How to Break into the Finance Industry as an Older Candidate: 6 Paths to Beating the Odds
Are you too old?
No question generates more insecurity.
And it’s especially bad when it comes to the job market and industries that prefer “younger candidates.”
A long time ago, I wrote an article on Age and Investment Banking and attempted to answer a simple question: How old is too old to break in?
But the answer wasn’t so simple: in the years afterward, hundreds of readers left comments and questions, mostly asking, “So, am I too old?” and “If I am too old, what should I do?”
Consider this article a follow-up feature that answers that second question of what to do if you’re too old to pursue traditional finance roles.
Say What? People Still Want to Make This Move?
I thought interest in this topic would disappear in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the tech/VC boom after that.
What’s the point of fighting an uphill battle to break in when both compensation and prestige are down?
But that hasn’t happened – we’re still getting a ton of questions on this topic.
The bad news is that it’s getting tougher to break in if you’re an older candidate.
There are a few reasons why:
- Business schools are encouraging younger and younger candidates to apply each year; programs like Harvard 2+2 also add to this trend. As a result, incoming post-MBA Associates have been getting younger.
- Bankers are more likely to tell you, “Go to business school” these days if you have a non-finance-looking background. One coaching client received this advice from bankers even though he completed a part-time IB internship after two years of “less relevant experience.”
- Finance firms are looking for candidates with more of a long-term, demonstrated interest in the field. So if you’ve been in audit at a Big 4 firm for 10 years, you better have an incredible story that explains your sudden interest in hedge funds if you want to make a move.
With that said, it’s not impossible to get in if you have 10+ years of work experience, or you’re in your early 30s or beyond.
But you have to be realistic about your options at that stage – here’s the process I recommend:
Step 1: Ask Yourself WHY You Want to Do This
Just like most university students cannot articulate why they want to get into investment banking or private equity, many career changers also struggle with this question.
But you have to ask and answer it honestly, or you could waste a lot of time barking up the wrong tree.
Most reasons I’ve heard from older candidates are horrible:
- “I want to make more money.”
- “I want a more exciting, faster-paced job.”
- “I want to meet high-powered executives and power brokers.”
- “Didn’t you hear me? I need more money! Really! Like, now!”
For each of these reasons, there is a better strategy that will get you better results:
- The Desire for More Money – Start a side business, do freelance consulting, do some day trading on the side, or do something that doesn’t entail a 180-degree career change.
- The Desire for Excitement and a Faster-Paced Job – Um, go skydiving? Bungee jumping? Off-road racing? Volunteer at an ER so you’re surrounded by emergencies?
- The Desire to Meet Executive and Power Brokers – Join a non-profit or volunteer group with well-known executives on the Board, join a local professional group in your industry, or start going to conferences.
There is only one good reason to enter the finance industry as an older candidate: because you are passionate about deals (or, for buy-side and public markets roles, investing), and you have to be an investment banker to work on deals full-time.
“Passionate about deals” means that you must treat deals like football fans treat football.
If you are not constantly reading about deals, talking about them, reading the filings yourself, and running the numbers for fun, you won’t have much of a chance.
Likewise, you won’t have much of a chance at buy-side or public markets roles unless you’re constantly thinking about investments and trading stocks on your own.
Step 2: Consider Roles Outside of Traditional Investment Banking
Investment banks are extremely reluctant to hire anyone significantly older and more experienced for Analyst or Associate roles.
This fact means that it is very difficult to win Analyst roles past, say, the age of 25 (or ~3 years of full-time work experience), and that it’s also difficult to win Associate roles past the age of 30 (or ~5-7 years of full-time work experience).
Even if you do win an offer, it is tough to follow the traditional IB to PE path because PE firms want young candidates or very senior ones, but not people in the middle.
So I would suggest one of the following six alternatives instead:
1) Aim for Operational Executive Roles at Private Equity Firms or Go for Operationally Focused PE Firms
Plenty of PE firms hire operating executives to help manage and “improve” portfolio companies’ operations, but you can make this type of move only if a few conditions are true:
- You’re applying to larger funds – small places tend not to hire as many operational experts unless they are strictly focused on turnarounds or operations.
- You rose to a senior position in your industry – a Director or VP of a division at a mid-sized company, at least, with 7-10 years of experience. And your chances would improve further if you were a C-level executive.
- You’ve taken the time to learn deals and finance – there’s no way you’ll fit in and thrive without this knowledge.
This strategy works well if you’re not as interested in working on deals directly, but you want to be in a deal-making environment.
2) Move in Through the “Side Door” of Finance / Operating Roles
Another option is to move into the industry “through the side door” by pursuing operational and financial roles at normal companies, and then leveraging that experience to become an executive at an investment firm.
This plan can work well, but there are also some conditions here:
- You’re usually limited to smaller funds if you follow this path because larger investment funds would hire someone higher-profile or someone in-house for a CFO/COO-type role.
- You also need to be fairly senior for this move to work – a new PE fund is not going to hire a 2-year FP&A Analyst to be their CFO.
- You need to get deal-related experience in your operational/financial roles – for example, experience negotiating joint-venture agreements or partnerships.
This path tends to work best if you’re a “late decider” and became interested in deals only after you began working on them directly.
3) Invest Your Own Account, Take the CFA, and Move into Asset Management Roles
While it can be tough to win hedge-fund roles without a pedigree from a top school and experience at a large bank, the same is not necessarily true of asset management firms.
As Mike, one of our contributors, has pointed out before, asset management firms tend to hire from a broader set of schools than large banks do.
Sometimes this also translates into better chances for non-traditional hires and career changers.
One example is a story we published a few years ago from Tim Piechowski, who went from law school into asset management.
Yes, he did have previous finance experience, but he was still an “older candidate” at the time.
To use this strategy, you’ll have to:
- Demonstrate an insane passion for investing – You need stock or other investment pitches galore, and a good explanation for why you became interested in investing so late.
- Have a track record to point to, in the absence of real work experience. Consider getting it audited.
- Potentially go back to school to make the move – you don’t need a top 3 MBA program because of the wider recruitment base for AM firms, but it should still be a relatively good program (top 20?).
- Ugh, potentially study for and pass at least the first level of the CFA. Yeah, whatever, I already said I changed my opinion of it.
I don’t have any firsthand examples of individuals who have followed this path, but it is theoretically possible – though not the easiest option.
4) Move into Equity Research in a Group Where Industry Expertise is Critical
As one of our previous interviewees pointed out, equity research groups sometimes look for more senior hires with deep industry expertise.
This strategy works best in highly technical groups where you need to understand topics that require years of schooling – medicine, physics, or advanced hardware.
I’ve seen people move from academia to equity research in those groups, but I could not find great examples for less technical ER teams like consumer/retail or transportation.
Also, if you want to go this route, you’ll have to make the transition quickly after finishing medical school, your Ph.D. program, etc.
It gets much harder to convince a bank that you want to be in equity research if you graduated then spent the past 10 years working in a hospital.
If you’re a recent graduate, you can more plausibly go to them and say, “I realized that medicine is not the path for me, but I do want to apply my knowledge in other ways.”
5) Work at a Bank, But Not in a Client-Facing or Front-Office Role
“Blasphemy!” you say, “How can you possibly recommend non-front-office roles? Didn’t you explain how bad they were before?”
This option may not be “ideal,” but there are a few reasons to consider it:
- It’s easier to get into large banks in operational and compliance roles, especially if you’re making a big career change.
- You may be able to leverage the experience to move around internally in the future.
- Operational experience at a normal company or starting your own company may translate better to these roles at banks.
You have a better shot if you’ve done supply-chain management, procurement, compliance, or something else that screams “operations.”
6) Join a PE or VC Firm’s Portfolio Company and Leverage That Experience to Move in
One of our previous interviewees, a 17-year senior executive in PE, recommended this one as the best alternative if you don’t get the right experience immediately out of undergraduate.
You could work in finance or operations there, expose yourself to major deals at the firm (e.g., when the PE firm is planning to take the company public), and then position yourself as an industry/operational expert who also has deal experience.
The downside is that this is more likely to work at smaller funds than at large ones, but the upside is that you have better access and an improved ability to network in this situation.
Step 3: And If You Want to Go the Traditional Investment Banking Path…
If you still want to get into investment banking even if it kills you, more power to you.
I have seen a few people get in at the VP level after working for 5-10 years, but several conditions were true in each case:
- They were typically quite senior. Think: VP of corporate development at a Fortune 500 company.
- They went to middle-market or boutique banks.
- They all had highly relevant industry experience (e.g., a VP of finance at a manufacturing firm joining an industrials team).
- They accepted significant pay cuts, and were brought in “below their level” (e.g., a 4th year VP starting out as a 1st year VP in banking).
- They all found jobs in strong hiring markets – if banks are reducing their headcount instead of ramping up their hiring, well, good luck.
I don’t have much to say about the process because networking is networking is networking: use LinkedIn to reach out to bankers in relevant industry groups at smaller firms, present your story, and ask about open positions.
The interview process for senior candidates is a whole different story and not one we have the space to get into here, but I may cover it in future articles.
Success Stories, Please
So do any of these strategies work?
Is it possible to move into the finance industry, even after you’ve had 10+ years of work experience elsewhere?
To illustrate this point, I’m describing below the stories of a few clients and readers (with personal details removed and changed) who have made the move:
Story #1: Director at Large Tech Company to Middle-Market Bank
This individual majored in engineering at a top 5 university and then went into product management at a technology company (hardware-focused).
She moved over to marketing after about 5-7 years on the job and then moved into business development from there.
She made it to the “Director” level and then completed a part-time / evening MBA while working in business development.
Then she moved into investment banking at a middle-market firm, joining a technology team there (and then ended up not liking it and quitting, but that’s another story).
A few notes on this one:
- I don’t think it would have happened without the MBA – otherwise, you don’t sound credible when you explain how you suddenly want a change after working at the same company for 10 years.
- She took a substantial pay cut – 50-60% – because the bank brought her in at a lower level (3rd or 4th year Associate) and agreed to raise her to the appropriate level based on performance.
- I don’t think it would have worked with lesser-known schools or a non-target MBA program.
Story #2: Treasury and FP&A to Group COO
This story was a good example of moving in “through the side door.”
The candidate here was based in Europe and had almost 10 years of corporate finance experience working at a multinational firm there.
He moved from a Treasury role to FP&A, and then switched industries (from energy to transportation) and took a role where he negotiated JV agreements and led entries into new markets.
Since he had both operational and financial experience, he spun that into sounding relevant for a private equity firm that was raising a new fund and looking for a new COO, and won an offer there.
He was in an operations role at the firm, so this was not the traditional “IB Analyst to PE Associate” path.
However, since the firm was relatively small and was expanding rapidly at the time, he did get to participate in various acquisitions and exits.
- I’m surprised this one worked without an MBA – maybe because it’s easier to get into PE from non-banking backgrounds in Europe (???).
- It would not have worked as well if he had stayed in a Treasury role instead of moving into FP&A and advancing up the ranks there.
- And the move to PE worked since the fund was new and expanding; it would have been much tougher at an existing mega-fund.
Story #3: From Entrepreneur to Operations/Compliance at a Bulge-Bracket Bank
A few years ago, we had a client who had worked in strategy roles at both “normal companies” and Big 4 / other professional services firms.
She then quit to acquire an underperforming business and turn it around (think: a small business providing localized services).
It worked remarkably well, but she wanted to move on after a few years of doing it and work at a large bank instead.
She spun the experience to sound very “financial” and then said she wanted to combine that finance and operational experience with the scale of large banks, which led to a role in operations/compliance.
No, this wasn’t a traditional investment banking, equity research, or investment analyst role, but it was more in-line with what she was looking for: a chance to apply operational knowledge at a greater scale.
- The strategy experience at other large firms made this one a lot more feasible – otherwise, it’s quite tough to go from your own company to a large bank.
- Spinning the entrepreneurial experience to make it sound “financial” (e.g., by writing mostly about forecasts, managing budgets, and optimizing profits) was also essential.
Story #4: From M.D. or Ph.D. to Equity Research
Look carefully at a set of biotech or pharmaceutical equity research reports, and you’ll likely see “M.D.” or “Ph.D.” after a few of the names.
I don’t have any stories from clients, but I found a few via my research, including:
- Marko Kozul, M.D. – Completed med school, worked as a consultant and research director for medical groups, then got into healthcare equity research at a few firms before taking a strategy role at a pharmaceutical company.
- Howard Liang, Ph.D. – Finished an MBA and a Ph.D., worked as a senior scientist at Abbott, and then worked in equity research at various firms before taking a CFO / Chief Strategy Role at a pharmaceutical company.
With some exceptions, such as the second person above, moving in early seems to be essential.
Other examples I found included people who worked in clinical research for a year or two, but then quickly moved into business strategy or consulting roles and then equity research.
Are You Too Old?
To answer this question, you need to clarify it first: “Are you too old… for what?”
You won’t win an entry-level investment banking analyst role at age 35 or 40, nor can you follow the traditional IB to PE path at that stage.
But there are still ways to get into the finance industry if you’re willing to think creatively, give up some seniority and pay, and accept a role that may not be exactly what you’re seeking.
And you’re never too old for that.
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