Degrees and Certifications: Got CFA + JD + MBA + MD?
Despite my best efforts to bash certifications and give snarky responses to related questions, there’s still confusion on what banks care about, what you can do with different degrees, and the meaning of life.
While I can’t help with the meaning of life (42?), I can tell you which degrees and certifications mean something and help you break into finance – and which will not.
Why the Hate? You’re Already Biased!
I’ve seen lots of aspiring bankers use degrees and certifications as a distraction from more important goals, like getting solid internships, networking, and even getting leadership roles in groups.
You may also think that degrees and certifications are a magic bullet: sure, you have a 2.1 GPA from an unknown school and you’ve worked in telemarketing for 5 years, but if you get that Bloomberg certification, Goldman Sachs will give you an offer right away, right?
Maybe I should get into the business of selling certifications with logic like this…
Definitions: Investment Banking / Private Equity vs. Other Fields
The usefulness of degrees and certifications varies widely by the field of finance you’re interested in.
For example, if you want to be in risk management then the FRM exam is essential; if you’re doing portfolio management or equity research, the CFA is viewed as a requirement. And bankers, of course, don’t care about either of those.
I’m focusing on investment banking and private equity here because that’s what this site is about and what you’re interested in if you’re reading this right now.
For more on other fields and where certifications might be useful, check out these articles from Bionic Turtle:
5 Degrees Above Zero
Let’s start with degrees since they’re less painful to write about.
The only degrees that banks care about are Bachelor’s, Master’s, and MBA degrees, and only for very specific reasons.
But just for fun, let’s jump through the entire list and learn why – and what to do if you’ve taken the plunge into JD/PhD/MD land.
High School / Secondary School
Please, no more questions from 16-year olds who want to get an investment banking internship. Go outside and play in the sun, you’re probably Vitamin D-deficient anyway.
This one is just a check-the-box requirement at banks, and if you’ve only graduated high school you won’t be able to do anything real – you need at least an undergraduate degree (maybe you could work as an assistant but is that what you want to do?).
Your actual performance in secondary school matters more in countries like the UK where A-Levels are huge – in the US, listing high school grades or AP scores on your resume when applying to banking jobs is silly. And where you went to school only matters if it’s somewhere prestigious, like Exeter or Andover, where you might get some networking benefit.
This is the bare minimum you’ll need to actually work at an investment bank, and most other finance firms.
Every week I get comments asking, “I’m 38 and never graduated from college – do you think I can become an investment banking analyst?”
No, you can’t.
- Supply and Demand – Banks have so many university graduates who’d give up a kidney to work for them that they can afford to reject 99% of applicants and still have more people than they know what to do with.
- Work Ethic – If you can’t finish a university degree then banks will assume that you cannot finish any project, which is a problem when you have a 100-page pitch book due in 3 hours.
Yes, I know there are good reasons you didn’t get a degree – you dropped out to start your own multi-billion dollar company, you couldn’t afford college, or you became a pop star and you’re still on leave.
That’s lovely, but life is not fair and if you don’t have a degree you’re not getting into investment banking or private equity.
Maybe you could trade for a small prop trading firm if you’re a baller trader without a degree, but even there it’s tough – they care less about pedigree than banks, but everyone else there will have the degree.
It’s approximately 100x more difficult to get into banking coming from a “non-target” school (one where banks don’t recruit) compared to a “target” school (the Ivy League, LSE, Oxbridge, and so on), so go to the best school possible.
What you major in doesn’t matter too much as long as you get decent grades and internships, but you can review your options right here.
- You need the prestige because your undergraduate school was unknown.
- You had poor grades and need to press Ctrl + Z on your transcript.
- You didn’t get an offer and want to try again, with better access to recruiters.
- You’re in Europe and 5-year programs that include both the Bachelor’s and Master’s degree are common.
The most common question on Master’s degrees:
“So, if I go for a Master’s in Finance program I can start as an Associate, right?”
No, you can’t, because:
- You would need at least 3-5 years of previous work experience or 2 years as an IB analyst first.
- Master’s programs are less of a time and money commitment compared to MBA programs.
I must have heard this question 500 times at career fairs and the answer is always the same: “You’ll still be an Analyst.”
This is the only advanced degree that allows you to “level-up” when you start working.
IF you have had enough experience (usually 3-5 years in a normal industry, or 2 years as a former IB analyst), then you’ll start out one rung above the Analyst: you’ll be an Associate instead.
Which means you get paid a bit more, have more responsibility, and you get to sleep 6 hours per night instead of 4.
But do not assume that just because you get an MBA, banks will automatically interview you or think that you can be an Associate.
There are plenty of ways to screw it up, including going to a non-top-tier school, not having enough work experience, or not showing a clear progression toward being interested in banking.
While Damages the TV series is awesome, most law firms are not even close to that interesting in real life: the Partners at your firm might be sadistic, but they’re still far from Patty Hewes.
So many lawyers get the bright idea that they could go into finance instead and make bank while abusing their former co-workers.
Just one small problem: banks don’t give a crap about law school.
OK, that’s not 100% true and it’s viewed a little more favorably than the MD or PhD – but there’s no added bonus for going to law school and it’s a much more indirect path to banking.
You have to graduate from law school, work in corporate law for a few years without going insane, and then network your way into banking from there.
Having the law background may benefit you in areas like Restructuring and Distressed Investing where there’s legal overlap, but it’s a stretch to say that you should go to law school specifically to get into those fields.
If you’ve already taken the plunge, you can’t exactly abort midway through – so finish, do corporate or securities law, and then network into banking after working for a few years.
You may actually start as an Associate if you do law school and then corporate law before banking, so the JD can be another way to level-up.
If you thought bankers looked down on lawyers, you’ve never seen their reaction to PhDs – ouch.
You might be the next Stephen Hawking, but that doesn’t matter because you don’t need to understand wormholes to be a banker – you just need to understand how to change the font size in pitch books.
Most bankers think that PhDs are too well-educated to go back to fixing printers and scouring through SEC filings, so there’s a significant bias against hiring them.
Sometimes you can still get into finance if you have the degree, but usually you have to:
- Target a boutique that fits your background exactly – like an industrials-focused firm if you have a PhD in materials engineering, or a healthcare-focused firm if you completed an advanced degree in biochemistry.
- Go for equity research instead. They actually care about the degree because they want people who understand an industry in-depth – again, you would focus on groups that match your background.
- Go the quant route (works best with physics/math/related degrees). Sure, trading will never be what it once was, but firms always need quants and smart math people to build their models.
You face a similar problem here: you’re over-educated and banks will assume that you have no interest in spreading comps if you’ve qualified to perform open heart surgery.
They may also assume that you’re unable to commit to anything and stick with it: how could you have made it through years of med school without realizing you wanted to do business earlier?
In this situation you’d have to follow the PhD advice above and go after boutique banks in the healthcare/biotech/pharmaceutical space and/or look into equity research. You don’t have the ideal background to be a quant, so that’s not the best idea here.
You’ll also need a really good story about why you’re making this move – not just “I realized business was so much cooler!”
You need a specific incident or person that made you interested, and a perfect explanation of how you realized that medicine was not for you after years of doing it, but how you’re simultaneously certain that finance is for you with 0 years of experience.
Combo Degrees – JD + MBA?
Combo degrees get another “thumbs down” from me.
We already learned that adding a Master’s degree on top of a normal bachelor’s degree, for example, won’t let you start as an Associate.
But what about that famed JD + MBA combination – surely that must open up more exit opportunities, right?
No, not really. Most jobs are geared toward law or finance, but not both.
It would be most useful in areas like Restructuring, Distressed Investing, or arguably Real Estate / Project Finance where there’s overlap with the law and legal codes.
But even there, it’s a stretch to say that the JD would add much: even the MBA might not be terribly helpful if you’ve had previous, relevant experience.
You may also face a branding problem if you have a law degree and a business degree: business people will think you’re a lawyer, and lawyers will think you’re in business.
There’s always a temptation to think that more = better when it comes to degrees or certifications, but that’s just not true.
You want the minimum investment required for maximal gain – anything more than that reduces your ROI.
What about other combinations like JD + PhD + MBA, or JD + MD + MBA? Please, don’t even waste your time and money – it’s just silly.
Adding more advanced degrees like this will hurt you and make you look like more and more of an academic and less and less like someone who can actually make money in the real world.
This part will be shorter because certifications matter far less in banking and PE than degrees.
The main one that generates debate is the CFA and whether or not it’s helpful for breaking in – others are either completely useless or marginally helpful at best.
Series 7 / 63 / 65 / 66 / 79 / 84563X2
If you have a ton of free time, you’ve already networked extensively, and you already have great internships and/or a full-time job lined up, then sure, knock yourself out.
Just be aware that if your bank requires them, you’ll complete the exams during training anyway.
If you really want to set yourself apart before you start working, you’d be better off moving to another country for a few months and doing something interesting there.
I’m not going to rehash all the arguments for and against the CFA here – go consult this article if you want to go down that path again.
The short version is that it’s not the best use of your time for investment banking or private equity in developed countries, but it may be more useful in emerging markets or in fields like equity research, portfolio management, or some types of hedge funds.
And do not think that it will cover up an unknown school, low grades, or no work experience – it won’t.
Think of it as an added bonus and something to look into if you already have top schools, high grades, and great work experience.
CPA / FRM / Other Certifications with C and F in the Names
Look, if you want to be an accountant or a risk manager or perhaps other things outside of IB/PE, then sure, go ahead and pursue these.
There’s an alphabet soup of other certifications out there, and David from Bionic Turtle does a great job of summarizing them here.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these – it’s just that they will not help you much with IB/PE, because getting in is based almost entirely on practical experience.
In the future, who knows, there may be an exam to get “certified” in investment banking – but for now no one takes anything like that seriously (yes, I’m talking to you, “Certified M&A Advisor”).
There’s another critical reason why such certifications don’t apply to IB and PE: at the top levels these fields are based on sales, relationships, and negotiation skills – skills that can’t be tested on a written exam.
Bloomberg / FactSet / Other
Don’t even bother – you’ll learn everything you need to know (which is not much) when you start working, and you don’t even use the complex features in banking.
These may actually hurt you because you do not want to be known as “The Bloomberg Guy” or “The VBA Guy” or anything else that results in annoying requests to fix other peoples’ broken-beyond-repair spreadsheets.
Standardized Tests: SAT, GMAT, GRE, A-Levels…
These aren’t quite “certifications” but why not throw them in here anyway?
None of these is as important as grades in university, but in the US most banks will still ask for your SAT scores, and GMAT scores can be helpful if you have low SAT scores (under 2100 in the new system). No, don’t bother going back and re-taking them if they’re low: not worth the effort.
As with grades, these tests are more about whether or not you meet the minimum score they’re looking for rather than “standing out” – so please do not re-take the GMAT if you got a 720.
Got Degrees or Certifications?
I hope not – unless you mean a university, Master’s, or MBA degree.
Otherwise, save your time and money and if you’re already too far down a path to turn back now, cut your losses and change direction as soon as you can.
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From Non-Target School and Unpaid Wealth Management Internship to Full-Time Bulge Bracket Investment Banking Offer: How to Make the Leap
In this interview we’ll speak with a reader who landed a full-time bulge bracket investment banking offer with 0 banking internships and a non-target school on his resume.
There have been a few interviews with readers from similar backgrounds – but I thought this one was great because he shares unique insights and unusual networking strategies – including surprising conclusions on what worked and what failed miserably.
So let’s jump in and see how this reader went from no connections and no experience to a full-time investment banking offer – and how you can do the same.
Background & Last-Minute Networking
Q: Tell us about yourself.
A: Sure. I went to an unknown state school that was off the radar of major banks, and which had very few alumni in finance. My family was involved in the retail industry so they knew almost nothing about it, and I had no connections.
I started getting interested in finance my sophomore year, but I knew almost nothing about it so I had to look online to get started, using your site and others.
The summer after my sophomore year I did an internship selling life insurance. It was commission-based and absolutely brutal – they just throw you out there and say, “Find clients and sell insurance ASAP.”
After that, I did an unpaid private wealth management internship at a large bank, which I leveraged into a full-time investment banking offer at a bulge bracket bank.
Q: Impressive. So let’s go back to that internship selling life insurance – most people would discount this experience because it has nothing to do with investment banking or private equity. Was it helpful at all in securing your PWM internship or your full-time offer?
A: Yes – in fact, my internship selling life insurance was my #1 talking point during interviews.
It sounds crazy, but bankers spent more time asking me about that experience than anything else on my resume – including my PWM internship at a brand-name bank.
In one bulge bracket interview, they spent 30 minutes having me pitch them an insurance policy.
I think they focused on it so much because it was extremely tough and I had almost no direction – it wasn’t much different from what you do at the top levels in banking, although obviously MDs work on much larger deals and with more sophisticated clients.
Q: I’m still surprised they focused so much on that internship. How did you make the transition from selling insurance to private wealth management?
A: It was pretty much a last-minute networking effort on my part – I knew I needed an internship for my junior year summer, but I assumed I had no chance at investment banking, so I didn’t even try.
I did contact a few friends and alumni from my school who were in the industry, but most of those leads didn’t go anywhere.
I got the internship itself by going through a friend who had recently graduated from my school and who was working in New York – he passed my name along to a recruiter at his bank.
Then I followed up and sent 20 emails over the next month before the recruiter agreed to discuss an internship.
Q: Let me stop you right there – why did you send so many emails? I usually say that calling and meeting in-person are more effective. Did you try cold-calling at all?
A: Yes – but it didn’t work at all for me. I could never get past the gatekeepers no matter what I did.
I know it works since I’ve had friends who pulled it off successfully – but overall I didn’t have much luck with it. You need to be really good at sweet-talking secretaries and finding the right people to begin with, and I wasn’t great at that.
M&I Note: In addition, location seems to matter a lot with cold-calling. A lot of readers have used it successfully in California, for example, but other regions are more hit-or-miss.
Q: Yeah, people do tend to have mixed results with cold-calling. Going back to that internship, though, I’m curious – most bulge bracket banks don’t do unpaid internships. How did you arrange that?
A: It worked because this was in the midst of the financial crisis / recession and everything was chaotic at the time. They actually gave me a choice of 2 internships: a paid, back-office position in New Jersey or an unpaid, front-office private wealth management position in New York – I wisely selected the second one.
A lot of students would have chosen the paid internship, but I knew it was a bad move because banks want to know that you can live and work in New York – and as you’ve pointed out before, the back office to front office transition is difficult.
Going back to your original question, the bank itself and the industry as a whole were in such trouble around this time that everyone was running around frantically trying to cut costs – so they decided to give large groups of us unpaid internships.
The “interview process” itself was really informal, and all it took was 1 interview to get the offer.
Q: Ok, so it was more of a firm-wide policy than a special exception for you – which makes sense. So how did you keep networking with bankers once you started? Were the people in your PWM group helpful?
A: From day 1 I walked in there thinking, “How can I turn this into investment banking?”
Most people in PWM were completely useless for investment banking recruiting – a lot of times they’d give me contact information for recruiters, but then the recruiters would ignore me or lie about the process.
People in PWM were fine if you wanted to do Sales & Trading, but they hated investment bankers – if you mentioned that you wanted to do that, they would instantly start looking down on you.
The only good contact I got through the PWM group was actually in private equity – my boss had the interns go around to visit key clients in-person one day, and I met the head of a PE firm like that.
I made a good impression on him, and then ran it by my boss before I contacted him for networking purposes – he was fine with it, so the PE guy referred me to a lot of people and forwarded my resume to all his contacts, which was huge.
Q: Nice – I guess we can call that one “door-to-door networking.” So aside from that one PE guy, did you do most of your networking outside the bank?
A: Yes. I did an extensive search and left no stone unturned – which was key, because my most random strategies ended up working really well.
I reached out to alumni via our database as well as LinkedIn – I often found names on LinkedIn, and then plugged them into the alumni database to get contact information. I didn’t limit myself to investment banking, either – as long as the person did something in finance, that was close enough for me.
I ended up getting my full-time offer via an alum that no one from my school had ever contacted before – he worked in a Restructuring group and had good friends at bulge bracket banks, so I got the referral through him.
No one had contacted him in the past because he went to a top business school and was detached from his undergrad institution – so others wrongly assumed he was “off limits.”
I also met alumni via my finance classes, and I directly asked a lot of professors for referrals – teachers are severely under-utilized for networking purposes.
It was really important to be the first person to contact an alumnus – the same alum is unlikely to help more than few people with referrals, so getting in early is crucial.
Q: Right, that makes a lot of sense. But those strategies don’t sound that much different from what you’d expect – you mentioned some “random strategies” before. Could you give a few examples?
A: Sure – here are 2 specific examples of more unusual strategies:
Example #1: I found out that someone very high-up at an investment bank a few years ago (C-level executive) was an alumnus from my school from many years ago. I couldn’t find his contact information anywhere, so I went through my Dean to get it instead.
I met with my Dean, told him about myself, and then he sent the resume along to the C-level executive because he knew him personally. A few days later the executive called me personally and I would have gotten an interview at his bank had I not already accepted an offer elsewhere by that point.
Example #2: Many people didn’t respond to emails, so I tried a more creative strategy instead – I went through the Bloomberg terminals available at my school.
You can look people up there if you know their names – rather than calling or emailing, I instant messaged them via Bloomberg. It worked really well, especially for people in Sales & Trading and Equity Research that were on Bloomberg all day.
Q: That’s a great way to use Bloomberg, though you do have to be careful not to go overboard with IM. Once you contacted these people, what did you say to them? Was it just the typical informational interview?
A: For most of the interviews I just said, “I’m interested in your industry and want to learn more about how I can get there.”
I did this because I knew that industries like private equity and portfolio management require another job first – and I wanted my contacts to give me referrals to other industries.
So if I called up a PE contact I would say, “I’m interested in private equity – how can I get there after I graduate?” and he would say, “Well, you have to do investment banking first,” and I would say, “Oh, ok, do you happen to know anyone in the industry?” and then I would get contact information like that.
I found that feigning ignorance – to a certain point – was more effective than acting like I knew everything from the get-go.
Q: I think that one should answer all the “Which industry should I tell them I’m interested in?” questions I get. Did you do anything else to prepare for full-time recruiting?
A: Not really – I read the usual sites online, interview guides, message boards, etc. but I focused on my networking efforts through the summer and fall. I’d say I spent around 40 hours per week networking and interviewing until I had my offer lined up.
It’s important to be persistent even when it’s the last minute and interview slots are being announced.
Quick example: A couple people from one class of mine got interviews at this one bank, and I noticed that my friends all had interviews lined up but I didn’t.
So I contacted the recruiter directly and said, “I noticed some classmates of mine had interviews lined up with your firm. I’d really appreciate the opportunity to interview with you as well.”
And just like that, she set up the interview and I got through first rounds there.
This might seem obvious, but 90% of people are too afraid to ask for what they want so they sit there and get no results.
Q: Another bold but effective move there. So what were interviews like? Did you have to address a lot of “objections” because you had no banking experience and because you were coming in from a non-target school?
A: Not really. They didn’t care much about the lack of banking experience, and hardly anyone raised my school as an issue.
However, that may have been because I interviewed fairly late in the process – after most full-time recruiting was finished. A friend who interviewed at the same firms earlier than me got grilled on why he wasn’t from a big city and why he didn’t go to a better-known school.
I had a low GPA (3.2 / 4.0) so that came up in interviews a few times. I gave the usual defense and explained that I didn’t feel it was low given my work experience, and hardly anyone asked about it past the first round.
I know a lot of people complain about their GPA, but I think those concerns are overblown – especially if you’re from a lesser-known school, networking is far more important than boosting your GPA by a small amount.
Interviews were actually easier and less technical than I expected – even though I was a finance major and had the PWM internship, I received only a few technical questions throughout the entire process.
Thinking on your feet and being good at making up stuff on the spot was critical, because I got some curve-ball “fit” questions that I hadn’t thought about before.
Q: Any interview tips that we haven’t heard before?
A: A few points:
- Interviewers often drifted if I went beyond a minute or two when telling my “story” – I know some people say that 3-5 minutes is ok, but I’d aim for 60 seconds instead.
- I tried to keep all my “fit” answers to a max of 3 sentences, or people would start to lose interest – be concise and let them ask for more detail if they want.
- Be confident but not cocky – cocky gets you obscure technical questions, while confidence makes them like you.
On the last point: a friend and I were interviewing for the same bank on the same day, and I got 0 technical questions while the interviewers asked him to build a 3-statement model on a piece of paper (!).
It was all because he walked in and acted like he was a finance guru, which was a huge mistake.
Q: Yeah, definitely. People try way too hard to impress and it always backfires. So now that you got this offer, what are you planning to do in the future?
A: I want to do PE and get an MBA in the future, but those are both quite a ways away. In the short-term I’m definitely looking forward to joining my group, but I’m also interested in the distressed debt side and possibly doing something there.
Q: Awesome, thanks for your time.
A: No problem. Later!
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