conversation with him at the end. If he doesn’t know the VP or doesn’t act like he can help you, just contact the VP directly.

  4. Mark says

    I recently graduated and received an analyst offer for a specialized M&A/Capital Raising boutique in NYC. The problem is that they pay everyone when deals close (even analysts) with the exception of a portion of retainer fees for deals you are staffed on. This is a problem for me because I do not have any cash available to be unpaid on, so I’m hoping the retainer will be enough to cover basic expenses until something closes, and I will try to negotiate this so it is enough. I don’t have any better options, yet.

    What are the implications of this and pitfalls of doing this? If I try to do a lateral after a year or two, will they know I didn’t get paid traditionally and look down upon this? What other thoughts do you have here?

    • says

      I don’t think they will care much if you move elsewhere, in fact there’s no reason to even tell someone else what you got paid there. The main downside is you not having enough cash flow to cover expenses.

  5. Jae Selig says

    I saw this article in my email, read it and I just wanted to add my 2c into this debate. I am transitioning from the army here in about a week and will attempt to get into an investment banking/analyst position. The only thing I have going is that my brother-in-law is a MD at JPM Alternative Asset Management department and JPM just released a statement that they have teamed up with other corporations to hire 100,000 military personnel over the next 10 years. That to me is a slight plus. I have 2 degrees, one from the University of Akron in Finance and I just finished the other from Strayer University in Accounting. I look forward to the challenge that is right around the corner.

  6. Sam says

    What would you say for someone like myself, I am graduating this week from undergrad, but I want to go into the military because it is important for me to serve my country. What advice would you give? Could military experience be used in lieu of job experience (so long as you had the proper scores on GPA/GMAT)? I also want to do i-banking. Plus, I went to Wharton undergrad.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes military experience can show interviewers your ability to multi-task, lead & discipline yourself. As long as you know how to spin your story and explain why you are interested in finance, I think you can have a decent shot at it

    • says

      It would be very difficult because the military is really more than a full-time job. Maybe online classes, but even a part-time program would be tough.

  7. Dan says

    Your ability to get a degree of any kind while in the Army (or any branch for that matter) will be very job and school dependent. Some jobs are very scheduled and you’re released at a given time every day. My job was quite the opposite. Some days you’re done at lunch, some days at 7 or 8. Factor in field time and deployments and it’s an uphill battle. Add to that the course schedules and it’s not very feasible. Online degrees may work for you, but I prefer to be in the classroom and have face time with the instructor.

  8. Sun says

    I have been in the military for the past 2 years as my country requires compulsory military service.
    before that I had 3 years experience in big 4 audit.

    I’m beginning to work on my resume again to move to banking and I am stuck as to whether the military experience should be placed above my big 4 experience (due to chronological order) or whether I should be putting miltary experience out of my
    “work experience” section and put it elsewhere.

    I mainly ask because my military experience doesn’t have any direct experience related to banking and finance.

    rather, what I can emphasize is character development.
    since it’s compulsory military experience rather than enlisted, as in the US/UK army, there is rather less that I could emphasize. I was given the role I was given, rather than choosing what I did here in the army.
    hence it can’t be related to the field I’m trying to pursue.

    do you still think it should be listed above my big 4 experience on my CV?

  9. Willhelm Tell says

    Hi everyone!
    I will begin with a Bachlelor in Banking&Finance at a target-uni in Switzerland next September, I will degree in 2016. Afterwards I want to work in I-Banking. As you might know, in my Country it is mandatory to go for about one years to the army unless you re not healthy enough. If you dont go, you have to pay 3% of your net-income until you are 30. So if I would do army after my Bachelor, I will be 22. Do you consider this too old for breaking into a Full-Time Position as an Analyst? And are there any Advantages (in the U.S) if I ve been in the (swiss)army (leadership skills, etc…)?`
    All the best,
    Willhelm Tell

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