From Analyst Monkey to King of the Jungle MD: The Investment Banking Hierarchy
“This is not a fraternity house,” my staffer explained as he hauled me into a small conference room.
“Some of the MDs have complained about how messy your desk is, so clean it up.”
Genuinely curious, I replied, “Were you referring to the empty Red Bull cans or to all the papers too?”
Not a good start to your 3rd week on the job.
I told this story to a few co-workers afterward and they all laughed and responded the same way:
“He’s lying, a bank is exactly like a frat house.”
They were right – just like a fraternity, there’s hazing, a hierarchy, and certain rituals you must go through to advance.
While this site has been analyst-focused in the past, today you’re going to learn all about this hierarchy, how much you get paid at each level, how the work differs, the average age range, and the possible exit opportunities.
And if you’re curious about hours please stop reading this site right now.
Footnotes & Starting Assumptions
As with the analysis of where your paycheck goes, here I’m starting with the assumption that you’re in a developed country in a major financial hub like New York, London, or Hong Kong.
At the end you’ll learn how this hierarchy might differ outside banking, outside those cities, and in other countries.
These pay figures are not exact – I used recent salary and bonus figures, data from the Careers-in-Finance compensation listings, and other sources like that to get numbers.
So yes, there are exceptions and sometimes you see more pay or less pay – these are rough averages.
Let’s dive right in and start with the bottom of the hierarchy: the analyst monkey.
What You Do: You’re a monkey, and your chief responsibility is to collect bananas for the bigger monkeys higher up in the food chain.
You do most of the Excel and PowerPoint work, take notes, send emails and call people, and even take care of random tasks like fixing printers and picking up dry cleaning.
How You Get In: You’re recruited from a top undergraduate or Master’s program, or you network like a ninja and get in from a lesser-known school. Once you go beyond a few years of full-time work experience, you won’t get in as an analyst because you’re overqualified.
Yes, some people pull this off anyway but it gets exponentially harder the longer you’ve been working.
Age Range: Most analysts are just out of school, so 22-27; in countries with military service or with 5-year undergraduate programs (Europe) the upper end of the range is more common.
Pay: This varies by region and the state of the economy, but most 1st year analysts make at least $100K USD all-in (base salary + bonus) and that may go up to $150K or more if the economy is good.
2nd and 3rd year analysts see increased pay, usually closer to $200K in a good year for a 3rd year analyst, and maybe $150K or a bit less on the lower end in a bad year.
Time to Get Promoted: Usually it takes 3 years to become an associate.
Possible Exit Opps: See our comprehensive article on IB exit opportunities.
Analysts have the most exit opportunities out of all bankers because they’re young and haven’t had “too much” experience in a certain field yet.
What You Do: If the analyst is the monkey, you’re a bigger and better-groomed monkey who’s much smoother in social situations.
You may still do Excel work if the model is complex, but mostly you are checking the analyst’s work and making sure he doesn’t screw up. You spend most of your time managing the analysts and making sure the VP’s orders get executed.
Much of your time is spent talking to clients and seeing what they need when you’re working on deals; analysts are too busy cranking away to have much client interaction, at least at large banks.
You get to attend more meetings and pitches than the analyst, but you will always have a non-speaking role unless the MD needs a number from you.
How You Get In: You either work as an analyst for 3 years and get promoted, or you get recruited out of a top MBA program after working full-time for 3-5 years in another industry.
Theoretically you could get recruited for an associate position if you’ve already graduated from an MBA program and have been working in industry for a while, but this is rare – your chances are 100x better when you’re still in school.
Age Range: This one varies more than the analyst age range because associates come from more diverse backgrounds; 25-35 is the safest estimate because some associates are promoted directly from the analyst pool while others get recruited out of business school.
Getting in when you’re under 25 would be virtually impossible unless you graduated college early, and having 10+ years of experience pre-MBA makes you overqualified.
Pay: Again, there’s more variation here than with analyst pay because the bonus takes up the bulk of an associate’s compensation and that’s heavily dependent on the economy.
In a bad year, a 1st year associate might get between $150K and $200K USD all-in, while more senior associates (3rd and 4th years) might get closer to $400K or $500K all-in in a great year.
If your group is just OK and the economy is neither great nor terrible, your pay will be in the middle of that range.
Time to Get Promoted: Usually it takes 3-4 years to reach Vice President, and it’s harder to get that promotion than it is to go from analyst to associate – you need to show more leadership and client management skills.
Possible Exit Opps: It is more difficult at this level, but the same exit options that exist for Analysts also exist for Associates.
There’s less of a structured process, and you have to be far more proactive in reaching out to recruiters and networking.
What You Do: Moving up the pyramid once again, you are an even larger and more intimidating monkey, and you’ve got lots of barrels to throw down at the chimps below you climbing up the ladder.
You make sure that deals and pitch books get done – you interpret what the MDs and Directors want, and ensure that whatever pops out of your analyst’s cubicle resembles it.
You get a lot more client interaction, and may call buyers and directly pitch a company that you’re selling.
And as you move up, you have to start shifting over to relationship development and winning clients – which is incredibly tough and one of the most difficult transitions to make.
How You Get In: You get promoted after working as an associate for 3-4 years.
It’s extremely rare to break in as a VP coming from outside banking, and I’ve never seen it happen. To have the skills required to run deals and win clients you need to have been in banking for a long time.
Age Range: Since you must have been an associate first, we could say the age range is 28-40, with the average somewhere in the middle.
Pay: There’s even more variability since the bonus takes up such a high percentage of your compensation; base salaries do not increase that much as you move up (even MDs might see only around $150K-$200K base).
Most VPs will earn between $300K and $1MM USD, with the upper-end of that range for more senior VPs in a good year and the lower end for more junior VPs in a bad year.
Time to Get Promoted: Probably another 3-4 years to reach Director / Principal / SVP, though it varies and you may do it more quickly depending on performance.
Possible Exit Opps: Even more limited than associates – either stay in banking or go to a normal company in corporate development.
Moving into PE from this level would be “challenging” to say the least, and even in other fields of finance you would have too much experience to have a good shot.
NOTE: Again, though, in practice people can and do move around – so exit opportunities do still exist even at this level
Director / Senior Vice President / Principal
What You Do: This one is a mix between what VPs and MDs do, and the role differs depending on the bank and group.
Sometimes you focus more on developing relationships and winning clients, and other times you do more execution work and project management like VPs.
But no matter what your role is, you will have to move closer to winning clients if you want to advance to the next level – Managing Director.
How You Get In: You’ve already been an associate and a VP, and you get promoted to this level after a few years of being a VP. I challenge you to find a single example of someone who was not already in investment banking and entered the industry at this level – it doesn’t happen.
Age Range: Sometimes you could get promoted more quickly (2 years rather than 3-4), so we’ll say 30-45. 45 is on the high end and you’d see that only if the person did something else for many years before getting into business school and then investment banking.
Pay: This one’s hard to pinpoint because it’s somewhere in between VP and MD in terms of pay; we’ll say $400K – $1.5MM USD to reflect that range.
As with the other pay numbers here, you should expect the lower end of the range in a bad economy if you haven’t performed well (your closed deal count is low or nonexistent) and the higher end of the range in a good year.
Time to Get Promoted: Similar to the others, a few years to go from here to the next level: Managing Director. We’ll say 2-3 years to get a specific number.
Possible Exit Opps: Imagine a blank screen with no visible life forms. Now imagine seeing this every day after you quit or get fired.
In all seriousness, you could always move over to the corporate side but it would be tough to move into other fields of finance from this position unless you happen to be a serious rainmaker and you have enough contacts to make yourself useful to a PE firm or other buy-side firm.
What You Do: You’re King of the Jungle. All the other chimps answer to you, and you move them around much like a chess grandmaster would move around pawns, bishops, and knights.
90% of your time as an MD is spent winning clients, meeting companies, and developing relationships – you fly around to conferences, meet with PE and VC firms, and position yourself to advise CEOs and win deals.
Occasionally if there’s a massive deal and it’s too big to fail, you get involved with the negotiations. Or if you have a special relationship with an investor or buyer, you may pitch a client to them.
But otherwise, you are sitting back and bringing in new business while everyone below you executes.
How You Get In: Most of the time, you’ve been a banker for life (or close to it) and you’ve worked at all levels in IB before – often across many different banks.
Sometimes you do see MDs who get into the industry from other fields (e.g. a Partner at a law firm that focuses on corporate and securities law, or a PE Partner who has lost his sanity and wants to move back to the sell-side).
But those scenarios are rare even at this level and you don’t see them much at large banks.
Age Range: This one is impossible to define precisely because some MDs really do stay in it for life, or at least until retirement age – for most bankers it is the highest they’ll ever go.
We’ll say early 30’s is the minimum age here, but on the upper end of the range there’s no limit – you rarely find MDs who are past their 50’s, though, so maybe that’s the limit.
By that time they are either burned out and retired on a beach somewhere in Thailand, or they’ve advanced further within the bank (see below).
Pay: This is where compensation has the highest “beta” (this is a finance site, so I am allowed to whip out finance jargon when convenient).
In a bad year with no closed deals, an MD might not make much more than his base salary – maybe the $200K – $300K USD range.
In a good year, they might make in the low millions USD ($1MM – $3MM) depending on how the group is set up, how many deals they’ve closed, and how well they’re playing the office politics game.
Time to Get Promoted: Yes, there are levels beyond MD at large banks (Group Head, C-level executives) but there’s no set path to reach them – you could get lucky and get there in a few years, or you might be there for a decade and never see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Unlike other levels of the banking hierarchy, it’s not “up or out” at the MD-level – it’s more like “make lots of money for us or out.”
So as long as you keep producing, your position will remain intact.
Possible Exit Opps: If you’ve been a lifelong banker, it will be very difficult to move into a completely different field – but you do sometimes see financiers at the top moving around to other high-level positions in the industry.
Some MDs may also just retire and do something completely different – business coaching, angel investing, writing, and so on – especially if they are worth tens of millions of dollars and don’t have a pressing need for cash.
Wait, What About Other Levels?
Note that in some regions and at some banks these levels have different names – VP might be labeled “Director” and SVP might be “Executive Director,” for example.
At firms with a partnership still in place (Goldman Sachs), there is also a difference between normal MDs and Partnership MDs – the Partnership ones make a lot more money.
And then beyond MD, there are Group Heads (e.g. Head of M&A Europe or Head of Capital Markets Asia) and the C-level executives at firms.
With those, the potential compensation is even more variable and could range into the tens of millions (or higher for C-level in a good year) – or the bank might slash its CEO’s pay to $0 in a symbolic gesture if they’ve had a bad year and caused economic Armageddon.
Differences at Boutiques?
Boutiques tend to have fewer levels than bulge bracket banks, so you might not see as many VPs and Directors/SVPs.
Advancement may be faster depending on the firm’s size, but pay will also be lower since the deal sizes are smaller – regional boutiques might pay 50% of the bonus that bulge brackets do (very rough estimate).
This does not apply to the “elite boutiques” (Evercore, Lazard, etc.) which pay more in-line with bulge brackets.
What About Trading?
On the trading side there is a flatter hierarchy and you may reach the MD level more quickly.
Pay is also extremely variable and the top traders might make tens of millions even if they never advance beyond the MD-level (ok, it’s questionable how true that will be post-crisis and financial regulation).
The Buy-Side: Private Equity and Hedge Funds
This one is impossible to cover fully here (maybe in a separate article if someone has good data), but let’s give it a shot:
The private equity side is similar to banking, but you will make more at each level; as a Partner in PE you could make significantly more than MDs in banking (hundreds of millions if you’re Henry Kravis), but at smaller firms you’ll see compensation closer to what banking MDs earn.
The main difference is that you get carry at the Partner-level as well, so that opens up the possibility of earning into the stratosphere if you’ve invested well over the years.
On the hedge fund side, there’s so little reliable information that it’s hard to say anything concrete.
You hear stories about people making hundreds of thousands or millions at young ages, but the average case is probably closer to the compensation levels above for banking.
And while hedge fund managers making billions of dollars a year get a lot of attention, that is far from the average case: the majority of funds out there are much smaller ($100M – $1B AUM) and it’s impossible to earn anywhere near that amount.
In short: hedge fund pay has the highest ceiling of anything here, but there is a massive difference between the founder or the portfolio manager and everyone else in the fund, and pay is almost 100% dependent on fund size and returns.
Developed countries (Western Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, etc.) see similar pay levels and have the same sort of promotion timelines.
In emerging markets, it’s more chaotic and you might advance far more quickly – but also make less in absolute dollars, even if you have your own palace and a harem or two.
The investment banking culture is not as well developed in the BRICS of the world, so you will see many deviations from the hierarchy above.
But in most of these places you have a 0.0% chance of breaking in as a foreigner with no connections: they are looking for locals who have studied or worked abroad and who are now returning to their home countries.
How Do You Move Up the Ladder?
Please see this article on investment banking promotion.
So, what does all of this mean?
Stop Assuming That Investment Banking / Finance in General are Guaranteed Paychecks
Especially as you move up, your pay is based almost entirely on your performance and the economy. A VP who has several closed deals may make more money than an MD who has nothing and gets a bonus of $0.
I’ve attempted to estimate pay ranges above, but to get there in the first place you’ll have to work 80-hour weeks for years and sacrifice your social life and maybe your first-born son or daughter.
Most MDs are Not Mega-Wealthy
Look at the Forbes list of richest people in the world, and you’ll see that there are very few (no?) banker-types on there, unless you count Warren Buffett as a banker (he’s not).
After you’ve taken into account taxes, recessions, the cost of living, and so on, a 10-15 year veteran MD might have $10 million or more saved up.
That is an enormous amount of money to most people, but you will not become a billionaire in finance unless you’re on the buy-side and you’re one of the best in the world like John Paulson.
Forget About Breaking Into Banking in the “Middle Years”
You either get in as an analyst or associate, and if not, you’ve missed your chance unless you have highly relevant experience, the market is frothy, and you trade down (i.e. go from a F500 to a boutique).
Even getting in at the top from other industries is uncommon – you see it more often in VC or PE where operational skill sets are valued.
If you’re in this position, you’re better off looking at other industries or starting your own business.
Expect Your Role to Change Gradually, Not Rapidly
Even though banking has a rigid hierarchy, what you do at each level is not as narrowly defined.
When you move from analyst to associate, you won’t instantly start dating super models or get your own reality TV show – sorry.
Your hours might improve slightly and you won’t have to do as much grunt work, but the pressure to perform will be greater than ever as well.
Oh yes, and please reduce your expectations of $10 million and that beach in Thailand.
By the time you get there as a banker, you’ll be old and wrinkly and probably can’t stay out in the sun for very long anyway.
A frat house, on the other hand, might be well within your reach long before that.
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The Don Draper Guide to Investment Banking
A few years ago some banker friends and I were thinking about creating a TV show.
Entourage meets The Office: all the glamor of movie stars and the celebrity lifestyle, but in cubicles rather than Hollywood.
But the outside world has never hated Wall Street more, and post-financial crisis there’s no way a drama like this could ever take off.
Plus, there’s another small problem: it would be impossible to make a show more awesome than Mad Men.
Don’t believe me?
Here are all the lessons you could learn from Don Draper himself:
1. Have a Great Name
You cannot underestimate the importance of having a name that rolls off the tongue: “Don Draper” is 100x better than “Dick Whitman,” so it’s no wonder that Don assumed someone else’s identity.
You’re judged on your name just like you’re judged on your appearance: so if your name sucks, change it or come up with a nickname or shortened version that’s easier to pronounce (just make sure it’s done officially so you can handle those pesky background checks).
Some people succeed without great names, but why take the chance?
2. Don’t Hook Up with Co-Workers
While Don has had dozens of affairs, up until season 4 he never crossed the hook-up-with-co-workers line.
And when he finally did cross the line, he hit rock-bottom and found himself more adrift than ever before.
You’re required to have affairs and random flings if you’re in finance – just make sure they’re not with co-workers or things will head south very quickly once it ends.
3. If You Do Hook Up With Co-Workers, Don’t Take the Marriage Seriously
So you just had a random fling with your secretary, suddenly decided that you’re in love, and proposed during a trip to California?
If Don can do it, you can too.
Remember that you cycle through wives or husbands approximately every 2 years in finance, so it’s perfectly fine.
With the amount of money you’ll make, alimony is almost an afterthought anyway.
4. Don’t Take Your Employment Contract Seriously, Either
Don didn’t even have a contract with Sterling Cooper until everyone realized he needed one, midway through season 3.
And even when he “signed” it, he didn’t use his real name and then broke the contract to leave and start his own firm anyway.
The role of contracts in investment banking is similar: they’re just a formality.
5. Take 4-Hour, 3-Martini Lunches
Has Don ever not gotten a hotel room with his mistress-of-the-moment after a 3-martini lunch?
You think you have to be available for clients and senior bankers 24/7, and that’s usually true…
…except for when you get that buy-side offer and are on your way out the door anyway.
Remember that no one cares about you at a bank: especially when you’re about to move on anyway, do the bare minimum to get paid and slack off as much as possible.
4 hours may seem like a long time for lunch, but if you’re leaving anyway and all the senior bankers are gone, who would notice?
6. If Conrad Hilton Calls You at 11 PM, Do Whatever He Says
And no, not just because his great-granddaughter is Paris Hilton.
If you have a high-maintenance client who’s worth millions of dollars and demands to speak to you 24/7, you better do whatever he says.
That includes getting his dry cleaning, dressing up as a clown at his kid’s birthday party, redecorating his house, and meeting him in the middle of the night just because he’s bored.
Remember, clients and work come before everything else – even if your wife is about to divorce you and your kids don’t remember who you are.
7. Exploit Loopholes for Personal Gain
So you just found out that your own firm is being acquired by a much larger company and you’d never want to work there.
Simple solution: just do what Don did and gather up everyone important and fire yourselves before the transaction goes through.
If your bank is actually getting acquired, the acquiring bank is smart enough to prevent that specific scenario with the reps and warranties in the definitive agreement…
…But there are always other loopholes you can exploit.
Send out emails late at night to feign busyness, work hard during your first and last month and slack off the rest of the time – do whatever it takes to get top-tier bonus.
8. Keep Stacks of Alcohol in Your Cubicle
Bankers may not drink alcohol out in the open anymore like advertising guys did in the 60s, but if you work 100 hours a week you’re going to need alcohol and drugs – ideally cocaine – at some point.
Rather than running out to buy overpriced bottles constantly, keep a stash hidden away in your cubicle.
Once the support staff and senior bankers are gone, you have free reign to do whatever you want.
So if it’s 3 AM and your balance sheet isn’t balancing, just pull out your Jack, take a swig, and hope for a moment of clarity.
9. Don’t Lie on Background Check Forms
Don gets away with assuming someone else’s identity for years, but it finally catches up with him in season 4 as North American Aviation, a new client, demands background checks on everyone so they can receive security clearances.
And if you’ve been lying about your identity for years, background checks are the last thing you want to think about – so Don forces his company to drop the client.
You might think that’s bad – but if you lie on your own background check forms, something much worse will happen: you’ll get your offer rescinded and you might even have your career destroyed with the right chain reaction of forwarded emails.
10. Think on Your Feet
So the government has started telling everyone that cigarettes kill you – and your top client is Lucky Strike.
They put you on the spot in front of everyone else and ask you how to address these claims and market the product.
Simple solution: avoid the issue altogether. “It’s toasted.” – everyone else’s tobacco is poisonous, but yours is special.
Remember that investment banking is a sales job: it’s less about analysis and more about selling, relationships, and thinking quickly.
Even as an analyst you’ll be put on the spot all the time when your MD or VP ask about your work or for specific numbers – so you better be prepared.
11. If You Get Arrested for Drunk Driving, Get Your Most Trusted Friend to Bail You Out
After indulging in alcohol yet again, Don finds himself in a wrecked car and in police custody along with his “female companion” of the moment.
So he does what any reasonable businessman would do: he calls Peggy, the one person he can trust to bail him out without telling anyone else at Sterling Cooper.
You should also have a “designated friend” to bail you out, because you’ll probably be arrested for drugs or alcohol at least a few times.
Just make sure it happens after you’ve already gone through background checks.
While you don’t want to follow everything Don does (e.g. sending a major announcement about your firm to the NY Times without consulting anyone else first), you can pick up a lot from him.
Advertising in the 1960s was just like finance in the 2000s: the most prestigious and highest-paying industry.
And if Don were in business today, he’d surely be a Partner at a bank or PE firm – so watch Mad Men and take notes the whole time.
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From Analyst to Associate and Beyond: How to Get Promoted In Investment Banking
So, what happens if you’ve lost your mind and suddenly don’t want to move into PE, go to a hedge fund, or become a venture capitalist?
You continue on in banking, and move from Analyst to Associate – and beyond.
If you’re in the US, you might be wondering why you’d ever want to do this – but in other parts of the world exit opportunities are less hyped and many bankers actually remain bankers.
Plus, if you don’t get any buy-side offers you’ll have to stick around in banking anyway – so here’s how to get promoted and how to avoid turning into Patrick Bateman in the process.
Why Would You Want to Get Promoted?
The usual arguments for moving to the buy-side are strong:
- Improved hours (maybe)
- (Potential for) Better pay
- More responsibilities
- More interesting work
If you’re a really social / “salesy” person who likes a fast-paced environment, staying in banking might be a better fit.
Plus, once you get to a certain level the “Show me the money!” arguments make less sense because any MD will make far more money than he has time to spend – even if he quits and moves to Buenos Aires.
How Common Is It?
The often-cited statistic is that 10% of investment banking analysts move on to become associates.
But that’s misleading because it doesn’t indicate a 10% “admission rate” – the majority of analysts don’t want to be promoted.
The top analysts usually leave for the top PE firms and hedge funds, and everyone else is too burned out after 2 years of 100-hour weeks to want to stay in banking.
But banks that desperately need to hire would much prefer a seasoned analyst to a freshly minted MBA – knowing how everything works saves months of time and piles of money.
So the option is there if you want it – but most analysts don’t, which is why you hear that it’s very difficult to advance.
What’s the Difference, Anyway?
The roles are not that much different since they’re both classified as junior bankers, but:
- Associates manage analysts and communicate directly more often with senior bankers.
- Associates get more client exposure and speak to management teams on more than just technical details of models, as analysts would.
- Banks assume that associates want to stay in banking for the long-term, whereas they know that many analysts will be gone after 2-3 years.
- When something goes wrong, the VP will blame the associate before the analyst since the associate was responsible for his work.
Hours may be slightly better for the associate, and base salaries and bonuses are both higher – good news if you have $150K or so of business school debt outstanding.
How Do You Do It?
First, you need to become a 3rd year analyst – that’s the standard in the US, UK, and pretty much all other countries.
The 3rd year offer comes via mutual consent – senior bankers approach you midway through your second year and sit down to discuss whether or not you want to stay on.
In 99% of cases they already know whether or not they want you to stay – that’s what happens when you spend 80-100 hours per week with the same group of people over 1-2 years.
So it’s more a question of what you want to do in relation to your performance.
In addition to all the usual qualities an analyst must have – attention to detail, not screwing up models, multi-tasking, and so on – you need a couple extra qualities to get a 3rd year offer:
- Leadership – Do you mentor 1st year analysts and summer interns? Can you manage those below you without causing an insurrection?
- Profit – Are you saving or earning more for the bank than you’re costing? Just like in PE, no one will keep you around if you have a negative ROI. This is finance, not non-profit land.
- Senior Banker Fans – Will senior bankers in your group go to bat for you when it’s time to make a decision? If not, you need those types of relationships to get a 3rd year offer.
There’s no quick-fix solution to achieving any of this, so you need to be thinking about these points from day 1 and actively working on them as you move from your 1st year into your 2nd.
To be more specific, here are a few examples of behavior that won’t get you promoted and behavior that will get you promoted:
- Non-Promotion: You give a 1st year analyst a set of public comps to complete and check his numbers before giving it to the associate or VP.
- Promotion: You give the analyst a set of public comps, but in addition to checking his work you think of another company that would be good to include because it boosts the valuation significantly. You run the idea past the associate or VP and point out that it may help with winning the deal.
- Non-Promotion: You look through a 1st year analyst’s operating model for a client and find that all the numbers are correct before giving it to your associate.
- Promotion: You look at the analyst’s operating model and find cost-saving opportunities for the client, which you can pitch to PE firms as an easy to boost their returns if they acquire the company. You also teach the younger analyst how to create scenarios in his model to support this.
Neither of these examples is a big deal by itself – it’s more about going above and beyond what you’re asked to do consistently, over 1-2 years, than discovering the magic bullet promotion solution.
…And Then From There
Once you’ve become a 3rd year analyst, you then need to get an associate offer.
You need to demonstrate the same criteria as what’s listed above, only more of it – rather than just informally helping out new analysts, you need to give analysts instructions and see pitch books and models through to completion.
At this level, more senior buy-in is required – your group head needs to like you, and the senior bankers need to say, “We like this guy/girl, he/she has run a bunch of deals and acted like an associate for us, and is ready for the role.”
This is a lot of self-selection here – if you want to continue in banking, chances are you’ll step up and start contributing more.
And if you don’t, you’ll probably be going home early every day or waiting to bounce when your new job starts anyway.
Boutiques vs. Bulge Brackets
Some argue that it’s easier to get promoted at boutiques because they need the manpower and because there’s more competition at bulge brackets…
…which can be true, but it’s definitely not a rule.
The key difference between small and large banks holds true here as well: it’s more random at boutiques.
You might be at a boutique where the loss of 1 key associate means they need someone ASAP; or you might be at a bank where turnover is low and hardly anyone moves up.
At bulge brackets, by contrast, the process is more standardized and you’ll most likely catch neither a lucky break nor an unlucky break.
On the sales & trading side, there’s not quite as much confusion over analyst to associate promotions because that’s where most associates are coming from anyway – MBA hires with no S&T experience are rare.
Most traders move up the ranks because they’ve made a lot of money, not because they went to a top business school – so the profit part of the equation above is even more important if you want a promotion there.
Analysts and associates exist at other institutions like hedge funds, private equity firms, and so on, but sometimes there are limitations on how much you can advance.
For example, if you’re hired as a private equity analyst right out of undergraduate there might be no option to advance to the associate level – the firm might expect you to go to business school or move elsewhere after 2 years.
Is an MBA Required?
Nope, and the degree won’t necessarily help you.
Finance, unlike most other industries, is driven more by results than internal politics.
No one’s going to say, “This guy got an MBA from HBS – therefore he should be promoted to VP over this other guy who doesn’t have an MBA.”
Instead, they’ll say, “This guy has really good reviews and worked on a bunch of high-profile deals – clients love him, and he’s starting to develop relationships of his own. Let’s promote him.”
There is some merit to that argument, but most bankers who go back for the degree use it as a 2-year vacation.
You will learn a lot and meet a lot of people – and that may make you a better associate.
But it’s a stretch to say that an MBA is required to advance.
But Will They Pay For It?
When times are frothy some banks may cover the expense if you agree to return in 2 years, but that is rare.
There’s no actual difference in pay or responsibilities if you get an MBA vs. if you just advance naturally – there’s far more of a difference between the associates with no banking experience and former bankers.
In sales & trading, you may be at a disadvantage with an MBA – direct promotes are usually given a portion of the trading book, but you won’t have that if you’re graduating and moving to a new firm.
What About Exit Opportunities If You Make the Analyst to Associate Move?
Don’t hold your breath.
It’s easier if you’ve been an investment banking analyst, but there’s still a strong bias against hiring associates because they’re perceived as “career bankers.”
So don’t use an associate offer as your backup plan unless you’re 100% set on banking – otherwise you will be pigeonholed.
If you do realize you want to move to the buy-side, do it quickly – it’s much easier to move over as a newly promoted associate than as a 3-year veteran.
OK, But Do You At Least Get Some Nice Perks?
Usually you’ll get a signing bonus comparable to what new associates would get – around $40K – plus a few weeks to a month off and the option to attend “training.”
If you’ve been an analyst for 3 years, “training” has no value for you so it’s really just a long vacation.
Those are the main perks – plus, of course, you won’t be treated like a newbie who knows nothing about banking.
So, Should You Do It?
Choosing to become an associate is more of a career choice than moving to the buy-side or going to corporate development at a Fortune 500 company – in those roles you have more mobility and you can hop around to different positions.
But at the associate level, you’re expected to stay in banking for the long-haul – so if you’re not 100% committed, do not use it as a backup plan.
Staying in investment banking for the long-term can be a good career, but you will be more limited if you make the leap.
And After You Get Promoted…
You’ll get more responsibility, you’ll have to formally manage analysts, and you’ll need to start thinking more like a VP.
You won’t be expected to pull in clients yet, but you do need to start building relationships and making yourself known as more than just another nameless analyst.
The hours may be a little better, but you won’t see a big improvement until you’re more senior – and even at the MD level, ruined weekends and being on-call 24/7 are still expected.
And yes, pay improves as well, but you still won’t be making $1 million+ until you’re a more senior VP or MD – which is not easy to do.
If you do well and prove that you can execute deals with little supervision, you might just get promoted to VP.
The VP’s Dilemma
But lots of promising bankers stall out at the VP level because you have to balance 2 huge, often conflicting tasks:
- Executing deals and making sure all the presentations, books, and meetings go as planned.
- Bringing in clients and developing relationships.
If you devote too much time to #1, #2 suffers – and vice versa.
Because of this dual responsibility, your hours may not even improve much – you’re busy with potential clients during the day and you’re occupied with deals at night.
And while MDs are also under a lot of pressure to bring in clients, that’s all they do: they don’t need to juggle sourcing with execution.
The VP to MD transition is the toughest one in banking, and that applies on the buy-side as well – going from due diligence, model-crunching mode to sourcing investments is a delicate balancing act.
If you’re a star, you might move from VP to MD or Senior VP in only 2-3 years; more often it’s around 4-5, and if it takes longer than that you’ll probably be making a trip to the conference room in the near future.
Is It Really This Hard?
Did you really expect to make millions of dollars per year without putting in a lot of effort?
Of course it’s tough – if you’re looking for something easier, though, I hear Best Buy is hiring.