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Switching into a Finance Career: What You Need to Know

Jul 30, 2018
How to use business school to transition into investment banking, corporate finance, and other finance careers

By Kara Sherrer

Finance is one of the most popular fields for business school candidates to pursue, and many MBA programs place candidates in finance roles: 25% of the Class of 2019 at Vanderbilt Business secured a job in finance after graduation. Some of those students already came from a finance background, but plenty of others used their business school degree to switch into a finance career.

We talked to Emily Anderson, Director of the Career Management Center, and Brook Meissner, Senior Associate Director and CMC Coach, to find out what MBA students must know about switching into a career in finance.

Most switchers have some sort of quantitative background

The vast majority people trying to switch into a finance role have some level of previous quantitative experience, in fields like engineering or accounting — you don’t get a lot of (for example) musicians switching into finance. “For them to be very successful, they have to have a good idea of what the role is, and be able to articulate what they bring to it, matching their past experience and skills, even if it’s not in the same industry,” Anderson said.

You’ll need to prove your technical skills

Whatever kind of finance role you’re applying for, companies will want to see proof that you can do the work, and this is doubly true for career switchers. “If you’re a career switcher, you’re probably going to get a lot of questions that probe your understanding of what the role is,” Meissner said.

Brook Meissner, Vanderbilt Senior Associate Director and CMC Coach

Brook Meissner

He recalls one MBA candidate who already had a Doctorate in Pharmacy but wanted to transition into investment banking. During his internship interview, he was asked to describe when and how an investment banker would write a press release while working on a deal. “Some of our alums have done investment banking for years and never (written a release). They were really trying to grill him…on why he was switching (into finance),” Meissner said.

There are two main tracks in finance recruiting

There are exceptions, but the vast majority of structured MBA recruiting relates to corporate finance and financial services. Business school students considering a new career in finance should look at these two functions and then explore alternatives from there.

Recruiting for niche roles isn’t as structured

There are roles available beyond corporate finance and financial services, in fields such as private wealth management, equity research, investment management, and venture capital. However, many of these opportunities are found at smaller businesses that may not necessarily go through the regular b-school recruiting pipeline, necessitating independent recruiting legwork on the part of the student. “A couple of the bigger companies will have a little more structure (to their recruiting processes) but a lot of that is more on your own,” Meissner said.

Corporate finance departments often handle their own recruiting

Emily Anderson, Vanderbilt Director of the Career Management Center

Emily Anderson

It is possible to get a job in another function and then try to switch into a corporate finance role, but many finance departments do their own workforce planning and recruiting separate from HR. This makes the recruiting process smoother, faster, and more contained for corporate finance, but it also makes it difficult to transfer in from another department. “You’re going to be working up the CFA track, rather than being completely integrated into the business itself (like at a bank),” Anderson said.

Financial services firms are looking for client skills

Obviously, an ability to handle the finance work is really important for finance roles. However, at financial services firms, you’ll be interacting with clients a lot, so if you have customer service experience, be sure to highlight it in your interview. “In financial services, a lot of the roles are more client-facing, so people who enjoy that (do well). Whereas in corporate finance, you’re not talking to new people every day,” Meissner explained.

Corporate finance positions are support roles

Unlike banks, where financial work is integral to the product or service you’re selling, corporate finance departments are there to support the rest of the business. You have to take all the financial data, run the models to simulate activity, and translate your findings and recommendations into non-finance terms that will make sense to stakeholders and decision makers from other functions.

“You’ve got to take complex information, assess it, analyze it, and present it back and say ‘this is an expected outcome, and I’m your financial advisor to help make a decision,’” Anderson said. “It’s interpreting all that data and being able to talk about it in terms of more holistic business decisions.”

Financial services offer a fast-paced, competitive environment

Jobs in financial services, especially investment banking, are notorious for extremely long hours. However, with the hours comes a very exciting environment and a great sense of accomplishment when deals close, not to mention very good salaries. “A lot of athletes and people who really enjoy the competitive side are especially drawn towards financial services,” Meissner notes.

“Banking is also transactional in nature. There is, generally speaking, a beginning and an end to the deal, so there’s that sense of completing something and starting something new, and I think that can be appealing,” Anderson adds.

Corporate finance offers a wide range of industries and locations

On the other hand, corporate finance jobs offer better work-life balance and manageable hours, as well as variety when it comes to industries and locations. If you want the ability to move around the nation (or even the world) either now or later in your career, or to switch industries, corporate finance provides a lot of flexibility. “The good thing about corporate finance is that it gives you a lot of mobility, even after your first job,” Anderson said.

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