How To Get A Job On Wall Street

By Stephen D. Simpson, CFA | November 01, 2010 AAA
How To Get A Job On Wall Street

No matter how many scandals befall and befoul Wall Street, there never seems to be a shortage of people who want to work on Street. Whether it's the supposed glamor and glory of the jobs, or the decidedly more real above-average compensation, there is almost always a willing surplus of talented people who want to become analysts, traders or managers. (For related reading, also be sure to check out Wanna Be A Bigwig? Try Investment Banking.)

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Like any industry, there is no hard-and-fast rule about how to get a foot in the door. That said, there are a few tried and true paths that those who want to work on the Street should seriously consider.

Undergrad Name Brands Matter
If somebody wants to catch a fish, it stands to reason that they should frequent the lakes and rivers where there are fish. Likewise, someone who already thinks that they are cut out for Wall Street as early as their high school years should try to target those universities where investment banks recruit undergraduates. This list includes the Ivy League schools, other well-known universities like University of Chicago, Duke and Georgetown, and a fairly large percentage of the top 25 schools in the United States.

While investment banks will claim that they recruit talented individuals from a range of disciplines, the reality is that students who focus on business, economics, mathematics and other clearly related fields have a leg up on the history and English lit majors. Keep in mind, though, that entering Wall Street from undergrad generally only provides a small number of options - investment banking and trading typically absorb the most new talent in a given year, and the openings in areas like research and sales for undergraduates tend to be few and far between.

In addition, internships can be a vital foot in the door. The recruiting process for internships is not so formal (the would-be applicant should try to seek them out), but the experience can be invaluable. Not only does it give someone the chance to build relationships and make an impression, but there is an element of the "secret handshake" to this business - once one firm vets you as worthy, others are more likely to do so.

From A Different Angle
Just because someone does not start their career at a Wall Street firm does not mean that they cannot still get there. It is not uncommon for banks to look to industry for potential research analysts. Doctors are popular candidates as equity research analysts in fields like medical devices and pharmaceuticals, and engineers or salesmen in technology niches like semiconductors are likewise popular.

In fact, many banks make a conscious effort to build research teams that include at least one person with industry experience and at least one more with more of the accounting/finance type of background. In general, though, given that Wall Street does not care nearly so much about price targets and modeling accuracy as contacts, industry expertise and information flow, a talented individual off Wall Street can often find a welcome home in a bank.

MBA Is the Real Stepping Stone
Of all the ways to get into Wall Street, getting a MBA from a highly-respected university may be the most straightforward. While many banks will not even consider an undergraduate for research or sales, they will actively and aggressively recruit promising MBA candidates.

This represents an invaluable second chance for many people - people who either did not have much of an interest in Wall Street during their undergraduate years, or perhaps did not perform well enough in terms of grades and references. With a gold-plated MBA, the fact that someone went to No Name State as an undergrad no longer really matters, and they can once again get their foot in the door with Wall Street firms.

All of that said, there is a lot that would-be Wall Streeters can do to improve their chances. Success at the undergrad level certainly helps, as does a successful pre-MBA work history. Working in industries like consulting or areas of interest to Wall Street helps, but potential employers will want to see a record of hard work and upward progression. (For more information on obtaining an MBA, see Traditional MBA Or Business Graduate Degree?)

Be Realistic, But Optimistic
Even if someone does not have an MBA, does not think they could get into a top program and does not have valuable industry experience, there is still hope. Banks do not always demand such rigorous qualifications for would-be traders, and there is always the possibility of catching on in an IT or HR department, impressing the management, and getting a chance elsewhere in the firm. What's more, just because someone does not live in New York does not mean they cannot participate - most major cities have some sort of sell-side or buy-side firm, and a combination of persistence and luck could result in an interview and an offer.

A Rough but Rewarding Place
Qualifications may get someone through the door, but hard work keeps them there and allows them to rise. It is quite literally possible to start off as a secretary/personal assistant or in the back offices and work into a better position - I personally know two people who were assistants when I was a research analyst who are now analysts at respected buy-side shops. Neither went to a big-name university, but both kept a positive attitude, worked hard, got a chance and made the most of it.

If someone really wants to work on Wall Street, and they are truly willing to work for it, it is an achievable goal for most people. Do not go in with any illusions, though. Wall Street does not hand out generous pay for no reason - the hours are long, the work is difficult, the stress is high and it is not a forgiving environment for non-conformists, underperformers or slow starters. However, many people find the work tremendously rewarding and more than ample compensation for the effort it takes to get there. (Need more information? Also check out Getting An Investment Bank Job During A Recession)

For the latest financial news, see Water Cooler Finance: Ghosts Of Economies Past.

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