Is Finance a Good Career Path?
Jobs in the financial sector can be highly lucrative, which helps explain why they’re in such great demand. Of course, breaking into the world of finance isn’t easy, as entry qualifications can be as lofty as the salaries. At a minimum, most jobs require a four-year degree, and many professionals have advanced degrees in business, math, economics, or statistics.
Still, the finance industry has various job opportunities, both on and off Wall Street, that cater to different skill sets and interests. If you’re wondering where to start—or what to aim for—here’s an overview of the top financial career options today. We’ve included average base salary information for the U.S., along with “total pay” figures that include bonuses and commissions.
- The financial sector consists of firms that offer financial services to consumers, businesses, and governments.
- Most finance jobs require four-year or advanced degrees, especially in business, math, economics, and statistics.
- Some of the highest-paying finance jobs are investment banker, actuary, portfolio manager, quantitative analyst, and securities trader.
Types of Careers in Finance
Average investment banker base salary: $101,187 (total pay is $51k – $301k)
Investment banker education requirements: Four-year degree in finance, economics, or a quantitative or business-focused field, plus an MBA or a master’s in finance (ideally from a top school).
Some of the most glamorous (and intense) financial careers are in investment banking. Investment banks help companies and governments raise money through bonds, stocks, public offerings, venture capitalism, and mergers and acquisitions (M&A).
Typically, investment banking firms have numerous divisions and groups with different objectives and responsibilities. Working in a traditional investment bank allows you to interact with issuers of securities and M&A professionals. You might even work on the trading desk, trading stocks, bonds, and other securities in the secondary market.
While the profession has grown more democratic, it still has an elitist tinge: MBAs from top-level programs are often all but mandatory. Still, it’s less common today for investment bankers to seek out professional certifications like the Series 7 or CFA compared to some other finance jobs.
Types of Investment Banking Jobs
Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A): Bankers focusing on mergers and acquisitions provide strategic advice to companies looking to merge with competitors or buy smaller companies. M&A bankers use financial modeling to evaluate these potential large-scale deals. These jobs typically require interactions with high-profile executives, and M&A specialists must convince these executives of their ideas.
Underwriting: Raising capital is part of a bank’s underwriting department. Underwriting specialists typically focus on debt or equity and often have an industry-based focus as well. These bankers commonly serve in client-facing roles, working with outside contacts to determine capital needs while at the same time working in-house with traders and security salespeople to find the best options. Underwriting is not limited entirely to investment banks and has spread to larger universal banks to a great degree in recent years.
Private Equity: Many investment banks have private equity (PE) arms, though jobs are typically found at smaller, specialist firms. Bankers in this area raise money for non-public enterprises and companies, keeping a portion of any profits they generate through deals. It’s common for private equity professionals to have prior experience at investment banks, as well as outstanding academic credentials.
Venture Capital: Venture capital (VC) firms often specialize in providing cash to emerging companies, often in rapidly developing industries, such as tech, biotech, and green technology. While many target companies eventually fail, VCs often prosper by getting their financial stake in and out at the early stages of development, producing massive returns on investments. Employees of venture capital firms are typically adept at number crunching and deal-making and are clued into new technologies and ideas. They thrill at the prospect of discovering “the next new thing.”
Average actuary base salary: $96,843 (total pay is $57k – $166k)
Actuary education requirements: Four-year degree in actuarial sciences, math, statistics, or a business-related field such as finance, economics, or business, plus coursework and a series of professional exams from the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) or Society of Actuaries (SOA).
Actuaries analyze the monetary consequences of risk by using math, statistics, and financial theory. These professionals gather, assemble, and analyze data to estimate the probability and likely costs of such events as injury, sickness, disability, death, and property loss. As the Society of Actuaries states on its website, “Actuaries are experts in evaluating the likelihood of future events—using numbers, not crystal balls.”
Actuaries work for entities that need to manage risk, including insurance companies (the most common employer), pension plans, banks, investment firms, accounting firms, consulting firms, governments, and hospitals. Their input and expertise are vital in helping these entities manage their assets to minimize risk and maximize returns.
To work as an actuary, you need a strong background in math and a four-year degree in actuarial sciences, math, statistics, finance, or economics. To achieve full professional status, you must become an associate or fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) or the Society of Actuaries (SOA). The certification process takes four to seven years at the associate level, with an additional two to three years to earn fellowship status.
Average portfolio manager base salary: $88,035 (total pay is $55k – $173k)
Portfolio manager education requirements: Four-year degree in business, economics, or finance, plus applicable Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) license(s).
Portfolio management is one of the most prestigious roles in the entire finance industry. Portfolio managers (aka money managers) oversee institutional and retail client investments. They recommend personalized investment strategies and specific investment decisions to clients, and they usually have discretionary power in executing those strategies to fulfill the clients’ goals.
It’s common for portfolio managers to specialize in specific asset classes, such as equities or fixed income. Or, a manager may be a specialist in certain types of stocks, blockchain-related startups, or high-yield bonds. Focused funds that employ these specialized managers may seek individuals with a background in analytical research. Others include broader mandates, such as a multi-asset class strategy, and these firms often look for managers with a similarly broad base of investment knowledge and background.
There are a variety of employers in the sector, each focusing on a specific segment:
- Investment companies and financial service firms offer funds for retail investors.
- Investment banks provide strategic advice to corporations, large institutions, and even governments.
- Commercial banks offer a range of investments to their customers.
- Money management firms, portfolio management companies, and hedge funds cater to high-net-worth individuals.
After earning a four-year college degree, as well as a graduate degree, many potential money managers also attain the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation. Often, a portfolio manager position is a “destination” role that does not lead anywhere else. Thus, rather than continue to climb a career ladder, portfolio managers typically manage increasing amounts of money. Or, they may leave to start their own firm or hedge fund.
Average quantitative analyst base salary: $85,042 (total pay is $62k – $154k)
Quantitative analyst education requirements: Master’s or Ph.D. in a quantitative field like math, statistics, finance, or economics with a strong computer skill set; or an advanced degree in financial engineering or computational finance.
While some economic analytic positions require public speaking or writing, quantitative analysts (aka “quants”) typically work behind the scenes. Professionals in this branch of analysis create mathematical models to help companies make business and financial decisions. Asset managers, banks, hedge funds, insurance companies, and private equity firms all employ quants to help them manage risk and identify investment opportunities.
Quants are in especially high demand in the trading world, where they create algorithms to find the most profitable trading opportunities. Most quant workers have backgrounds in mathematics or statistics, often with a Ph.D.
Average securities trader salary: $72,612 (total pay is $45k – $251k)
Securities trader education requirements: Four-year degree plus applicable FINRA license(s).
Securities traders work at commercial banks, investment banks, asset management firms, hedge funds, and more. Wherever they work, traders buy and sell securities on behalf of the assets managed by that firm. Traders work in different markets (e.g., stocks, commodities, or crypto) and may specialize in one type of asset class or investment.
It used to be possible to work your way up as a trader even without a college degree. While the career path still tends to be somewhat less defined than for, say, investment banking, most traders have a background in a finance-related field from a strong university, and many have advanced degrees in statistics, mathematics, or related fields. It’s also common for traders to take the Series 7 and Series 63 exams early in their careers.
Traders who perform well will typically be allocated increasing amounts of capital. It’s not uncommon for top traders to break out on their own to form hedge funds.
Types of Trading Jobs
Sell-Side Traders: Sell-side traders typically work for banks. They buy and sell products for the benefit of the bank’s clients or the bank itself.
Buy-Side Traders: Buy-side companies like asset management firms also employ traders. They typically conduct buying and selling under the direction of a portfolio manager.
Hedge Fund Traders: Hedge fund traders are not working to satisfy client orders but rather to maximize profits for the fund itself. Like buy-side trading jobs, traders at hedge funds may take orders from a portfolio manager, or they may be able to decide on their own buys and sells.
Average financial planner base salary: $64,225 (total pay is $43k – $119k)
Financial planner education requirements: Bachelor’s degree plus certifications and applicable FINRA license(s).
Financial planners help individuals develop plans to ensure their present and future financial stability. Typically, they review a client’s financial goals and generate an appropriate strategy for saving and investing. The plan may focus on wealth preservation or investment growth and may even include estate and tax planning.
Most financial planners work in either large, nationwide groups or smaller, locally based firms. Some planners charge a flat fee, and others charge a percentage of the client’s assets under management (AUM), where they receive commissions on the products they sell.
Generally, financial planners with the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation are the most in-demand, as their training is rigorous. They must attain 6,000 hours of financial planning experience, pass several exams—including a two-day, 10-hour case-study exam—and meet continuing education requirements.
Average financial analyst base salary: $62,036 (total pay is $46k – 87k)
Financial analyst education requirements: Four-year degree in finance or a related field; MBA, CFA certification, and applicable FINRA license are helpful.
Analysts at financial-industry firms are typically responsible for researching potential investments and offering opinions and recommendations to help guide the traders and portfolio managers. Financial analysts also work at non-bank corporations, where they analyze the financial position of the company and help to formulate budgetary plans.
To be a financial analyst, you must have strong analytical, math, and communication skills—and be able to endure high stress. You must have a four-year degree in finance or a related field, and you’ll eventually need a CFA certification or other FINRA license and, likely, an MBA.
Types of Financial Analyst Jobs
Investment Analyst: Investment analysts typically specialize in one or more areas, including geographic locations, industrial or economic sectors, or types of investment vehicles. Analysts who work for sell-side companies usually put out buy and sell recommendations for clients. Analysts working for a buy-side company typically recommend securities to buy or sell for their portfolio managers.
Financial Analyst: Financial analysts tend to work at more traditional (non-finance) corporations or government agencies. Nearly every large company, regardless of sector or industry, keeps financial analysts on staff to analyze cash flows and expenditures, maintain budgets, and more. These analysts may also help determine the best capital structure for the corporation or assist with capital raising. Financial analysts have the potential to rise through the ranks at their corporation, eventually becoming treasurer or chief financial officer.
Average economic analyst base salary: $61,845 (total pay is $40k – $98k)
Economic analyst education requirements: Degree (advance preferred) in economics, statistics, or a related field, plus experience writing and publishing reports.
Economic analysts observe broad areas of the economy and the markets to look for major trends. These jobs appeal to individuals who enjoy analyzing data, tracking trends, and making opinions based on those trends regarding the future of financial markets. Analytical jobs frequently involve writing, public speaking, and ample work with Excel or other spreadsheet applications.
These jobs exist at investment banks, money management firms, and other traditional finance-world institutions. They also can be found in the public sector, in government, and in academia. Most financial analysts hold an MBA degree, and many have a Ph.D. Because of the writing component in many related jobs, experience writing and publishing in the field is desirable.
To work as an economic analyst, you will need a four-year or advanced degree in economics, statistics, or a related field. While there is a high initial barrier to entry, once in, analysts enjoy a degree of flexibility that many other finance jobs do not. Analysts can often work for a wide range of employers. An established economist may move from a job at an investment bank to one at a university to one with the government—while performing essentially the same type of work in each place.
Types of Economic Analysis Jobs
Economist: Economists are ubiquitous at a variety of finance-related institutions. Investment banks, asset management companies, and central banks employ economists, as do government agencies and academic institutions. An economist tracks and analyzes data to explain current market or economic circumstances and predict trends going forward.
Economic Strategist: There is a fine line between a strategist and an economist. Economists tend to focus on the broad economy while strategists home in on the financial markets. Strategist jobs are more likely to be found at banks and money management companies than academic and government institutions. Many strategists begin their careers as research analysts, focusing on a particular product or industry.
Choosing a Financial Career
To effectively pursue jobs with the best chances of success, consider the demand for the position. Do the research first to discover your options. Time spent uncovering the most interesting possibilities can be time saved working in a job that just doesn’t fit.
Financial jobs require distinct skills and present vastly different work environments, so it’s wise to select one that aligns with your long-term interests and abilities. Someone with solid interpersonal skills, for example, might do well as a financial planner, while someone who enjoys crunching numbers might do better as an actuary.
Finding Finance Job Opportunities
Financial jobs exist at almost every company in almost every industry. There are two ways to find openings—online and offline—and it’s a good idea to use both methods. Keep in mind that financial jobs are highly specialized, so generic job boards are not the best places to seek such positions.
When looking offline, specialized executive recruiters (headhunters) can be excellent resources for financial job opportunities and career advice. Your university’s alumni association can also be very helpful by putting you in touch with industry insiders and B-school alumnae who are willing to provide insight—and sometimes job leads.
Industry conferences and other networking events are also great places to look for financial jobs. Concerning networking, never forget the value of personal interaction. Everyone you meet could know someone who knows of a job opening. Keep your avenues of communication open by following up in a professional, personalized way—with every contact.
The Bottom Line
Financial careers often involve high barriers to entry, stiff competition among applicants, and a lot of stress. Still, these jobs offer numerous perks, including a challenging work environment, interaction with highly motivated and intelligent colleagues, opportunities for advancement, and excellent pay. While many people flock to the financial field because of the income potential, the most successful tend to have a distinct passion for their work.
What are some careers in finance?
The finance industry offers a variety of job opportunities, both on and off Wall Street. Careers include financial planner, financial analyst, actuary, securities trader, portfolio manager, and quantitative analyst.
What are the highest paying jobs in finance?
Investment bankers, actuaries, portfolio managers, quants, and securities traders earn some of the highest salaries in finance.