Finance can be a fiercely competitive field to break into. After all, it’s a famously high-paying industry known to pay six or seven figures in salaries and bonuses for those at the top. Even those on the bottom rung can expect to start at a good wage compared to other fields.
You may not walk into your dream job right away, but the good news is that finance is a vast industry, so once you’re in, there’s plenty of room to evolve, move around, and find your niche. First, however, you have to get your foot in the (entry-level) door.
A Look At Entry-Level Careers In Finance
Entry-level finance compensation averages $88,774 a year, according to the job-search website Glassdoor, in January 2021. The National Association of Colleges and Employers' (NACE) Winter 2020 Salary Survey projects starting paychecks in the finance, insurance, and real estate fields for the class of 2020 to range from $56,750 to $62,500 annually, as of Jan. 21, 2021.
To get a sense of how high an income is: the median U.S. household income was $68,703 in 2019. And in the 4Q of 2020, the median individual income was $984 per week—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
What's more, the BLS estimates that employment in business and financial operations occupations is projected to grow 5% from 2019 to 2029—faster than the overall average for occupations.
- Finance-sector jobs pay much higher than the median salary, even at the entry-level.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that finance sector jobs are projected to grow 5% from 2019 to 2029.
- You don’t need an Ivy League background to get in on the finance action, but an undergraduate degree is required at the very least, and economics- or math-oriented majors are preferable.
- The most popular entry-level jobs include analysts, tax associates, auditors, and financial advisors.
But how do you go about it? Well, the good news is you don’t need a Harvard Business School degree. It is often preferable to have several years of financial or business work experience before acquiring an MBA.
However, an undergraduate degree is required for a position at almost any reputable financial institution. While companies claim they hire majors of all types, ideally, your academic background should demonstrate your ability to understand and work with numbers. That requires knowledge of economics, applied mathematics, accounting, business, and computer sciences.
Interestingly, the NACE study found that breaking down financial sector salaries by major concentrating on engineering and computer sciences realized the highest compensation and those in sales and communication the lowest. If your primary major is in a different field, try to minor in something finance-related.
Internships Are a Stepping Stone
Even more critical are internships. Many firms visit campuses to recruit for summer internships or hold symposia, workshops, or networking opportunities. For example, events like the Goldman Sachs Undergraduate Camp or the Morgan Stanley Career Discovery Day.
Internships can be tough to secure, as tough as an actual job, but they're invaluable. Not only do they provide contacts and experience, but they often lead directly to a spot in the company's training program after graduation—or, at least, to the innermost circle of consideration.
Continuing Financial Education
If you've already graduated, continuing education is another great way to boost your financial IQ and demonstrate your commitment to a financial sector career. Finance-specific credentials such as the chartered financial analyst (CFA), certified public accountant (CPA), or certified financial planner (CFP®) designations can all help your job prospects, depending on the particular facet of finance you are targeting.
In the United States, professionals who plan to deal with investments and finances must pass a series of licensing exams. In the past, you had to be sponsored by a financial institution even to take one of these tests. However, as of 2018, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) finalized the new Securities Industry Essentials Exam (SIE), which can be taken without sponsorship.
The exam is open to anyone 18 years old and over; the 75-question, 105-minute SIE is ideal for "demonstrating basic industry knowledge to potential employers," to quote the FINRA website.
The projected median pay in 2019 (the most recent figure, as of Jan. 21, 2021) for a financial analyst with a bachelor's degree in finance.
Looking for Finance Jobs: Best Entry-Level Positions
The key is to identify the most rewarding entry-level jobs—both in terms of salary and future career prospects—and think hard about which might be the best fit for your abilities and interests. Once you have narrowed down what interests you the most, you can begin your search.
Besides your personal network of friends and family, online job sites are a logical place to search for entry-level finance roles. LinkedIn, Indeed, and Monster are good sites. Still, it might be more efficient to scour sites that specialize in finance-industry jobs or resources, such as eFinancialCareers, Broker Hunter, or 10X EBITDA (for investment banking).
Financial analysts work for investment companies, insurance companies, consulting firms, and other corporate entities. Responsible for consolidating and analyzing budgets and income statement projections, they prepare reports, conduct business studies, and develop forecast models. Financial analysts research economic conditions, industry trends, and company fundamentals. They also often recommend a course of action for investments, reducing costs, and improving financial performance.
Along with a B.A. in finance, accounting, or economics, you should have strong IT skills for an analyst role.
The BLS estimated that there were about 487,800 financial analyst jobs in the American economy in 2010 and projected a faster-than-average growth rate of 5% through 2029 for them. As of January 2021, according to the most recent figures from the BLS, financial analysts earned a median salary of $81,590 in 2019.
Investment Banking Analyst
Investment banking is one of the most prestigious areas of the financial sector; investment banking professionals assist individuals, corporations, venture capital firms, and even governments with their requirements related to capital. Investment banks underwrite new debt and equities for all types of corporations, aid in the sale of securities, take companies public, and facilitate mergers and acquisitions, reorganizations, and broker trades for both institutions and private investors.
An analyst usually fills an entry-level role at an investment bank, hedge fund, or venture capital firm. The most common duties include producing deal-related materials, performing industry research and financial analyses of corporate performance, and collecting materials for due diligence. Recommendations based on the interpretation of financial data often play a role in determining whether certain activities or deals are feasible.
The average investment banking analyst starting salary was $67,817 in Nov. 2020 (the most recent figure, as of Jan. 2021), according to PayScale, a compensation-analysis site. Candidates have B.A.s in economics, finance, or management, though this is one job where an M.A. in these areas helps too.
Junior Tax Associate/Accountant
Some financial services remain in constant demand, especially those associated with taxation—the need to comply with changing internal revenue regulations (IRS) regulations and local and state laws. These professionals implement measures and develop policies relating to taxes, including calculating and estimating payments, conducting research, reviewing internal fiscal systems, preparing returns and other tax-related documents, and working with auditors.
The duties may sound arcane, but tax-related jobs can often lead to corporate positions like the controller (also known as a comptroller), accounting manager, budget director, and even treasurer or chief financial officer.
For this sort of work, candidates need a bachelor's degree in accounting (or at least accounting skills), and eventually—if you want to advance—a CPA license. However, companies often offer the opportunity to obtain one while on the job.
With this in mind, a junior tax associate's role is ideal for college graduates seeking work experience in the financial sector. According to the BLS, the annual median salary was $54,890 in 2019 (the most recent figures available as of January 2021), but this field might see a 4% decline in jobs by 2028.
The role of the financial auditor is a particularly relevant one today. In the decade since the 2007 to 2009 financial crisis and global recession, governments and regulatory agencies have imposed more stringent operational requirements and compliance standards on businesses, financial transactions, and investment practices. As a result, companies are more diligent in their self-policing and reporting practices.
Auditors' work overlaps that of accountants, but their mandate is broader. Auditors conduct risk assessments and are responsible for keeping the company from breaching regulations. Auditors review companies' financial statements and ensure that their public records are kept accurately and in compliance with existing legislation. Auditors check the books, overall business practices, and procedures and suggest ways to reduce costs, enhance revenues, and improve profits.
The profession offers an annual median salary of $71,550 in 2019, according to the BLS, and is projected to increase by 4% by 2029. Along with accounting or internal auditing, auditors often hold degrees in economics or corporate finance. To improve your prospects, you should also consider completing an advanced degree course in accounting.
This is another field where a CPA license will eventually be necessary. Another valuable credential is that of a certified internal auditor (CIA), which is recognized internationally.
Personal Financial Advisor
Personal financial advisors evaluate the monetary needs of individuals and help them with decisions on investing, budgeting, and saving. Advisors help clients strategize for short- and long-term financial goals, from tax planning to retirement planning to estate planning.
Many advisors provide tax services or sell insurance in addition to providing financial counsel. They might offer financial products such as mutual funds or even directly manage investments or serve as a liaison between the individual and an assets manager.
The BLS estimates the median annual wage (in 2019) for personal financial advisors at $88,850. It also projects growth of 4% through 2029, which is as fast as average, citing such demographic trends as the retirement of the Baby Boom generation, the growing numbers of self-employed people, and the dwindling of private-sector employer pension plans, all of which drive a need for advisory services.
The profession doesn't require any specific bachelor's degree. However, financial advisors can benefit from the study of economics, math, and finance. They also need to be good communicators since they must interpret and explain complex subjects to non-experts. So, the critical thinking and analytical and writing skills honed in liberal arts fields can be useful too.
Personal financial advisors who directly buy or sell stocks, bonds, or insurance policies or who provide specific investment advice must pass various licensing examinations. However, this is done on the job since you have to be employed or sponsored by a securities or investment firm to take them. Anyone can take the basic Securities Industry Essentials Exam, however. Many advisors also earn industry credentials, such as a certified financial planner, to enhance their prestige and networking opportunities.
While financial jobs often come with high pay and prestige, they are also among the most stressful; early career burnout is not uncommon.
The Bottom Line
Getting your foot in the finance door takes serious preparation and commitment. It’s a highly competitive industry, so treat the process as a job in itself, leave no networking stone unturned, and keep up to date with all the latest finance news. Develop your knowledge, pursue further education if required, be as proactive as possible, and remember to stay positive.
The world of finance is definitely possible if you play your search cards right. And don't worry if your first job isn't your dream job; the goal is to find your way inside that heavily guarded fortress. You can work on the rest from there.