by Brian DeChesare Comments (177)

Should You Start Out In Private Equity or at a Hedge Fund Rather Than In Investment Banking?

Should You Start Out In Private Equity or at a Hedge Fund Rather Than In Investment Banking?

“I read your articles on the myth of the buy-side job and why finance doesn’t guarantee you $10 million and your own beach in Thailand.

But I still want to do finance – I just don’t want to do investment banking. I’m an Economics major, I have a 3.7 GPA and I have no industry contacts.

Do you think I should start in private equity instead? How can I do it?”

This is a very common “strategy” I get questions about.

But is it a good idea?

The Usual Argument

Usually the logic goes something like the quote above – you want to do finance, but you want to skip all the grunt work, pitch books, and all-nighters.

Plus, the only reason to do investment banking in the first place is for the exit opportunities – right?

How do you get in?

Many places do some undergraduate recruiting and there are “Analyst” (just out of school) positions in addition to Associate positions (what you would get after working in banking).

And if you’re an “Analyst” no matter which type of firm you’re at, isn’t it better to skip straight to the finish line?

Elements of Truth

There’s some truth to this logic.

While there’s grunt work no matter what you do, there is less of it on the buy-side.

And coming from banking, there’s usually some lifestyle improvement – at least you have weekends now – unless you go to the biggest funds, where it’s exactly the same.

It’s difficult but possible to get into a lot of funds – mostly middle-market ones – straight out of undergraduate, so it’s more plausible than all the emails I get from high school seniors wondering how they can become Managing Directors.

The Catch(es)

But as always, there’s a catch.

Actually, multiple catches.

They’re not enough to make this strategy a flat-out horrible idea, but they are enough to make you re-consider whether you really want to do it.

Can You Even Do It?

Problem #1: Can you actually get into a PE firm or hedge fund straight out of undergraduate? Or if you’re in business school, can you go straight from your MBA to one of these fields?

Most of the time the answer is no.

The path into private equity is well-defined, and your chances aren’t good unless you’ve been a full-time investment banking analyst before.

At the bare minimum you need some type of finance internship (private equity is best but other fields can work) to have a fighting chance – without that, it’s a long-shot at best.

If you’re at the MBA-level, it’s very, very tough to pull off unless you’ve been a full-time investment banking analyst before business school.

Especially when the economy is bad, these firms are flooded with ex-bankers with solid deal experience… so if you don’t even have that it’s an uphill battle.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t get into PE or work at a hedge fund eventually – it’s just that it’s difficult if you’re directly out of school without any finance experience.

Pay – Not What You’re Expecting

Problem #2: Please, don’t expect $10 million and your own beach in Thailand even if you do manage to get in.

Yes, there’s the potential to earn more on the buy-side because you’re an investor rather than a salesman – the key word there being “potential.”

If you move into PE or HFs coming from investment banking, you’ll get paid more once you take into account the bonus and carry potential.

But if you move in straight out of school – or from another non-traditional background – you’ll often get less than you would as an investment banking analyst.

Two real-world examples of this:

  1. One friend did a PE internship his junior year, then went to a larger PE firm for his full-time job. His base salary was less than what banking analysts got, and the bonus was less as well. He did get some upside – like a bonus for any deal he brought in – but overall he made less than a banking analyst.
  2. Another friend moved over from equity research to PE and not only got paid less than a banking analyst, but was also “demoted” to an Analyst once again despite having several years of finance experience.

Don’t expect to make significantly more – or even the same amount of money – as you would if you had started off on the sell-side.

The long-term potential is higher, but it takes years to get there.

The Myth of the Buy-Side Job

Still one of the most commented-upon articles on this site, everything in The Myth of the Buy-Side Job still applies here.

If you think valuing companies, following the market, and working in Excel are boring, then you won’t like anything on the buy-side either.

Certain points in that article ring even truer if you move in directly from school – for example, you might work more as a private equity analyst than as an investment banking analyst.

Regardless of what your title is, you’re always ranked according to how much experience you have – so if it’s nothing, you’ll be below anyone with some experience.

The social aspect (i.e. Do you talk to people during the day or are you isolated?) might be better if you’re coming in with a “class” of others, but it’s still well below what you would get at a large investment bank – which hurts you both socially and for networking purposes.

What Exit Opportunities?

This is the most commonly overlooked drawback: your exit opportunities are more limited if you start out on the buy-side.

You can go from banking to almost any other finance role because it gives you the broadest skill set.

But as you move up, you become more and more niche.

And that “nichifying” process starts earlier if you skip banking altogether.

Do PE and you can move to other PE firms… work at a hedge fund and you can go to other hedge funds.

But the longer you do it, the more specialized you become – so if you haven’t worked on cross-border European telecom M&A deals between €500MM and €1B then you might be out of luck if you’re looking for something new.

If you know with 100% certainty exactly what you want to do in the future, go ahead and do it.

But if there’s any doubt in your mind, it’s better to start out with whatever gives you the most options.

So, Should You Do It?

The million dollar question: if you get the opportunity should you go to the buy-side rather than starting out in investment banking?

Of all the points above, the one on exit opportunities is the most serious. You can always make up for lost money or sneak in with the odds stacked against you, but you can’t erase experience from your resume.

So if you’re certain you want to be in one of these fields in the long-term, you have the means to get in, and you understand all the trade-offs, go ahead and do it.

But please, don’t expect to go from the mail room to Ari Gold just because you’re in a slightly different industry.

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! I am scheduled to do an internship this summer with one of the Big 5 Canadian banks, but I had the option to accept an offer to the PE group of a Canadian pension fund and declined. This was mostly due to the idea that you learn less technical skills starting out in PE and that opportunities to move into non-pension PE firms would be more difficult.

    I have a strong chance of being hired back full-time as this fund is open to hiring out of undergrad. Any idea as to which might be the right path? Thank you!

    1. We covered this topic before – PE at pension funds in Canada is different from “standard” PE roles, so it isn’t necessarily a great idea to take that role:

      https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/canadian-pension-fund-jobs/

  2. Hi! Im finishing my BE in Mechanical Engineering but i found out that engineering is not for me. I really want to finance. So, what are my chances of finding a job in an investment bank or a hedge fund? Im from Greece btw and i have to work abroad in another european country. Where do you suggest to go to search for a job in finance (if i have any chances)?

    Thank you in advance!!!

    1. Please see the articles covering the transition from engineering to finance (do a search). If you’re already finishing the degree, your chances are not great. You need internship experience and likely another degree such as a Master’s in Finance. Even if you want to join a hedge fund or do something else more quantitative, it’s tough without prior finance experience.

  3. Hey Nicole, would you say a job at a Houston, energy-specific investment bank would set me up better to get into a good MBA program and eventually go to New York than a balanced P/E firm that focuses on all industries?

    1. ??? Not really, it would probably be about the same. Why would something industry-specific help you more?

  4. Edem Akorli

    Hello,
    I am a former undergrad working as an audit assistant in an Oil Marketing Company. I would like to switch careers to finance specifically in Private Equity or Hedge Fund. I am planning on enrolling for a Masters in Finance program in one of the elite schools in Poland which has been ranked in the Financial Times for the past 3 years. This program is a two year program so hopefully, i will have some chance to do loads of internships before i graduate. I want to know my chances of breaking into these industries with the Masters program and a couple of internships under my belt (assuming everything goes on as planned).

    Thanks.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I’d you have a 50/50 chance, and having investment banking experience would be most relevant. If you go to the links below, you’ll have a better understanding of how to break in.
      https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/private-equity-recruiting/
      http://mergersandinquisitions.com/hedge-fund-recruiting

  5. Hello,

    I am currently a junior in college majoring in economics at a prestigious liberal arts college. I am a varsity athlete, VP of a finance club and have a 3.6 gpa. I am in the process of interviewing for some FLDP type internships at some F500 companies. I am interested in business/finance but am not totally sure what I want to do. I have a contact at Bridgewater Assoc who has forwarded my resume to recruiting. My question is, if I even received an offer there, would that limit my exit opportunities down the line if I wanted to leave the hedge fund world?

    The pay and prestige are certainly better there than a F500 rotation, I am just worried the skillset is more limited.

    Thanks.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Not necessarily because Bridgewater Associates has a great name and you can also move back to the sell side in S&T though people tend to stay in HF or start their own business. However, I’d wait till you get an offer at Bridgewater first before you make a decision.

  6. Hi M&I,
    I have an offer from a respected middle market private equity shop. Analysts usually get promoted or move on to another PE shop after 2-3 years. I am wondering how middle market investment banking analyst job compares to the PE analyst offer. The PE firm also pays very well.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I’d probably just take the PE offer if you’re interested in the buy side.

      1. How about comparing a BB IB offer and a MM PE offer. Will the BB name and the brand help more for my long term career than the MM PE firm (respectable in the field but no one really knows the firm). I know I want to get on the buyside for sure but I may want to try hedge fund later on.

        1. M&I - Nicole

          Yes the BB name is probably more credible than the MM PE name.

  7. Hi, I’ve been lurking on this site for a while now and first off I want to thank you for this website, I’ve been reading your articles for maybe a few months now and I’ve learned a great deal.

    I’m currently a secondary school senior in Sweden and I’ve recently become very interested in private equity. I admit it was the (by my standards) ridiculous compensation levels that first opened my eyes for high finance but the more I read about PE the more convinced I became that I’d actually genuinely like the work in itself. I like working with numbers (math is my favorite subject) and thoroughly analyzing things in general so I think I’d quite like finding investment opportunities and doing all the financial modeling and engineering. The opportunity to work with the operations-side of different companies and industries seems quite alluring as well.

    The reason I’m commenting now is because I wanted to ask about education. My best choice to me right now seems to be a 5-year engineering degree (both bachelor’s and master’s) in industrial engineering and management from one of the better engineering schools here in Sweden (KTH – 30th best engineering and tech uni in the world and 126th best uni overall according to Times Higher Education). I’d develop both quantitative skills and business knowledge and I also get to specialize in a certain area (e.g. industrial biotech, energy or applied math (including financial math)). My other option would be to take a gap year and then apply to a target school in the US. The reason I prefer the former is because I’d rather not take a gap year and education in Sweden is free (kinda hard to say no to).

    After finishing studying I’d like to work in the US in either PE right away (if possible) or IB. Would you advise me to take a gap year and study in the US instead? Optionally take a study abroad year or take my master’s in the US? I should mention I’m an American citizen so at least there won’t be any hassle with visas to discourage a potential employer. If I’d choose to study in Sweden and not at a US target school, would it matter if I went to a different school than the best? The reason I’m asking is because there’s a different school that’s less prestigious and renowned overall but is a bit better at this specific degree.

    Is PE right away pretty much out of the window if I don’t come from a US target school? Would finishing the 5-year degree in 4-years be impressive to employers? Is the master’s degree unnecessary so that I should instead try to work as an analyst after my bachelor’s and later get an MBA?

    I’m also hearing impaired which I’m quite worried might seriously damage my chances of getting in and advancing in the business, I function very well in my daily life but I do have ask again and miss stuff more frequently than people with people hearing. Do you think this could be major deterrent to potential employers or even make it impossible for me to get in?

    1. Sorry about the wall of text. x) Would be very grateful for your advice.

    2. M&I - Nicole

      Yes I’d try to work as an analyst first and perhaps get an MBA at a top tier school if possible. https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/private-equity-recruiting/

      1. Alright thanks :). Just to be sure that I understand you correctly, you’d advise against pursuing the master’s part of the degree?

        I’m quite worried about my hearing impairment being an obstacle so I would love to hear your thoughts on that, even if it’s only an educated guess.

        1. M&I - Nicole

          Yes unless its from a target school. I’d suggest that you speak with people in the industry regarding the second point.

      2. If I understood you correctly about the master’s, would it be a wiser move to instead get a 3-year bachelor’s in “business and economics” (which is a lot stronger business-wise but not as strong math- and technology-wise) since the engineering bachelor’s degree is kind of designed to go together with the master’s degree?

        1. M&I - Nicole

          Sure, the 3-year degree maybe a better option.

          1. Okay, again, thank you very much. :)

  8. What are the list of exit opportunities for those starting out in PE? How limited is it compared to the exit opportunities for those who start out as IB analysts?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Many stay in PE if they can, because pay is decent and hours may arguably be better than IB. You also have more say in PE. I don’t think PE is more limiting than IB to be honest, though many may prefer the IB standard 2 year analyst training program. https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/private-equity-recruiting/

  9. M&I,
    I’m a rising senior from a target school, and I might get an offer from a $2bn AUM long-short hedge fund. I don’t know what I exactly want to do in finance, but anything related to trading, investment management, or quant sounds ok to me. Would you recommend starting out in this fund, or do you recommend joining a BB for a more structured experience? Again, I’m not sure what I want to do in finance. Thanks.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      If you’re interested in the markets and a HF, I’d join the fund. Yes there’s a traditional route of joining a BB for their training program, which I think is great. This can open you doors to PE and other opportunities. However, if you can get into a credible hedge fund, get mentored, and perform well, not a bad idea to skip the BB route and just work for the HF.

      1. Hi Nicole,
        Can you gimme an idea of what’s the threshold when joining a hf is better idea than joining a BB? In terms of HF AUM, fund vintage. People won’t join a 300 mm fund over Goldman so can you tell me how to tell a hf is worthy of choosing over a brand-name BB?

        1. M&I - Nicole

          I can’t say because it really depends on the HF and the individual. Large HFs above $1bn AUM maybe better bet, but it depends on the fund performance team dynamics etc etc. There’s no exact formula. Startup/smaller HFs may offer higher upside but also higher risk too.

  10. M & I,

    I’m an uprising freshman at a non-target, HBCU school. I intend to work in PE and one day manage my own funds. I am currently listed as a BBA, Finance major however under the advice of some really good mentors I have been advised to change my major to Economics. What is your opinion for breaking into PE?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I’d say go for an IB role to increase your chances of breaking in https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/private-equity-recruiting/

  11. Hi,
    I am from a target school in India and I have 1 year’s experience in Treasury Sales at the largest pvt bank in the country. I also interned in Global Markets at a BB, and that helped me in getting into Treasury. Now I want to get into PE but I haven’t been able to get even an interview opportunity with one. I have networked with most of my alumni and some non-alum PE people, but the output hasn’t been any good. Also, as I have read in many of your articles, my resume needs to be revamped, but then the only experience I have is that of treasury sales (Fx + Derivatives), with no “structuring”, “valuation” or “due diligence” phrases to use (though I took most of these courses while at school). Now, I know I stand a good chance to get into IB, but in India (as you might be aware) most of the big names hire for captive units (KPO set ups) as Junior Analysts (and the conversion rate into front office roles is 1 in 10). I need some help in choosing between the two (or any other plausible option) and with my resume. Thanks.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I’d get into IB first, gain your deal experience and then transition into PE https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/private-equity-recruiting/

  12. Thanks for putting these great articles together. M&I has helped immensely and continues to be a good read.

    While you do mention that PE is very challenging for a MBA-level associate w/o analyst experience, does this apply also for someone looking at PE FoF’s and secondaries? Most associates I know who exit banking head to corp. dev opportunities but understandably seem not to explore different buy side opportunities outside of direct shops/GPs (maybe because they aren’t aware of them). I’m wondering if my time is better spent networking/applying in the former than latter. Appreciate any and all advice.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Yes if the area is what you’re looking to get into, you can do so though space may also be more limited but I’m not 100% sure

  13. I love reading the content on this site no sure why I haven’t signed up for the newsletter.
    I need some advice like all the other whiners. I am a 28 soon to be 29 former undergraduate f*** up with a degree in Communications (2.3) from a state school in GA. I’ve held down a slew of menial jobs as I graduated Dec 08 to the precipice of this current job market. Anyways, my strategy is to retake some undergrad classes to raise my GPA for entry into a more competitive grad school (MBA?) and possibly a second bachelor’s degree in economics to raise my quantitative skill set, and wouldn’t you know I love economics (my inner nerd is appeased by the mere prospect). So, my goal is to work for a hedge fund after reading More Money than God. Basically by the time I finish up my 2nd Bach I’ll be around 30-31 with no financial experience. What’s the best strategy in procuring a position around this time? I’m thinking copious amounts of free labor for at a hedge fund during my time back at university and a shitload of networking between alumni and possible head hunters. Am I on the right track or is this too much of a younger man’s game? Probably depends on perspective. Should I implement anything else on my strategies and tactics list? What should I learn during my downtime in regards to the actual position of an Hedge Fund analyst? I have a lot of hard work ahead of me and when you have enough time to put 13 years worth of mistakes behind you, you relish in the thought of actual hard work leading to a better tomorrow.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Networking intensively, cold calling as well as polishing your trading skills will work. This means trading your own portfolio, following the markets, forming your own view, and having 2-3 stock pitches rehearsed for interviews. Unless you get into a target MBA I don’t think it is as useful as gaining real world experience and networking. Yes it is better to have a head start when you’re younger though if you have what it takes – passion, skills, ability to think out of the box, experience with markets, and a bit of luck – you can still break in. https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/hedge-fund-recruiting/

  14. If I want to work in private equity 100% and have a way of getting into the industry, would I miss out on anything in the long run in terms of skills?

    I know you build a valuable skill set in investment banking, but if I know private equity is where I want to ultimately be, do you think the lack of real-world IB experience would be a non-issue eventually?

    Thank you.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      Not necessarily. You can argue that you may be able to better hone your valuation and modeling skills through an IB program though you can also acquire such skills through PE

      It depends on how good you are. Some people jumped straight into PE or HF without IB experience and they seem to be doing fine so I don’t think it is too big of an issue (to some)

      1. Thanks. Is there anything else I’d miss, like networking opportunities, or would I still be able to build a valuable network of the same size and scope in the long run?

        I’m talking about contacts mainly useful for finding deals and raising capital.

        1. M&I - Nicole

          I don’t quite understand your question?

          1. With the intention of starting my own fund many years down the line, would an early career in investment banking (before private equity) help me any more than starting out in private equity from the beginning?

            Starting a fund will obviously require solid contacts for the main purposes of finding deals and raising capital to act on those deals. I might be able to build up enough cash to start small myself in the beginning, but a solid network would go a long way.

            With the life goal of starting my own fund, would going into private equity straight away put me at any obvious disadvantage do you think? Or do you think any disadvantages would be cancelled out after years of working at a private equity firm?

            For example, one possible advantage of doing IB could be building a network among the other analysts, as some of these may go onto become MDs or not far off, which would give me better access to deals and potential financing in the future.

          2. M&I - Nicole

            Yes you can say that a first year program at IB may provide you more contacts and you may also have exposure to other people who can eventually help you build your own fund. I’d say that track record matters most so you’ll really need to hone your skills; IB training is a great way for you to do so. However, if you join a strong PE team and can build your track record there I think this is fine too. If you can get an offer at a firm like Blackstone or KKR I’d say go for it

  15. (I know this sounds counterintuitive, but hold on)What would you suggest if I want to go into consulting long-term? I go to a target school, but my gpa is abysmal and I know there’s little to no chance I can work for one of the big three.

    I’m thinking I need to get a few years out of school where gpa won’t matter as much. I’ve developed my networking skills and I’m fairly confident I could (at least) end up in a mm IB, mm PE, or boutique IB/PE.

    Should I just go where there’s the most prestige or should I do some sort of consulting for a year than try again?

    I don’t really think an MBA would contribute much 2-3 years from now, but I’m open to business school as well.

    1. M&I - Nicole

      If your GPA isn’t great, it may not necessarily be easier to find a job in IB or PE. I’d suggest you to network a lot, and try your best to explain why your GPA was affected, and focus on mid market IBs and perhaps consulting firms.

  16. Hi M&I,

    If I am interested in joining a global macro/event-driven fund in the future with chances to progress to a portfolio manager, what starting role would give me the best opportunities? I am deciding between sell-side trading/desk analyst or FICC research at the moment and have the impression that traditional AM & IBD would be more suited for equity long/short, distressed and value funds. What do you think?

    I am currently looking for a graduate internship in London with the aforementioned roles as I will be going for a masters in finance. With an econs background from a non-target, lacking UCAS points due to my australian pre-uni as an international student, and prior non-BB (tier 2 banks) internships in my SE-Asian home instead of London, would you say I stand little chance of obtaining a BB internship through the formal recruiting process and should invest more time in networking instead? The positives I have going for me would be 1st class grades, founded an finance society in my uni and have had asset management, corp banking and securities internships under my belt.

    Thanks!

    1. M&I - Nicole

      A role in ER (ideally strategy ER) or working as an analysts for a macro fund will help you the most.

      I’d say both FICC research and sell-side trading can help you achieve that goal; they are not strategy ER but the skills you learn there will be useful for the role you’re aiming for. Many move to the buyside after such roles. I’d say it can be tougher to move from traditional AM/IBD to a global macro fund

      Yes if you need visa sponsorship it can be more challenging. Your finance experience helps though you’ll be competing against people from target who have finance experience with top tier banks. I’d suggest you invest more time in networking (focus on boutique and 2nd tier ones first, but don’t forget about the 1st tier ones). Your internship and leadership experience will help you.

  17. Thanks again Nicole. She talked about it without me asking. She’s a straight hero. Anyways, I have one more question: As an undergrad with no work experience in equity analysis, would it be beneficial to elaborate on how I’ve made DCF for personal research outside of the workplace? Or would I just sounds like an idiot?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      I think it can be useful, especially given your lack of experience

  18. OK thanks. Also- I have an information interview (in about 30 minutes) with someone who worked in the world trade center during 911… I really want to ask about it, but I feel like it would be appropriate to avoid the subject.. what should I do? ah

    1. M&I - Nicole

      If you’ve established a close/strong connection with that person, yes I think that is fine. Otherwise, I may avoid it because I’m not sure if the person would receive your question well

  19. How does a private equity undergrad internship weigh to IBs in entry level interviews if the candidate with the internship is from a nontarget state school? can this discount target school biases?

    1. M&I - Nicole

      The PE internship definitely helps, though some interviewers may prefer candidates from target schools. With that being said, your work experience is crucial. If you have a good name on your resume, above 3.5 GPA, solid pitch & networking skills you’d be fine.

      1. Thanks. I’ve had some good talks with the HR director and a senior MD at the PE arm of the holding company i intern for, so I am going to do my best to make it work. Any advice on how to follow up efficiently?

        1. M&I - Nicole

          Yes, I usually space a few days/a week in between each interaction (i.e. if I had an amazing chat with the MD, I’d send him a thank you note right after the interaction, and then I’d follow up a week after. If he doesn’t respond, follow up again in a few days.) You just have to be persistent and steady (subtly though).

          1. OK thank you again. Also, how would working as an analyst for a portfolio manager at a mutual fund (w/ 500B+ AUM) look to BB ibanks? Have you ever seen buyside analysts or PMs jump to ibanking? Which experience (buyside/sellside analysts) is a more prevalent (and revalent) background in Private Equity?

          2. M&I - Nicole

            Yes, that experience can be helpful though you’ll have to articulate clearly why you want to move from the buy-side to banking. I’d say exprience at a PE fund, or sellside at IBs are more relevant to PE roles https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/private-equity-recruiting/

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