How do you choose a finance career?

I'm a first-generation student at a smaller state school in my junior year. I come from a low-income area where nobody ever told me anything about careers in finance. I've had to do all this research mid-college by myself, whether on this forum, reaching out to professors/alumni, etc. It's just super overwhelming at times. All the information I get is pretty conflicting.

My business interests are:

  • I'm interested in being a leader in my company/department as fast as possible

  • I have a passion for investing and knowing my numbers (the CFA sounds fun if that gives you an idea)

  • I also have a passion for running/turning around companies. I can see myself leading struggling companies someday, then rinse and repeating.

  • I'm a very personable guy and love working/talking with lots of different people.

With these interests, I've literally seen myself in FP&A, IB, exit to PE, ER/AM, Big 4, and consulting. I also want to do a top 20 MBA someday for the learning, networking, and mid-career boost. Some of these careers mentioned are harder to obtain from my background, but I'm a networking pro at this point, so I'm not too worried.

I don't expect any of you to tell me what to do... I just would appreciate some advice and guidance on how you guys made your early career decisions.

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Comments (24)

Mar 25, 2021 - 1:14pm

Your first few internships and jobs are more about finding out what you don't want to do, instead of what you want to do. Give it some time and a few years, I'm sure you are bound to find a right fit.

Mar 25, 2021 - 2:00pm

What is your GPA and what are your internship plans for this summer?

"If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them." - Bruce Lee

Mar 25, 2021 - 6:44pm

Keep reading, keep talking, keep learning. Eventually one will kind of "stick out". Right now your interests are kind of all over the place but mainly it sounds like you'd like IB -> PE/Restructuring/Distressed Funds. You seem suited for deal-making.

Remember you don't need to plan your entire future right now. Careers rarely go where you think they're gonna go. 

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Mar 25, 2021 - 10:09pm

I believe you 100%. The reason i try to plan things out is so I dont unintentionally pigeon hole myself out of an opportunity that I might be interested in later. Don't want to look back in 15 years with regrets because I made it impossible to do x because I went with y.

Deals sound very appealing to me. I could see myself enjoying IB besides the insane hours. I heard the hours get better at associate and above. Id be happy with 70/week as an average, but would be willing to suffer more if the hours would get better.

Most Helpful
Mar 26, 2021 - 11:51am


Keep reading, keep talking, keep learning. Eventually one will kind of "stick out".

Second this, and would add that if you're not doing it already, start writing to keep track of your thoughts / lighten the mental load of carrying all this discovery around solely in your head so you can focus more on processing/making sense of it all.

This can go in a lot of different directions, but 3 suggested buckets: (1) To make sense of the universe of options out there in the world if you're starting from scratch, make an outline / map it out. Fill in detail as you learn more - what do people in different roles do, what are the common pathways / career progressions (w/ the grain of salt that these are examples/guideposts but your career will likely take unexpected turns). (2) Take notes on your networking calls/interactions - it doesn't have to be in the moment (better to fully focus on the interaction), but when the call/coffee ends, jot down whatever stuck out to you - did you learn anything new? Did the person seem like someone you could reach out to again / develop a rapport with (or did you get the sense they simply treated the meeting as a formality)? Did your internal BS detector go off (did this person give you any truly interesting/helpful information, or did they seem surface-only)? (3) What do you think you want to do / tie that to what you're learning about different career paths (e.g., pros / cons of each direction, both from perspectives of your own interests/strengths/wants & what you're learning about common career paths).

Then, get Bayesian with it - review / update as necessary over time as you learn more: one of my favorite professors used to say "guys, your 20s are all about reducing information asymmetry between yourselves and the world"... there's a lot of information in the world, you start off knowing relatively little of it - as the post above notes, just keep learning and updating your views & something will work out; to the professor's point, a bad experience/job/internship isn't a career-killer as long as you frame it as 'ok, what did I learn from this experience and how do I avoid/(seek out) thing X that didn't work/(did work)' and then you use that to inform your next step.

Also, if you're not already doing it, leverage the power of second-degree connections. For example, at the end of a call with an alumnus/a who was willing to speak with you after cold outreach, slip in something along the lines of 'thank you for making the time to speak and your advice, I really appreciate it. I'll stay in touch, and if you think of anyone who you think it might make sense for me to speak with [about whatever field you've been discussing as something you're interested in], please let me know and I would be happy to reach out to them.' You never know who someone's neighbor, sister-in-law, kid's friend's parent is, and if they've already shown a willingness to speak with you, they might be willing to make an additional introduction. Some may think this is an obvious statement, but given the context in your post it sounds like you may be starting a little closer to scratch on this point, so, this is one way of working on it. Also from the post context, I'm assuming you might have trouble finding alumni directly in the career paths you're exploring (e.g., there's one person at a bank you're looking at, but not in the business line you're interested in); keep your scope broad, because even if the direct initial connection doesn't hit, one of these second-degree connections might pay off. 

On the theme of indirect paths (whether because that's the better approach, or you're forced into it by necessity) I'd also recommend The Dao of Capital by Mark Spitznagel. There are some takeaways for your current challenge if you reason by analogy.

PM me if you'd like to discuss further - I was once in a ~similar position.    

Mar 27, 2021 - 6:51am

Wow, amazing reply. Point #3 is a gamer changer for me. I met with an internal auditor who really liked me and I wasnt even into internal audit, just talked business with him. 1 conversation with him turned into 3 former investment bankers (2 corp dev and 1 fp&a currently). The impact of that last question is endless.

I will definitely write more down. I take notes about most of my calls, but I should take the time to organize all the notes in one central place. I think that would help with clarity.

I would love to PM you about this. Thank you so much again for all the advice.

  • Associate 2 in PE - LBOs
Mar 25, 2021 - 10:36pm

Yeah, I thought this coming out of school as well (wasn't as prepared as most people on this site). My first job was an FP&A rotation program. Could not stand it.

From some of your interests, I would push hard for some sort of front office role. I'm sure you've read here that IB can be a launching pad. All things considered you may want to give that your best shot

  • Prospect in AM - Equities
Mar 26, 2021 - 2:35pm

Student myself with similar background to you but from EU. From a small city and first person to enter university, knew jackshit about finance and still know very little I would say.

Worked at a start-up where I could wear many different hats and figure out what I wanted to do, then I got pulled into the "banking vs consulting" culture that exists at many universities. Interned in M&A and afterwards knew I didn't wanted to slave in IB for 1-2 years. Pivoted to AM and thought I were going to be the next big HF/AM guy and make bank. However, knew inside I weren't that interested in stocks and had to force myself in liking it most of the time. 

Now after having a course in university where we helped a promising start-up with their international expansion strategy, I realized I rather wanted to do something I am passionate about --> start-ups/product/strategy/investing. Think it is very underrated on WSO to try something you're actually passionate about, as you truly enjoy the work and your mental health is way better. I feel most people here only do internships that help them achieve the BB IB offer and therefore have not experienced the joy of doing something you actually like. I narrowed it down to those areas and my dream job now is to work in VC, which I plan to do through start-ups/tech PM roles and am now interviewing with start-ups and big tech firms. 

However, if you wanna do PE then yeah most likely gonna need to do that IB experience or consulting. 

To sum it up, try out a lot of different things as you and your interests change a lot. Went from BB IB or nothing to AM/HF guy and now to VC/start-up/product/strategy. My M&A and AM internships/part-time roles definitely still helped in landing my current interviews, so don't be afraid of being pigeonholed by internships or not bettering your chances of landing your current goals. Different experiences helps in answering why you then want this type of role. Keep the high GPA, extracurriculars, networking etc. and figure out through experiences what you want to do.

Mar 26, 2021 - 4:52pm

I think it's normal and expected to not know exactly what kind of career you want out of the gate. I'd focus on building skills in corporate finance/finance rather than worrying too much about planning a linear trajectory. The skill building process will help clarify your specific interests and enable you to forge a path.

Mar 27, 2021 - 6:54am

I agree with you. I've been reading and working through the Rosenbaum book and I've been actually enjoying it. Im sure if I started actually learning the skills for specific career paths it would help me gauge how much i would enjoy it.

Mar 28, 2021 - 1:46pm

That's terrific! You're a standout in that most analysts are foremost driven to the job my money and whether the work actually interests them is an afterthought. That said, keep in mind that entry level work will rarely encompass building complex bespoke models and discussing strategy with F500 c-suite. You will be churning tired templates and screwing with PP logos. Don't let that disillusion you!

Mar 27, 2021 - 1:46am

The Big 4 internship is a good start. At the very least, it will help you narrow down some options. Which group? 

I wouldn't worry so much about being pigeonholed this early on. This is more of a WSO-specific concern. In real life, you'll be regularly evaluating your career so you'll know when you're in danger of being pigeonholed. It's not going to sneak up on you. 

Try different paths and see what you like. Choose career tracks and companies that will keep teaching you interesting things. Don't force yourself into a path just because of some perceived prestige. If you can, start at bigger companies, and then you can move to smaller ones if you'd like. Working at a larger firm helps you with soft skills development, and processes and roles are more defined. You'll appreciate this more the further you progress. 

You said you want to be a leader ASAP. Do you mean like you want fast title progression or do you want to start managing people quickly? Banking and Big 4 give you quick title progression and the chance to manage underlings once you're 2-3 years out of college. Both are good experiences depending on your goals. 

Mar 30, 2021 - 7:40am

Yeah, worst-case scenario I end up at big 4 which would still give me some good leadership experience and financial knowledge. Pretty grateful that's my fallback plan. Hopefully MBA adcoms appreciate big 4 audit experience.

Mar 30, 2021 - 12:12pm

They do. Plenty of Big 4 audits go on to get MBAs from top programs. It's a good jumping off point; maybe a better one that you give it credit for. You may find that you just really like public accounting and stay. Or you may find that you hate it and leave after 1 year. The advantage is that Big 4s have other verticals that you can transfer to. I started in Big 4 audit, and I saw colleagues/friends transfer to advisory and consulting instead of leaving altogether.

Mar 27, 2021 - 3:40pm

Network brother. Talk to people in FP&A, IB, PE, Big4, Whatever you want.
Get to know them. Ask them about their ups and downs. Build relationships. You'll learn a lot and people will appreciate it a ton!

Mar 29, 2021 - 8:28am

I think the finance career is right for you only if you are excellent with numbers and you are very motivated to work long hours. I'm not talking about only financial motivation

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