In the financial services industry, one of the most coveted careers is that of the financial analyst. Financial analysts can work in both junior and senior capacities within a firm and it is a niche that often leads to other career opportunities. The financial services industry is competitive, and it can be tough to break into the analyst field, but there are some preparations you can make to position yourself for this career. If you're interested in a career as a financial analyst, read on to find out what you can do to groom yourself for the job.

What Is a Financial Analyst?
A financial analyst researches macroeconomic and microeconomic conditions along with company fundamentals to make business, sector and industry recommendations. They also often recommend a course of action, such as to buy or sell a company's stock based upon its overall current and predicted strength. An analyst must be aware of current developments in the field in which he or she specializes as well as in preparing financial models to predict future economic conditions for any number of variables.

Background of Financial Analysts
If you are still an undergraduate student who is considering a career as a financial analyst, it is best to take courses in business, economics, accounting and math. Other majors that are looked upon favorably include computer sciences, biology, physics and even engineering. Many of the junior analysts hired by firms have these backgrounds, while MBA graduates are often hired as senior analysts right out of business school.

If you are not an MBA graduate student or an economics major as an undergraduate, you may want to consider studying for the Series 7 and Series 63 exams or participating in the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA®) Program. Keep in mind that participating in these exams will require sponsorship from a FINRA member firm or a self-regulatory organization.

While the CFA exam is highly technical, the Series 7 and 63 exams are other ways to demonstrate a basic familiarity with investment terms and accounting practices. If you look at a sample CFA exam and it seems overwhelming, start with practicing for the Series 7 and 63 exams and then work your way up to the CFA exam or begin to interview for junior analyst positions after passing those Series exams or one of the other exams that are highly regarded by the financial services industry. Many institutions also have training programs for those candidates who show promise in the field.

Types of Analyst Positions
Financial analysts tend to specialize based on the type of institution they work for. Analysts are hired by banks, buy- and sell-side investment firms, insurance companies and investment banks. Of these specialties, three major categories of analysts are those that work for 'sell-side' investment firms, those that work for 'buy-side' investment firms and those that work for investment banks.

Within the investment industry, most analysts tend to work either for buy-side investment firms, where they research stocks for an in-house fund, or sell-side firms that write research reports for buy-side firms. Buy-side firms are investment houses that manage their own funds. In these companies, analysts research companies as they look for stocks to add to an investment fund. They also track the stocks that are in a fund's portfolio in order to determine when or if the fund's position in that stock should be sold.

At a sell-side firm, analysts evaluate and compare the quality of securities in a given sector or industry. Based on this analysis, the analysts then make reports with certain recommendations such as: buy, sell, strong buy, strong sell or hold. These recommendations carry a great deal of weight in the investment industry including analysts working within buy-side firms.

Even within these specialties, there are subspecialties such as analysts who specialize in equities and those that specialize in analyzing fixed-income instruments. Many analysts also specialize even further within a specific sector or industry. An analyst may specialize in energy or technology, for example.

Analysts in investment banking firms, however, differ from analysts in buy- and sell-side firms as they often play a role in determining whether or not certain deals are feasible based on the fundamentals of the companies involved in a deal. This type of analysis can include IPOs or mergers and acquisitions. Analysts assess current financial conditions as well as rely heavily on modeling and forecasting to make recommendations to senior partners as to whether or not a certain merger is appropriate for that investment bank's client or whether another client of the investment bank should invest venture capital in a particular company.

What to Expect on the Job
Financial analysts need to remain vigilant about gathering information on the macroeconomy as well as information about specific companies and the fundamental microeconomics of their balance sheets. In order to stay on top of financial news, analysts will need to do a lot of reading on their own time. Analysts tend to read publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times and The Economist as well as financial websites.

Being an analyst also often tends to involve a significant amount of travel. Some analysts travel to companies to get a first-hand look at company operations on the ground level. Analysts also frequently attend conferences with colleagues who share the same specialty as they do.

When in the office, analysts learn to be proficient with spreadsheets, relational databases and statistical and graphics packages in order to develop recommendations for senior management and to develop detailed presentations and financial reports that include forecasting, cost benefit analysis, trending and results analysis. Analysts also interpret financial transactions and must verify documents for their compliance with government regulations.

Opportunities for Advancement
As interoffice protocol goes, analysts interact with each other as colleagues while they tend to report to a portfolio manager or other senior in management. A junior analyst may work his or her way up to a senior analyst in a period of three to five years. For senior analysts who continue to look for career advancement, there is the potential to become a portfolio manager, a partner in an investment bank or senior management in a retail bank or an insurance company. Some analysts go on to become investment advisors or financial consultants.

Tips for Success
The most successful junior analysts are ones that develop proficiency in the use of spreadsheets, databases, PowerPoint presentations and learn other software applications. Most successful senior analysts, however, are those who not only put in long hours, but also develop interpersonal relationships with superiors and mentor other junior analysts. Analysts that are promoted also learn to develop communication and people skills by crafting written and oral presentations that impress senior management.

The Bottom Line
While a career as a financial analyst requires preparation and hard work, it also has the potential to deliver not just financial rewards but the genuine satisfaction that comes from being an integral part of the business landscape.

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