by Brian DeChesare Comments (30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nuclear Submarines & Business School: Perfect Match?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transferring & Recruiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Convince Them You’re a Financier

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

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

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

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

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

Q: So how did you overcome these problems?

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

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

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

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

Regional vs. NYC Offices

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

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

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

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

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

The main disadvantages of not starting in New York:

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

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

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

A: My pleasure.

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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by Brian DeChesare Comments (234)

You Didn’t Get Any Full-Time Investment Banking Offers. Now What Do You Do?

You Didn’t Get Any Full-Time Investment Banking Offers. Now What Do You Do?

“Don’t Panic.”

Or not.

If full-time recruiting season is over and you don’t have any offers, you should be panicking at least a little.

While summer interns who don’t get return offers have a few months to fix the situation, your options are more limited.

But that doesn’t mean you have no chance of getting full-time offers – so here’s what to do.

Worst-Case Scenario

You might think the worst case scenario is not getting a full-time job, but that’s not true – there are two scenarios that are worse:

  1. Putting yourself in a position where it’s nearly impossible to break into finance in the future.
  2. Moving into a job that’s difficult to leverage for business school or eventually breaking into finance.

#1 happens most often when you get the brilliant idea to go to business school straight out of undergrad… oops.

#2 is not the end of the world, but you still want to avoid it unless you absolutely, desperately need the income in the short-term.

If those are the 2 worst-case scenarios, then the best-case scenario is simple: whatever maximizes your chances of breaking in without limiting your options or wasting time on things that won’t help you in the long-term.

What Went Wrong?

The next question you need to ask: what went wrong?

There are only 2 reasons why you didn’t win any full-time offers:

1) You didn’t get any interviews / enough interviews.

Your problem was your resume, your networking efforts, or both.

If you’ve been submitting applications online, please stop immediately. It doesn’t work, and you’ll never get a critical mass of interviews like that.

You need to get on the phone ASAP and start talking to real people and then meeting them in-person – if you’re coming from a non-target school and you haven’t done that, you stand a 0.0000000000001% chance of breaking into investment banking.

If you’re at a better-known school, networking is still essential but your resume / lack of solid work experience is more likely the culprit.

Diagnosis: Make sure you’re using this investment banking resume template.

Then, take a look at your resume and your experiences – if you haven’t had impressive-looking internships then you need to get them if you want any chance of getting interviews.

Finally, take an honest look at your networking efforts – have you contacted at least 100 alumni? Cold-called 100 local boutiques? Talked to at least 20 people on the phone and hopefully met most of them in-person?

If not, then you need to put your nose to the grindstone and keep at it until you ninja your way into interviews.

2) You got a lot of interviews but didn’t do well or didn’t connect with the interviewers.

Winning offers from interviews is very, very random.

Yes, knowing the key fit and technical questions is essential, but a lot of people know those – especially in bulge bracket interviews.

You need a “hook” to actually win offers, and unless you’ve had dozens of interviews the “randomness” factor is too high for you to say anything concrete.

Diagnosis: If you didn’t have dozens of interviews, you need to get them (see above). If you did, and you still didn’t get any offers then you need to figure out what went wrong.

The best way to do this: go through a few mock interviews with friends in the industry.

90% of interview problems can be reduced to:

  1. Your “story”
  2. You don’t have a good answer for “why investment banking
  3. Your enthusiasm is low and you aren’t as polished as other interviewees

The good news is that “fixing” your interview skills takes less time than networking with hundreds of industry contacts and getting more impressive work experience.

But the bad news is that it’s very difficult to “teach” someone how to be more likable, which is what tips the scale in interviews.

How Much Time and Money Do You Have?

Next: how much time and money do you have to fix whatever mistakes you made?

If you didn’t win full-time offers, you need to fix your resume, interview skills, or networking skills, or maybe all of those… but how you do that depends on the resources at your disposal.

First, let’s go through a couple examples of what you shouldn’t do when you don’t have any full-time offers lined up, and then a couple examples of strategies that make more sense.

What NOT To Do

I thought about adding the CFA here just for fun, but I’ll resist the urge to do that – just this once.

1) Business School

It’s a big mistake to go to business school with minimal full-time work experience.

How much do you need?

At least 3-5 years. We basically threw out resumes of Associate candidates who had less experience.

Yes, there are plenty of good reasons to go to business school if you want to use it for something else, but going immediately after undergraduate is a recipe for disaster if you want to get into banking from your program.

And be careful that your work experience is actually “full-time” – a bunch of side projects or travel combined with teaching English and intermittent work won’t stack up to the guy who managed a $1 billion product line for 4 years.

The other big problem with going to business school right after undergrad is that if you don’t get into finance when you’re there, your future chances also drop dramatically.

2) Back Office

For the last time, back office to front office moves – at least for investment banking – are rare and very difficult to pull off.

Yes, it may work slightly better in other fields and some people pull it off successfully, but you need to think about the probability.

What will give you a higher probability of eventually moving to a large bank’s investment banking division – starting in the back office, or going to a boutique first and then making a lateral move?

Please, stop the insanity and go for front office roles at smaller firms rather than “taking what you can get” and making the back office your backup.

3) Normal Job

By “normal” I mean not related to finance at all – marketing, engineering, medicine, etc. Corporate development, wealth management, consulting, and the like don’t qualify.

I would only “settle” for this if you’ve been out of school for months, have networked extensively, are doing all the right things, but still have no offers and you really need income in the short-term.

4) Nothing At All

I’m not referring to whether or not you have something lined up by the time you graduate – I’m talking about what you DO between now and when you graduate.

I had a reader last year who only started her full-time job search 2 months before graduation. Whoops.

No matter what you’re “busy” with, figuring out what you’re doing afterward comes before everything else – so move grades, classes, and activities lower on your priority list.

Possible Plan B’s

Here are 5 viable options. They’re not mutually exclusive, and there’s no “best” option – everything depends on your own situation.

1) Delaying Graduation

“Help! I have no offers. Should I delay my graduation and go for summer internships again this year, then do full-time recruiting before I graduate in December next year?”

It’s most helpful if:

  1. You got some interviews but had trouble convincing them you could do the work since you didn’t have substantial internships.
  2. You go to a well-known school that banks recruit at – otherwise it’s a huge gamble to bet on summer internships.
  3. Your problem was your resume or interview skills, as opposed to your networking efforts.

The main problem: if you’ve had impressive internships, done a lot of interviewing, but simply didn’t make it through any final rounds, then it will come across as an obvious Plan B to anyone interviewing you – and they’ll ask the questions you don’t want to answer.

2) Master’s Program

Another common plan, and also not a bad move. It’s good if:

  1. You’re using it to move to a better-known school where banks recruit.
  2. You didn’t do enough networking and need more time and better access to recruiters.
  3. You could also use some more impressive-looking internships.

This is not the best plan if the main issue was your interview skills – it’s a big commitment just to have another shot at recruiting.

The focus of your program is almost irrelevant beyond being related to finance/business/economics in some way – if you’re trying to re-brand yourself, don’t go for a Master’s Degree in English Literature.

3) Keep At It

This one gets overlooked, probably because it’s not as “exciting” as the other options.

If you keep cold-calling and networking, you’ll eventually get something – the only way to fail is if you give up first. Even if you graduate without a firm plan in place, that’s still better than taking the wrong job.

You should think about this option if:

  1. You don’t have the resources to delay graduation or to stay in school even longer.
  2. You have a decent amount of work experience but you lack a good network and need time to build it.
  3. You don’t mind going for smaller banks at first and then making a lateral move.

If you’re at a non-target school and cannot move elsewhere or stay in school longer, this is your best option: set a target of making 10 calls per day, sending 10 emails per day, and so on, and never take “no” for an answer.

4) Mini-Retirement

I’m referring to my suggestions on what to do with time off before you start working full-time: moving to another country for a few months and doing something interesting.

This one can work but it’s more risky than the others since it puts you out of the game for quite awhile – if you do this for an entire year after graduation, for example, it’s tough to jump back into recruiting.

It’s more viable if you combine this with the other options above – so maybe you apply to grad school, but take 1-2 months in between to go on an adventure.

That way you get a big boost to your networking and interview skills because you appear more interesting, plus you might get some solid leads if you go to a country with a major financial center.

5) Something Leverageable

If all else fails, none of these options is viable, and you can’t afford to spend more time recruiting, then you might have to take what you can get.

But still think about something that can be spun into sounding relevant to finance – corporate finance at a large company, helping governments manage all the financial services companies they now own, or even an economics/business-related fellowship.

Your Plan of Attack

If full-time recruiting season is over and you don’t have any offers, your plan of attack is simple: figure out what went wrong, decide what you’ll do after graduation to give yourself another shot at recruiting, and then spend your time between now and then fixing the mistakes you made.

Now, get to it.

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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by Brian DeChesare Comments (400)

Stuff Investment Bankers Don’t Like: The CFA, Your Activities, Your Ph.D., and More

stuff-investment-bankers-dont-like-cfa-activities-advanced-degrees-2NOTE: This is a really old article. Please see the revised version here and leave a comment on the new version instead. Our views on everything here have changed significantly!

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately: many readers have the wrong idea of what will help them with investment banking recruiting.

Thinking that they need to do “something” at the last minute to boost their chances of getting into the industry, they come up with all sorts of “creative” – yet marginally effective – ideas.

Read on to see exactly what not to do to get noticed in recruiting.

NOTE: This is a really old article. Please see the revised version here and leave a comment on the new version instead. Our views on everything here have changed significantly!

1. The CFA

I must get more comments about the CFA than any other topic (yes, even you, models and bottles).

There are hundreds of reasons the CFA (any level) is a waste of time for getting into investment banking (note those highlighted words carefully, and read to the end of these points before leaving an angry comment), but here are the top 3:

a. It’s not necessary for advancement and the majority of investment bankers don’t even have it.

If you want to be a portfolio manager, go ahead… but for the rest of us it’s marginally helpful at best.

b. Studying for the exam requires an obscene amount of time – almost 1,000 hours according to the website.

Think about how much networking you could do in that same amount of time: let’s assume 900 hours of study time for the CFA (300 hours per level).

Assuming you can plan and conduct 1 informational interview in 1 hour total, that’s nine hundred new contacts.

Which do you think will be more useful: a single line at the bottom of your resume, or almost 1,000 people who can help you get interviews?

c. There’s almost no correlation between the CFA and what you actually do as an investment banking or private equity Analyst / Associate.

Last time I checked, the CFA curriculum did not cover administrative work, due diligence, pitch books, and the financial modeling specific to banking.

Please, no more email or comments on the CFA. Use those 900 hours and do some networking, learn another language, or go on a trip around the world – any of those would be more helpful for getting into finance.

Clarifications to the Statements Above: In some situations and geographies the CFA can be useful – for a full discussion, please read this newsletter article on the pros and cons and when you should think about the CFA.

The reason why I made such strong statements above is this: most comments and questions I get on the CFA are coming from people with low grades at lesser-known schools with no experience who think that the CFA will magically get them into Goldman Sachs investment banking.

It won’t.

It may help, and it is certainly more useful in other fields such as equity research, portfolio management, and (some) hedge funds, but it will not “replace” low grades or limited work experience.

Here’s more on degrees and certifications in investment banking.

2. Your Activities

“But wait,” you say, “I thought it was really important to be ‘interesting’ in interviews?”

It is – but bankers pick resumes mostly based on work experience and whether or not they know you.

Now if you’ve done something truly impressive – like starting a non-profit that built 1,000 schools in Southeast Asia – that can actually help you.

But let’s be honest: many activities are just resume padders, and having 1 name or 50 names won’t make a difference if that’s the case.

If you have absolutely NO finance experience and nothing even related to business on your resume, then you can play up your activities – but otherwise avoid it.

3. That Investment Club You Started

If you can’t get a real internship, start an investment club or student-managed fund instead, right?

Actually, this logic is not terrible: it’s certainly more helpful than the CFA, and in the absence of real business experience, it looks better than being a lifeguard or working at a restaurant.

But no student-run investment club is going to put you on par with the guy who did 2 summers at Morgan Stanley.

You should only do this if you can’t find a part-time, school-year, or summer business-related internship of any kind.

4. Your “Internship” Waiting Tables

Truthfully, being an investment banking analyst is much more similar to being a waiter than it is to most “real” internships.

You need to multi-task, you’re always running around, you have to deal with annoying clients all day, and you have to do a ton of grunt work.

But bankers themselves don’t see it that way and won’t acknowledge this type of work experience as equal to a “real” internship.

You don’t want to write about any of this unless you have nothing else to point to.

5. Bloomberg / FRM / CPA / Other Meaningless Certifications

Similar to the CFA, most other certifications are also useless – although on the up-side they don’t waste nearly as many hours as the CFA.

Some of these certifications – like the FRM and CPA – have nothing to do with investment banking, while others – like Bloomberg – are somewhat relevant but useless compared to, say, calling 5 alumni.

Remember, the only part at the bottom of your resume that most people even read is what’s in the “Interests” section.

Bored office workers always want to meet interesting people, but no one wants to meet well-certified people.

6. The GMAT

While getting a decent GMAT score is important for business school admissions, it’s less relevant for getting into investment banking at the MBA-level. And it’s even less relevant at the undergraduate level.

If you had to take it for business school anyway and earned a good score, you can list it if you want – but if you don’t have room, cut it.

But if you haven’t had to take it for any reason yet, don’t do it in hopes of getting a good score and using that to propel your way into finance: your time is better spent elsewhere.

7. Non-Native-Speaker-Level Language Skills

Ok, this one is not 100% true.

It helps to have some language ability, even if you’re not native speaker-level – something is better than nothing.

But unless you’re at an extremely high level (i.e. you could watch a university-level lecture on economics, understand everything, and then write a brilliant 10-page paper about it in that language), you can’t leverage language abilities to move to offices in other countries – there’s too much reading and writing required.

There are some roles – like trading and certain back and middle-office positions – that don’t necessarily require language mastery. But if you’re reading this site, you’re probably more interested in areas like investment banking and private equity, both of which require a lot of communication and reading/writing.

8. Your Ph.D.

After the CFA, this might be my #2 question received via email:

“Will a Ph.D. help me get in? Do banks care about my quantum physics skills? What if I’m the next Isaac Newton?”

First off, if you’re smart enough to write the next Principia, you should not be in investment banking because you’re going to get a lot dumber. Go write a book about your discoveries and win a Nobel Prize.

The math required in finance is VERY simple. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division if you get really fancy.

Most of what you do in M&A is administrative: sending emails, keeping track of different buyers, and updating Word documents.

So the only reason to get a higher degree is if you want better access to recruiting channels at a more prestigious school – and even then, stop at the Master’s level rather than doing unnecessary work.

9. Financial Modeling Courses

“Wait a minute, you just RELEASED your own financial modeling course, and now you’re saying that banks don’t care whether or not we’ve gone through them? Are you crazy?”

No, I’m just being honest.

The *knowledge* you gain from these courses is very helpful, especially if you don’t have a finance background or you want to prepare before you start working.

But listing the course itself on your resume – no matter which one it is, or whether you invest $100 or $10,000 – doesn’t guarantee you anything.

The bottom-line is that if you want to prepare for interviews and for work itself, these can be a good option – but they fail as mere resume padders.

Wait, So What DO They Care About?

Easy:

  1. Work Experience
  2. Educational Background (more applicable if you’re a student)
  3. How many people you know at their firm and how much they like you (networking)

But there’s a problem if you’re trying to use any of these to boost your chances at the last minute: each one takes years or months of effort – you can’t do it overnight.

But It’s the Last Minute and I Really Need Something!

It’s pretty much impossible to add anything substantial if you only have a week left before interviews begin – but if you have a few months, here are 2 quick examples of how you can make some impressive-sounding last-minute additions:

  1. Study abroad program / some kind of international experience. (doesn’t need to be 3-4 months – something shorter is fine)
  2. Summer, night, or part-time program at a well-known school.

Any type of study abroad program is also great to talk about in interviews, especially if it’s to a completely random country or region. Going on a trek to Antarctica stands out more than going to Paris.

Doing some type part-time or summer program at a brand-name school is more helpful if you’re not going to a well-known school right now – anyone scanning your resume quickly will say, “Aha, I recognize that name.”

Last-Minute Standout?

Of course, none of these tactics will make up for a lack of solid work experience or lack of contacts in the industry.

But if you’re struggling to stand out with only a few months left, you don’t have much of a choice – you have to take what you can get.

NOTE: This is a really old article. Please see the revised version here and leave a comment on the new version instead. Our views on everything here have changed significantly!

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.

Break Into Investment Banking

Free Exclusive Report: 57-page guide with the action plan you need to break into investment banking - how to tell your story, network, craft a winning resume, and dominate your interviews

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