Recruiting in a Down Market, Part 4: How to Weigh Your “Plan B” Options and Ensure That You Don’t End Up with “Plan Z” Instead

59 Comments | Recruiting in a Down Market

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Sure, it’s great if you can defy all odds and get into finance in the midst of a recession.

But let’s be honest: there’s always a chance that things may not work out, simply due to probability, bad luck, and the general lack of hiring.

So, if you don’t get into investment banking, private equity, hedge funds, or whatever else you’re after, what are your best alternatives?

In other words, how do you decide which “Plan B” option is best and which one you can actually leverage to move onto something better?

Rather than giving generic advice, we’ll go through a couple common “Plan B” options and look at the advantages, drawbacks, and key considerations for each one.

The Problem with “Plan B” Planning

There are 2 big problems when you consider any “Plan B” scenario:

  1. It’s really, really hard to time the market. Like, almost impossible.
  2. It can be very, very difficult to transition over to a front-office finance role later on.

These problems are lessened if you’re only resorting to Plan B for your internship. If you’re going to the fall-back plan for a full-time offer, you’ll encounter greater difficulties.

Whenever you’re consider your backup plan, you need to take into account the 2 problems above and consider how much your plan depends on timing the market, and how difficult it will be to transition over later on.

So let’s go through some of the more common options you might be considering, and look at each one through the lens of these 2 key points.

Business School

This is a popular one these days.

“I’m an accounting major and didn’t get into banking! Should I go to an MBA program right after graduation?”

“What about the Harvard 2+2 program? Will that get me in?”

The bottom-line is that business school is a bad idea if you only have minimal work experience.

Theoretically, a top MBA program allows you to re-brand yourself and break into new industries, but the reality is more complicated – especially when the economy is bad.

Business school is a terrible “Plan B” if you’re just out of undergraduate or you’re graduating soon – it’s a better move if you’ve already been working for 3-5 years and you’re looking to make a transition.

But even then, your success will depend greatly on the state of the hiring market – so it’s always a gamble.

Despite what new programs like HBS 2+2 may claim, banks are still heavily biased against anyone who lacks substantial experience.

Other Grad School (Master’s Programs and More)

Master’s programs are a better idea for anyone who didn’t break in during the first round and wants to have another chance at it.

But don’t expect that the degree itself will give you any advantages.

You go through such programs to give yourself more time to prepare for recruiting, to make a stronger impression, and to land more offers next time around.

But don’t expect to come in as an Associate after finishing a 1-year Master’s program – that’s just not the way it works.

The best reason to do one of these programs: if you got a lot of interviews but didn’t end up with offers, or you didn’t up with the right offers – and you’re at a school where you can take advantage of on-campus recruiting.

Corporate Finance / Strategy at Fortune 500/1000 Companies

Of the “non-school” options, going to a corporate finance or strategy position at a large company is the closest to front-office finance work that you’ll find outside the industry.

If you get this kind of offer, but have nothing else client-facing in finance/consulting, it’s probably in your best interest to take it.

But there are 2 problems you’ll face:

  1. You may not get to work on any acquisitions / partnership deals, so it will be more difficult to “spin” your experience into looking finance-related.
  2. You will still be at a disadvantage vs. anyone who has had a banking/private equity internship before.

You can’t do much about the second one; that’s just the way it goes. But for the first one, you should push to work in groups and teams that do more transaction-oriented work.

In other words, try to be involved with business development as opposed to internal strategy planning. You want to be valuing and evaluating acquisition, not dreaming up operational strategies.

You could also run into difficulties if you go to a smaller firm rather than a Fortune 500 / 1000 company, because the name is less credible and it won’t stand out – so try to work somewhere well-known if you go this route.

Middle / Back-Office Work

We covered this last year in one of the most controversial articles to be published on this site, “Holla Back, Office: 7 Reasons You Shouldn’t Work in the Back Office,” but just to re-cap: it’s really, really hard to transition over from middle or back-office work to client-facing work, especially if you’re working full-time.

It’s easier if you’re trying to move into prop trading or sales & trading, because the middle/back-office people there actually work with traders closely – but it’s much harder if you’re trying to make the move into banking or private equity.

I’d advise against this as a “Plan B” unless you truly have nothing else – even delaying graduation or taking time off to do something else is usually a better idea.

If you want to make the transition after working in the middle/back-office, keep in mind the following:

  1. It’s often easier to move to another firm rather than transferring internally.
  2. You will need to “build a buzz” about yourself in a front-office division by networking extensively and getting to know people there who will push for you.

This is an incredibly difficult transition to make in a poor economy – but hey, nothing’s impossible.

An Entirely Different Industry & Role

Maybe you’re thinking about going to a Big 4 firm, working in advertising at a big agency, or even doing volunteer work or going to a non-profit for a few years.

The big downside to doing anything like this is that you’ll almost certainly need to go to business school to re-brand yourself and have a chance at breaking in later on.

If you’re considering one of these as a summer internship option, it’s not necessarily the end of the world – though if it’s your final summer before graduation you’ll face a serious uphill battle against those with more business experience.

There’s another danger as well: you might be “over-qualified.” Some readers with finance experience actually had trouble going after accounting-type positions as back-up options, because they seem over-qualified on paper – and no one likes to be known as a “sure thing,” as Johnny Drama might say.

If you do end up doing one of these full-time, you’ll probably need to go through an MBA program to have a shot at breaking in.

Becoming a Ski Bum

Ah, yes, the fabled ski bum option.

The problem with becoming a ski bum is that your fate is tied almost 100% to what the market is doing. You’re not gaining any relevant experience or making any contacts, so you aren’t helping yourself too much if things don’t improve.

If the economy rebounds and hiring picks up, you might be able to pull this off… but if it stays bad, you’re in an even worse position.

Personal story: A few friends from top schools went to teach English in Asia following graduation, at the peak of the bubble.

When they got back, the recession was in full-swing and they had a hard time finding anything despite having Ivy League names on their resumes.

So you shouldn’t do this unless you’re not set on finance in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with taking time off, but it does put you at a big disadvantage unless the market happens to miraculously recover in short order (not likely).

Fellowships

Well-known fellowships and other scholarly programs could be an interesting option these days, especially if they’re finance-focused. You’re not technically “working,” but you’re also not sitting on the beach.

But you’ll need to make whatever you did look finance/business-related – oh, and a lot of these programs are extremely competitive, sometimes more so than getting into finance in the first place.

This type of plan is still better than doing something middle/back-office related or in a completely different industry if you lack better alternatives.

The main downside to fellowships vs. staying in school or delaying graduation is that you can no longer use on-campus recruiting – so you’ll really need to become a networking ninja.

The good news is that many of the well-known programs have strong alumni networks that you can leverage, so it’s not as difficult as pounding the pavement and breaking in from ski bum-land.

Treasury / Government Work

This is a relatively new option for most prospective bankers, but it just might be the most interesting one on the list.

These days, governments around the world own stakes in almost every financial services company because of all the bailout activity – and they need fresh blood to help manage all these new “portfolio companies.”

It’s sort of like working in private equity, except you’re more concerned with saving the economy rather than earning a high return.

This is also one of the few finance-related areas that’s actually growing these days – and as the economy gets worse and more banks get bailed out, that need for fresh blood will only grow.

Especially if you’re going to school in the DC area (if you’re in the US), or in a major government capital elsewhere in the world, you should be strongly considering this one.

The only “better” options would be front-office finance work or doing business development at a large company.

Entrepreneurship… for a Summer?

A recession is the best time to start a company. Microsoft and Apple were both founded in the stagflation of the 70s, and many successful Internet companies today were founded in the aftermath of the dot-com bust.

Starting a company or organization shows initiative and leadership, both of which look good to banks – but the downside is that it also shows that you’re independent and free-spirited, which banks don’t like.

Actual quote overheard from a recruiter once:

“I don’t know if we should take him… he’s done a lot of creative ventures before, I’m not sure how well he would fit into a more structured environment.”

If you have this type of experience, you need to emphasize the leadership skills you developed and downplay your independence – usually the best strategy is to say you didn’t learn much because of the lack of structure, and that’s what appeals to you about i-banking.

Then there’s another paradox that you’ll encounter with entrepreneurship: if you’re successful, banks will wonder why you’d ever want to work 100 hours a week for someone else and make less money doing it – but if you’re not successful, it looks like you’re changing careers because you failed.

That can make it difficult to tell a good story, and in a lot of cases business school will be necessary if you want to make this type of transition.

One other note: private equity firms – especially smaller ones – are more impressed with entrepreneurial experience than banks are.

So if you’ve run a mid-sized import/export company before, that can be a strong-selling point if you’re applying to middle-market PE firms.

Plans C Through Plans Z

We’ve covered a lot of ground here with some common “Plan B” options you might be considering.

What else are you thinking about doing if you don’t get into finance in the near future?

Leave a comment here with some of your ideas and fall-back plans, and we’ll respond with thoughts and feedback.

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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59 Comments to “Recruiting in a Down Market, Part 4: How to Weigh Your “Plan B” Options and Ensure That You Don’t End Up with “Plan Z” Instead”

Comments

  1. Holla says

    You recommend against back office work but for corporate finance/strategy at an F500. What if the F500 is a bank? Do internal finance roles at a big bank allow movement into IB (at that bank or other banks)?

    • says

      That is more back-office work if it’s at a bank. So it’s possible to move, but unlikely unless it’s only an internship.

  2. Anonymous says

    Just to elaborate on the above comment. Isn’t corporate finance/strategy at F500 essentially the back office? How is this different from doing a finance (BO accounting) role at a bank?

    • says

      I was referring to when you actually work on -acquisitions- or at least working on partnership opportunities as opposed to just doing internal finance.

      Those would not be considered back/middle-office because you’re working on something that actually generates revenue, i.e. new acquisitions or partnerships.

  3. Inquisitive Reader says

    When you say “finance” it seems that you’re really only talking about investment banking, private equity or hedge funds. What are your thoughts on the pros/cons of pursuing analyst positions in other areas in finance, like fund of funds, wealth management, or endowments (like university endowments)? Is it difficult to go from this kind of “buy” side to the private equity/hedge fund kind of buy side?

    • says

      Those are still a lot better than back-office roles or things that aren’t in finance.

      It’s possible to transition to buy-side from those, but still harder than if you were in IB to begin with, for example.

      The university endowment example is interesting. I don’t have the stats offhand there, but I would imagine that you can actually go to a lot of places from that if it’s a well-known endowment… but they may just not be the traditional PE firms you hear about. More like well-known long-term investors and such.

  4. Anonymous says

    Suppose I can graduate college in 3 or 4 years. If I didn’t get any internship during summer between sophomore and junior year, should I graduate in 4 years rather than 3, and hope I can get an internship during my next summer? Or should I graduate in 3 years and try to find a job, or go to graduate school first? (from UC and bare 3.0 gpa)

    Also, I figure that I probably have no chance of getting into i-banking industry right now, but I really want to work in financial sector. Would you recommend any other related field? Thanks

    • says

      I would postpone graduation to 4 years and try to get an internship. If you do it in 3, you’ll basically be locking yourself into going to business school later on with that type of background.

      I would try to do something either at a really small firm, or something in a related field like wealth management, fund-of-funds, bus. dev. at a company or startup or anything lets you work with clients / get your hands on deals and revenue-generating opportunities.

  5. Anonymous says

    How do banks view consulting, particularly if it is finance related? I’m working for a small relatively unknown consulting firm that focuses almost exclusively on corporate finance and counts multiple F500 companies as clients. It is a client-facing position and I would be able to work with PE firms as well. However, it is more focused on restructuring and improving financial performance rather than transaction work (no interaction with banks).

    • says

      They view consulting as “inferior” to banking, but still superior to most of the other items on this list.

      For someone in your position, the best option is to go for Restructuring firms or hybrid banks/consulting firms that do a lot of turnaround work – then you can leverage your experience there and position yourself as a really good fit.

      You’ll have a much harder time at bulge brackets where they won’t value the experience as much.

  6. Summer Banker says

    When you mention the phrase “Big 4 Firms” as a completely different industry, are you only taking into account the audit and tax groups OR does it include the advisory groups as well? Specifically, does it include the more “finance-related” advisory groups such as Valuations or Transaction Advisory Services (not IBD services)? Would you say such options as Valuations and TS are “better” than F500 Corp Fin/Corp Strat roles?

    A completely not related question: Is Teach for America considered a fellowship or a more of a “ski bum” option?

    • says

      I’m referring more to the audit/tax groups.

      Advisory and valuation are much closer to finance; they’re probably about on-par with F500 corp fin./strategy roles.

      Teach for America is more of a fellowship and they have a really strong alumni network / connections with lots of banks so that can be a great option.

  7. Jennson says

    I work at a mid-market PE firm and it’s been downsizing the last year or so. With all the analysts they had to let go, I’m hearing that there’s actually a chance for me to get my feet wet in covering some companies for some of the existing credits in our portfolios. so crossing my fingers on that one.

    In the meantime, there is a career fair that NYSSA is hosting for its members later in the month. I might check that out and let you know how it goes.

  8. StrugglingUndergrad says

    M&I,

    Thank you so much for your continuous advice, its really been a fantastic guide in a down market. My question to you is I’m currently an undergrad finance major in a top 20 university (not by any means a “target” I-B school, but very competitive nonetheless) and struggled to get any legitimate BB interviews during the spring intern recruiting season. I ended up accepting an internship offer at a small pure valuation firm (and “investment banking services”) with roughly 30 employees that does literally valuations for almost every industry.

    I recognize its not well known nationally, but I’m wondering will this experience be recognized by larger BB firms as comparable (i.e. enough to put me as an interview candidate), or will they instantly brush it off?

    • says

      Well, it’s definitely not on par with working at an actual bank but it is better than doing back/middle-office type work.

      I think you’ll definitely get interviews with that type of experience, but you may not necessarily get interviews with all the largest banks.

  9. Patrick says

    M&I,

    What do you honestly think about becoming an Officer in one of the military branches? Obviously I would have to attend B-school when my 3 or 4 year service is up. My question is, do B-schools look favorably on Officer experience? Also, when recruiting comes up, will my lack of finance experience by too detrimental to overcome? Obviously it will be impossible to time the market in 5 years from now, but just looking for some general answers.

    Thanks

    • says

      I can’t speak for all banks, but I can tell you that ex-military officers are very common in finance.

      B-schools do look favorably upon that kind of exp. as it shows leadership, discipline, etc… lack of finance experience will hurt you a bit, so I would try to apply for some pre-MBA opps in between when you leave the military and when you go back to the MBA program.

  10. Tom says

    If I’ve already had investment banking boutique experience and its my junior year summer (ie last summer before graduation), how does corporate banking at a top firm look compared to boutique investment banking?

    • says

      Boutique bank would still probably be better, though it depends on whether we’re talking about a regional boutique no one has heard of or, say, Lazard… those would be totally different.

      In general even if its a really small place, though, doing IBD anywhere is better than doing corporate banking or something that is less relevant.

  11. Luke says

    M&I,

    What are your thoughts on working this junior summer at a boutique Chinese investment bank such as China Bohai Bank or China Everbright Bank as opposed to Booz Allen Hamilton?

    Thanks!

    • says

      A local boutique in China is risky because you never know what you’ll get overseas, especially in China where internships are not as well developed. Booz Allen is probably a better alternative unless you want to work in China in the long-term and could somehow leverage the experience.

      • Luke says

        Thanks M&I!

        Slight change to the situation, instead of a boutique Chinese bank it’ll be a major one like Bank of China or potentially Mitsubishi UFJ or CICC. The work would be at the least corporate finance/performing valuations and possibly directly in IBD. There are also potential opportunities with PE/VC firms in China. How does that compare to Booz Allen?

        Also, in general which is a better positioning for FT IBD: going from banking in Asia to the US, or “trying” consulting for a summer as a career, then shifting over into banking?

        • says

          Hmm honestly in that case Booz is still probably a better alternative unless you’re actually in investment banking in one of those firms. Going from major management consulting firm to IBD in the US is easier than doing sort-of-banking-related-work in Asia and trying to move to real banking in the US.

  12. Zach says

    When you say Treasury/Gov’t positions may be a good alternative, specifically what positions, or types of positions are you talking about?

    • says

      Anything that deals with financial institutions in any capacity… something directly associated with the bailout or with the management of financial services companies that the gov’t owns stakes in would be best.

      Positions that are more related to the overall market, budgetary planning, etc. would be less useful.

  13. Jd says

    Would it be better to take a job doing commercial lending for a bank or a financial development program with a F500?

    • says

      Depends what exactly is entailed in the financial development program, but that is probably a better option if it involves doing some kind of financial analysis / looking at deals or acquisitions or strategic planning.

  14. BBA says

    What are your thoughts on law school? Do banks hire law school graduates? Would being an associate at a corporate firm — assuming that you could get an offer — be a viable route?

  15. says

    You can make the transition, but needless to say in the current market it’s very, very difficult. Usually you spend a few years in corporate/securities law before moving over to banking, and you use all the contacts you make / have made to network your way into banks. Hiring as an Associate straight out of law school is quite rare, normally you need some corporate law experience first.

  16. TheFrenchGuy says

    Hi M&I,

    First of all great website, I really enjoy reading it.
    This article was probably written ages ago, but anyway I’ll ask my question and hope I’ll get an answer.

    I studied in France and have a Masters degree with a specialization in corporate finance.
    After graduating I worked for two years at a “regional boutique no one has head of” doing m&a for small-cap companies (€10Mio to €150Mio EV).
    I now work for a F500 company as a Business Development & Strategy analyst covering France. We are looking at a few acquisition opportunities but they are rather small companies (less than €100Mio EV – tactical acquisitions of highly innovative businesses).

    Do you think it will be possible for me to get into IB at a large bank without going to a top business school MBA program?

    Thanks.

    • says

      Actually it was written 2 months ago or so.

      Short answer is that it will be difficult to get back in without a top MBA, since you’ve already been working for quite awhile and were in banking before.

      I won’t say “impossible” but you’re going to need a market recovery and a lot of luck to get into a large bank these days.

      • TheFrenchGuy says

        In fact I’v only just started at the F500 company and am not thinking of making a move before one year or so. So I’m hoping I can take advantage of recruitments picking up in 2010.

        What do you think my chances would be with a large boutique (Lazard, Rothschild, etc.) or a mid-cap PE (Summit, etc) ?

        • says

          It’s almost 100% dependent on your own networking efforts – if you know people all over your chances are significantly higher.

          Still, I would point out that it’s always tough to move from industry back into finance unless you catch a lucky break or are riding a market recovery.

  17. JC says

    I made it to the final round of interviews for a S&T position but didn’t make the cut and am in the Treasury department of a regional bank right now (doing administrative tasks). How can I spin this into my resume to make it look IB-friendly?

    • says

      Make it sound like you work on specific projects / with specific companies or clients rather than just doing administrative work. Focus less on the administrative stuff and more on how your work impacted the bank / business as a whole.

  18. jojo mukherjee says

    Hi,
    I know you said that Masters degrees don’t help in general except for maybe buying some time to network a bit more. I am from a non-target school, do you think getting a Masters in Finance from a top school in London (their masters’ program is one year) is a good idea for me if I don’t get a BB offer (although I have good grades and some contacts, it’s probably unlikely I’ll get a BB offer comming from a non-target school in this environment).
    My ultimate goal is to get to get to PE and I figured it’s going to be hard to get in from a non-target undergrad background unless I goto a top B-school (which will be hard to get if I work for a regional boutique).

    Your thoughts?

    Thanks.

    Best,

    Jojo Mukherjee.

    • says

      In that case, a Master’s program at a top school would be helpful for you – having a better name would also be helpful for PE as they rarely take people from non-target schools.

  19. looking for work says

    hey, im currently still interviewing at a couple big banks looking at their capital markets / ibd positions (depending who). I also ended up looking at a private banking job and risk management position with 2 bulge brackets. Would I be able to break into IB from these positions, or would it be as hard as you had stated earlier? I feel like private banking could be ok since it still is banking, on the other hand dont risk analysts learn alot of the same techniques when analyzing companies as analysts in IB? so shouldn’t it be a logical change? Thanks, and keep up the site, i really enjoy it

    • says

      It’s very difficult to move from back office to front office. I would really push for the capital markets / IBD positions instead – it may seem similar on paper but it’s very, very difficult to make the move in practice.

      • looking for work says

        Ok, that is what i figured. But thinking from a plan b perspective. (i now have one more cm superday at ms, and then its lights out) would going into one of the other 2 positions (private banking/ risk management) be the next best choice, or should i defer those and risk shooting at boutiques?

        Also my cm interview is next week, i know your site is more heavily geared towards ibd, but would there be any prepartations i can pull from here for a cm superday? I feel pretty confident on the qualitative questions (why us, why cm, are you a leader bla bla etc)
        its the technical stuff where i have been ripped apart to pieces (case studies etc)
        Thanks, appreciate the insight

        • says

          Personally I would go for boutiques rather than back/middle-office positions, but it’s your call.

          For capital markets, you need to understand IPO valuation, different types of debt (if it’s DCM), recent IPOs, etc. – technical questions are usually not too much different from the standard IBD questions but tend to be more focused on ECM/DCM.

  20. big4_guy says

    Hi M&I,
    I’m currently in Big 4 advisory doing derivative valuation/financial modelling type of work. I did not go to a target school but am thinking of breaking into the finance industry in UK/ HK, although my academic results were solid (first class)

    Do you think getting a Msc Finance from a target school in the UK would improve my chances considerably? Or do you think I have a chance of making the transition to boutique/ corporate finance work with my big 4 background?

    Cheers

  21. Sharon says

    Hi there,

    I am a finance major; come from a non-target school. I want to break in ib world, but firms don’t come to my school for FO positions. I got an offer from Credit Suisse IT (where I did my senior summer internship) and Blackrock Solutions-solutions center – I am not technical at all.

    What are exit opportunities and career dev’t paths like?
    CS is a much bigger investment bank, does it mean that I will have more chances to network and move out of IT?

    Thank you!!

  22. Annoyed Attorney says

    I am a JD/ MBA grad from Canada with one year of professional experience as a personal injury/ employment law attorney. I also have an undergrad in Economics.

    I am desperatley trying to break into the US and Canadian I Banking industry but have been unsuccessful for 4 months. The only firm that appears to be interested would like me in an Analyst role to start. Is this blasphemous? Are there any MBA’s, not to mention the JD that start at such a position?

  23. Dre60 says

    Do hiring managers in trading consider Treasury / Government Work experience? I worked in the Government for the US Department of Treasury and was wondering if this is relevant work experience for any trading (front/middle/back-office). Or do Traders only care about trading experience? If so, I’ll leave this experience off my resume because sometimes less is more.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      I think traders care more about trading experience. You can still leave your previous work experience on your resume though you might want to highlight your experience with the markets (if you have any).

  24. Mo says

    Would doing Advisory work at a Big 4 firm be a decent option for going to business school and then getting into banking? Are there people at Big 4 advisory who were able to get into a good b-school (i.e. top 15) and transition into banking? Any insight will be much appreciated!

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes I’m sure. I’d invite you to look at the stats of the b-schools and see the % of incoming class from big 4 firms

  25. Eric Z says

    I missed FT recruiting this year after a top-tier IBD internship in capital markets with no return offer. I missed out on full time roles at other banks mainly due to a lack of more relevant IBD experience (M&A, coverage) and grades.

    I’m now considering what would place me best for banking and potentially business schools in the coming years.

    I am looking at the masters path, and am tossing up between a 2 year masters of finance and a 3 year JD from a top law school.

    Do you have any thoughts as to which would be viewed more favourably by banks and b-schools?

    Thank you

  26. Andy says

    I was wondering what your thoughts are about working as a Banking Credit analyst for a 2-3 years before going to back to school for my MBA and then try to get into PE or Investment banking afterwords.

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