Finance can be a fiercely competitive field to break into. After all, it’s a famously high-paying industry known to pay millions of dollars in salary and bonuses – if you manage to climb high enough up the corporate financial ladder. But even those on the bottom rung can expect to start out at a strong salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2016 (the latest year for which figures were available), the median annual wage for financial analysts was $81,760, and $56,128 for entry-level positions, for example. Furthermore, employment of financial analysts is projected to grow 12% from 2014 to 2024 – faster than average – thanks in part to a growing range of financial products in the marketplace.

You may not walk into your dream job right away, but the good news is that finance is a vast industry, comprising many analyst specializations. So once you’re in, there’s plenty of room to evolve, move around and find your analyst niche. First, however, you have to get your foot in the (entry level) door. But how do you go about it? Well, the good news is you don’t necessarily need a Harvard Business School degree. But there is certainly some legwork and preparation you can undertake to maximize your chances.

Start Early

To forge a successful career, it pays to start early, while still in school. The most respected financial institutions naturally value solid grades, so keeping them in good shape will put you at a hiring advantage from the outset. If you’re lucky, that summer internship (see What To Expect From A Financial Internship) could lead straight to a job. At the very least, you can build contacts you can develop down the track.

Credential

You don’t need an Ivy League background to get in on the finance action, but an undergraduate degree (in any discipline) is required at the very least. Ideally, your academic background should demonstrate your ability to understand and work with numbers; being a business major shows that you've studied finance, economics or accounting. However, if your primary major is in a different field, be sure to also take relevant finance-related courses at an undergraduate or post-graduate level. (Read No Finance Degree? No Problem! Top 10 Ways to Jumpstart a Career In Finance.) To secure a top-paying Wall Street career, you’ll probably need an MBA, but generally it's best to have several years of working in an entry-level financial industry job before you even apply to business school.

Expand Your Knowledge

Continued education at any level is a great way to boost your financial IQ and increase your competitive edge. If you’re really committed to carving a career in the finance sector, employers will want to see you taking active steps to expand your knowledge and grasp of industry concepts. Keep abreast of current industry news, trends and market developments through financial news outlets and web resources.

Network, Network, Network

The more people you connect with and talk to, the better your network will become, which will give you more leads to entry-level positions. Establish contacts on LinkedIn; head to networking events and seminars; approach recruiters; and talk to family and friends. They may not work in finance themselves, but chances are they know someone who does. Reach out to alums of your college or university who already work at your target companies (check the job placement office to get a list of those who've said they'd be willing to talk to grads seeking jobs). Try to get informational interviews and ask if they’ll pass your résumé to whoever hires entry-level staffers. In the financial world, “who you know” will help get your foot in the industry door.

Where To Look

Aside from your network, a logical place to search for entry-level roles is, of course, online job sites. Of course, there are the general ones, such as LinkedIn, Indeed and Monster, but it might be more efficient to scour websites that specialize in finance-industry jobs (see Best Websites to Find a Job in Finance). However the search should by no means end there. Connect with financial staffing agencies and recruiters who can acquaint you with suitable openings as they come up and facilitate your application. In addition to pursuing specific jobs, directly research companies for which you’d like to work – you might make their acquaintance at job fairs – and regularly check their websites for new positions. You may even be able to establish a contact in some HR departments.

Specific Finance Jobs

The key is to identify the most rewarding entry-level jobs, both in terms of salary and future career prospects. Consider the following options:

Financial Analyst

Lukewarm as it may be, the current economic recovery has triggered a rise in business confidence, as firms begin to look toward expansion and the investment of their accrued capital. In order to make wise and responsible decisions, organizations often turn to financial analysts for guidance and relevant market advice that help to maximize their potential returns.

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, like buying or selling a stock (for more detail, see Becoming a Financial Analyst).

Requiring a bachelor's degree and accessible to individuals who have no practical experience within the industry, it carries a national average annual salary of $62,000, according to Glassdoor.com, and offers tremendous opportunities to recently graduated individuals.

Investment Banking Analyst

If you are motivated by a high bottom line salary and wish to apply your skills in a more specific financial sector, becoming an investment banking analyst may be the ideal career choice. Commanding an average salary of $69,204, according to PayScale, a compensation-analysis site, this job requires you to interpret financial data and economic trends while offering actionable investment advice: This sort of analyst often plays a role in determining whether or not certain activities or deals are feasible based on the fundamentals of the companies.

Clients can vary from venture capital firms to companies looking to issue stocks and bonds to corporations seeking to merge, so you must display diverse communication skills alongside your bachelor's or master's degree.

This role is the ideal starting point for college graduates who are looking to forge a career in investment banking, which means that competition for positions is usually intense and extremely challenging.

Junior Tax Associate

Some financial services remain in constant demand, especially those that are associated with taxation and the need to comply with changing legislation and IRS regulations.

With this in mind, the role of a junior tax associate is ideal for college graduates who are looking to develop valuable workplace experience in the financial sector. Although it boasts a relatively moderate annual median salary of $50,000, according to PayScale, it allows you to work alongside experienced CPAs and review a client's internal fiscal reporting systems. It is a job accessible to anyone with a bachelor's degree in accounting and any additional accreditations.

Financial Auditor

The role of financial auditor is a particularly relevant one today. The recent global recession and its aftermath has forced businesses to place their spending and fiscal reporting under more stringent scrutiny.

As an auditor, you review companies' financial statements and ensure that their public records are kept accurately and in compliance with existing legislation. It offers an annual median salary of $54,000, according to PayScale, and a four-year bachelor's degree is the minimum academic requirement for applicants. To improve your prospects and compete in this well-populated sector, you should also consider completing an advanced degree course in accounting or business administration

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 like a job in itself, leave no networking stone unturned, 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 job-search cards right. And don't worry if your first job isn't your dream job: The goal is to get inside the door. You can start on the rest from there.

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