Can You Use Your Finance Skills to Save the World? How to Break Into the Ministry of Finance
So, what about those other options in finance? Not everybody is looking for the 80-100 hour workweeks that investment banking offers.
And besides, you might just fit in better with normal people who aren’t constantly plotting how to advance and back-stab you on their way to the top.
If you’re interested in finance but you don’t want to turn into Patrick Bateman, then you should pay careful attention to this interview with a reader who broke into the Ministry of Finance in a European Union country.
While “government work” may not sound exciting, governments hold more and more sway over banks and financial institutions as regulations increase each year.
And hey, even if pay doesn’t increase at the same rate as their power you can’t go wrong with all the networking opportunities that working in the Ministry of Finance would give you – plus the ability to work normal hours without losing your sanity in the process.
Where It All Began
Q: Why don’t we kick things off by learning more about your background? What’s your story?
A: Sure. I have a different background from most other people in my country – I went to university in the UK, and completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Finance there.
I also interned at the National Bank of my country (Eastern Europe, to be a bit more specific), which was a great opportunity to apply my finance knowledge and gain practical skills.
I considered investment banking and other financial services roles, but I preferred the Ministry of Finance as the work itself is more diverse and interesting and also offers a great work-life balance – something that you wouldn’t normally get at a bulge bracket bank.
Q: So what exactly is your position at the Ministry of Finance?
What do you do there?
A: I’m working in the “Programming, Tendering and Contracting Division,” which is part of the Operational Program Administrative Capacity Directorate funded by the European Social Fund and the national budget.
This program aims to improve management quality, the management of human resources, and the quality of the administration and the development of electronic management.
The beneficiaries of the Program are the central and regional administrations, the judicial system, and last, but not least, the other Ministries such as the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Transport, the Council of Ministers, and so on.
Q: It sounds like you just read that from a brochure or an advertisement.
What does all of that mean? What do you really do? And how is it related to finance?
A: We are basically the financial police – we verify the financial performance of different groups.
We’re attached to the Ministry of Finance since all public entities who want to use European Union’s approved funds need to have their projects and performance evaluated.
And if they’re not doing well, we stop funding them.
Once a group submits a project, I assess it and then monitor its development.
As part of my job I organize commissions where we say, “OK, should these people really be participating? And is this project financially viable?”
So let’s say that the Ministry of Justice wants to improve the qualifications of its magistrates and judicial officers through additional training, with the goal of making the judicial system more efficient.
They might submit their project and their estimated budget, along with financial projections showing how they plan to use the allocated funds from the program; they would also present detailed expense forms and contracts with the various training bodies.
Then we would assess that initial proposal, figure out whether their estimates look reasonable, and then approve or deny the project.
If the project gets approved, we would then monitor it over time and see how closely it sticks to its initial plan and whether or not the efficiency of the system is really improving.
My day-to-day work also includes the management of intermediary valuations and performance monitoring of the programs – making sure that the expenses make sense and that the objectives are being met.
On a project level, I also help prepare contracts related to all the different projects, so I’m heavily involved in the drafting of most project requirements, detailing allowed expenses, and so on.
Q: So you get to interact with real people… sounds a lot more stimulating than cranking out pitch books all day!
Any other reasons why you chose to work at the Ministry of Finance and in this program in particular?
A: I was impressed by the people I met during my interviews.
They were really interested in my profile and the fact that I had studied abroad – that type of experience is common in developed countries in Western Europe, but not as common in the “emerging markets” countries here.
As I mentioned before, I was considering investment banking and a few other roles at that time and even went through the interview process for many of them – but they didn’t leave as strong an impression and I wasn’t interested in working 80-100 hours per week.
And because the program is co-financed by the European Union, I get to produce work that directly impacts the image of my country in the EU.
I also learn a lot on the job since my work is not only finance-related but also involves a lot of administrative and legal aspects.
You would get paid more as an investment banking analyst, but you wouldn’t get this type of exposure to high-ranking officials and the variety of work you see here.
Q: OK, so what about the other people on your team? What are their backgrounds, and where do they come from?
A: Most people who work with me are young and very enthusiastic – the average age on my team is around 32, which is probably much younger than what you would usually associate with “government work.” On the other hand, it’s probably a bit older than the average age in investment banking.
Most of the people who work in the Ministry of Finance here have studied in the country, but they don’t necessarily have the same background as me.
Some of them studied law; others specialized in finance or even public administration.
So you see all types – overall, it’s probably more diverse than investment banking analyst pools at banks because they aren’t looking for such a specific skill set and educational background.
Q: You just mentioned the point about educational backgrounds – what degrees do most people in your group have?
A: The majority of the people at the Ministry of Finance and in my division, in particular, have at least a Master’s Degree.
A few people just have Bachelor’s Degrees but remember that in Europe, 5-year combined Bachelor’s/Master’s programs are more common and so even junior-level people have Master’s degrees.
If you’re passionate enough about Public Sector work you can still get in regardless of which degree you have, but more education generally helps here.
Breaking Into the Ministry
Q: I see – that actually leads me to my next question. Is it harder to find a job in the Ministry of Finance or at a bank?
You said that people have more diverse backgrounds there, so I’m guessing your group is not quite as selective as a bank would be?
A: It’s tough to land a job in Europe at the moment due to all the debt problems – the fact that my country is fairly close geographically to Greece is also causing issues, even at the corporate level here.
In terms of whether or not it’s harder to get a job here compared to a bank, it comes down to your background and interests.
In a sense, it’s easier because they’re not only looking for undergrads or recent graduates – but then it’s also harder because the pool of possible applicants is much broader, so you have more competition.
If they get the sense that you’re just using this as a “Plan B” and you’re not genuinely interested in the role, they can see through that right away and you won’t get the job.
I mentioned before that I was interested in this role partially because of the normal working hours and the fact that you get to have an impact on the entire country – but you never want to say something like “the hours” as a reason for being interested in the role, even though that’s what draws a lot of people in.
Instead, you want to point to examples of public administration work or anything that can be spun into sounding relevant from your past – even something like debates or case studies / competitions that you did in school.
They want people who are concerned with the direction of the country, the EU, and the world at large – not just people who are interested in making money (traders would not fit in well here).
So if you’re interested in this type of role, you should start thinking about it and demonstrating your interest early on.
Q: OK, that makes a lot of sense and everything you just said applies to other roles as well.
What about the recruiting process at the Ministry of Finance? Any secret ninja tricks you can tell us about?
A: There are no real secrets – just good preparation.
If you want to work here, you need to work on your interview technique and focus on the question of “Why the government? / Why the Ministry of Finance?”
Telling your story and discussing your previous internships and work experience are all important, of course, but with interviews here you need to focus on explaining why you’re interested in the government rather than the private sector.
So maybe you’d start out by explaining how you got interested in finance because of your family’s business or because of some financial problem that affected you growing up, and then say you studied it at university and became more interested in working in the industry.
You then did a few internships at banks, and you enjoyed the analytical part there, but found that you wanted to make more of an impact and work on a greater variety of projects.
You then took a class on public finance, which made the work the Ministry of Finance does seem very interesting to you.
You’re interested in this role and you’re interviewing here today because you want to combine your finance knowledge and experience with the opportunities here and make an impact on your entire country and the world – and in the future, you’re interested in advancing and becoming more involved with all the Finance / Treasury work in the country.
Whereas if you were applying to investment banking roles, they wouldn’t care as much about that “impact the world” logic, so you would just use the usual reasons to explain why you’re interested in investment banking.
One final point: it’s really important to keep track of the news since you may be asked about your opinion on recent events and the decisions that central banks make.
You can get news-related questions in other types of finance interviews as well, but they’re much more common here.
In that sense, it’s almost like a trading interview where they’ll ask you questions about macroeconomic indicators, major policy decisions, and so on.
Q: What about Brian’s favorite topic in the world, AKA the CFA and other professional certifications such as the CPA, ACCA, ACA, etc.?
Are any of them helpful on the job, or for breaking in?
A: No, not really. Nothing here requires any of those certifications.
In investment banking, they’re not terribly useful because the work you do is not closely related to the curriculums of those exams – but here, they’re not useful because the exams don’t cover all the aspects of the job.
As I mentioned before, we do a lot of work not only on the finance side, but also with legal and administrative teams – since the projects are so diverse, no exam in the world could cover everything we do.
Q: Awesome! Thanks for your time.
Now, I wanted to jump into what you do on the job and a day in your life in more detail…
A: You’ll have to wait for part 2 – coming up soon!
Leni S. grew up in Bulgaria, and then went to London to study and work in venture capital. She then relocated to Paris to pursue a postgraduate degree, and has also worked at one of the largest European asset management firms while there.
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