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The qualifications you need to work in banking, trading, and more

Investment banks aren’t known for being qualification purists – not to the extent that lawyers are, at least – but that doesn’t mean that you can rock up with any old degree and expect to get a job after a coffee and a chat, although that isn't the most absurd way to go about things.

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You also shouldn’t expect your degree to be the only qualification you need to climb the ladder, either. There are a smorgasbord of acronyms that you can collect on your financial services career, such as the CFA, CAIA, FRM, PRM, ACA, ACCA, and so on.

But which ones do you really need? And which ones are a fun addition to have while you apply to your first internship? Well, it depends on the job you want. Let’s take a look by sector.

Qualifications you need to work in M&A Advisory

Mergers & Acquisitions jobs, also known as M&A jobs, advisory jobs, or M&A advisory jobs, are some of the most in-demand jobs in finance.

The competition means that you, as an applicant, have to maximise your chances of getting in to an internship. That means, in all likelihood, forgoing your dream English Literature degree for something more analytical such as finance, or a STEM subject. 

A brief look a recent recruits to Goldman Sachs' M&A advisory team suggests the most popular degree subjects for junior M&A bankers are economics, finance and business management. At JPMorgan, they include much the same thing. Some off-piste degree subjects include philosophy and foreign languages. 

How else can you embellish your CV? If you’re in the UK, you might want to try the Certificate in Corporate Finance offered by the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment (CISI). The Financial Modeling & Valuation Analyst (FMVA) qualification, offered by the Corporate Finance Institute, could also help you out.

You may also want to study for the exams run by the CFA Institute. Historically, the three CFA exams, which lead to a CFA Charter, were used by people working in research jobs and the asset management industry. In the past few decades, the CFA has also become much more popular in areas like M&A, with junior bankers and students often studying for the CFA Level 1 qualification to differentiate their CVs, successfully or not.

The other key qualification for achieving an M&A job has historically been a top MBA. MBA qualifications are usually open to people with a few years' experience at work. Historically, junior bankers would spend two years as an analyst before leaving to complete an MBA and then returning to work as an associate, but this process has changed and MBAs are no longer mandatory. Even so, MBAs can still be a way to enter an M&A job mid-career or to swap into a top tier bank.

Qualifications you need to work in Sales & Trading

Sales and trading roles are very different to M&A advisory ones, but they tend to recruit the same caliber of people. Although you can hypothetically get in with any degree, it’s likely to best to flex some analytic aptitude with a finance or STEM subject. Recent sales and trading junior recruits at JPMorgan graduated in economics and sciences, particularly mathematics. At Bank of America they graduated in similar roles, with STEM subjects slightly more prevalent.

If you’re looking for something else to fluff up your CV, the Bloomberg Market Concepts (BMC) course could help. This is a self-paced e-learning course that lasts around 8 hours and teaches the very basics of high finance, and how to use the Bloomberg Terminal; finance and economics students will likely be quite bored in the process, however, with the concepts staples of their courses.

Increasingly, it helps if traders have some understanding of coding. There are number of options available, mostly to learn online: coding is one of the few places where self-taught people are held in as high regard (if not higher, among the known) than academically qualified people. The most popular way to self-teach (and which offers you a certificate at the end of it all) is Codeacademy, which offers courses on Python, Java, and C++, among others.

There's also the ICMA Fixed Income Certificate, which is issued in the UK, which is very very expensive and lasts four weeks' worth of webinars. You can also pay more and have classroom teaching (for one week) in Amsterdam. It's not mandatory anywhere, but it's well-known enough to potentially make a difference to your internship application.

Masters in finance qualifications are also relevant to sales and trading. If you want to work in quantitative and electronic trading, however, you could also consider a masters in financial engineering, which focuses on not just financial topics, but also how statistics and adjacent topics, such as machine engineering, integrate.

In the US it’s mandatory for salespeople and traders to study for the Series 7 exam, as mandated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). The exam makes sure that salespeople understand what they’re selling. You’ll need to be sponsored by an approved firm to do the exams, so don’t overthink this one – your bank will guide you through the process.  

Qualifications you need to work in Capital Markets

Capital Markets roles have a similar skillset to M&A advisory ones – there’s a reason that the phrase “investment banking” applies to them as a collective. That means, much like in M&A roles, getting a finance or STEM degree is probably the best bet, although neither are strictly necessary. Recent Equity Capital Markets hires at Citi, much like M&A bankers, are hired from finance, economics, and business degrees. Debt Capital Markets bankers at Deutsche Bank had similar profiles, although we have seen communications graduates too, of all things in the world.

Away from your degree, you could – like M&A – study for the CFA Charter, or a good MBA a few years after you graduate. There’s also the Diploma in Capital Markets by CISI, which gives you an idea of how capital markets operate; the level of knowledge is probably not worth a week of work experience, but it could make the difference in an interview before you have the aforementioned work experience.

Qualifications you need to work in Research

The CFA Charter and the three related CFA exams were designed for researchers, so this is the critical qualification here. If you want to work in research, it probably helps to start studying the CFA Level 1, even at university.

What about your degree, though? Looking at Citi and SocGen’s recent graduate recruits in research, it seems like the same sort of mix as for investment banking, although with slightly more finance and slightly less economics graduates. There were also more mathematics graduates.

If you're going to work in research, it will help if you can read a balance sheet. This is why it can help to have an accounting qualification like the ACA in the UK or the CPA in the US. The Financial Modeling & Valuation Analyst (FMVA) qualification offered by the Corporate Finance Institute (CFI) could help here too, although it seems more of an American phenomenon.

Because researchers often specialize in particular sectors, there can be more variety in the qualifications used here. Medical doctors will sometimes cover biotech firms, for example. After a few years in a particular industry, like healthcare, an MBA can provide an opportunity to pivot into a research job at associate level.

Qualifications you need to work in Private Equity

What do private equity professionals study? Taking a look at American juniors in Blackstone and Apollo, it seems to be a mix of mostly finance and business studies graduates – there were less economics graduates than in investment banking roles. European firm CVC had a similar breakdown, but all three firms had persistent numbers of humanities students in analyst roles, too.

Historically, the MBA has been the key entry qualification for a private equity job. Top MBAs, historically, have generally come from three places: Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton. But although MBAs are still popular, they’re less of the big deal they were in the past, as private equity firms are increasingly training their own juniors internally.

Other qualifications for PE jobs might include a Masters in Finance, a Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA), or if you’re in the UK, Oxford University’s private markets investments programme, which lasts six weeks.

Qualifications you need to work in Asset Management

Asset management roles are pretty broad, but they take a range of graduates depending on function, most of which have an overlap with their investment banking counterparts, such as compliance analysts having a legal background. For front-office roles at major firms such as BlackRock and State Street, most graduates appear to be in finance and economics again, although there was a wider variety of qualifications than in investment banking front-office roles.

If the CFA exams and CFA Charter are critical anywhere, it's in asset management roles. There’s a lot of overlap between what equity researchers and asset managers do, actually – one just puts their money where their mouth is. For that reason, the FMVA could also be highly valued in an asset management career, especially for interviews. There's also the Institute of Asset Management's IAM Certificate, which we've also seen in our research, even though it isn't as popular as the FMVA.

Something that's both gained and lost traction over the years is ESG-related investment roles. Although banks don't appear as interested in the space as they used to be, it's still a big deal for asset managers, especially in Europe. For that reason, it might be worth looking into CFA Institute's ESG Certification on the continent. CFA Institute also offers the Investment Management Certificate (IMC) in the UK, which is a CFA Level i-tier certificate for asset management.

Although asset management firms don’t recruit on the scale of investment banks, there are still summer associate programs, which means that an MBA can also be valuable. It also means that an MBA can enter the sell-side and “lateral” into asset management with some investment banking or research experience.

Qualifications you need to work in a Hedge Fund

Hedge fund juniors study hard. Looking at analysts at Citadel and Millennium – two of the biggest hedge funds in the world – show that hard sciences (especially mathematics and physics) are very much preferred over anything else, although there were a handful of “traditional” financial services graduates scattered throughout.

Aside from a hard numbers degree, it might be worth quantitative hedge fund aspirants angling for the Certificate in Quantitative Finance (CQF), which aside from having some directly applicable knowledge, also gives you access to a well-known and well-connected alumni network. And although hedge funds recruit frequently from investment bank sales & trading programs, there’s no need to sit FINRA’s Series 7 exams. There's also the Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA) course, which isn't strictly necessary anywhere, but doesn't hurt, either. 

An MBA might help, particularly if you want a non-investment role in a hedge fund. In 2023, 6% of Harvard MBAs went into hedge funds or asset management. A Masters in Finance or MFE will also be helpful, with an MFE particularly helpful for quant funds. At top quant hedge funds, which use systematic investment processes, quantitative PhDs are popular. As funds make energy investments based on weather predictions it may also help to have studied … Meteorology.

Qualifications you need to work in a Quantitative role

Quantitative roles in banking tend to recruit a very specific niche of people. Looking at Barclays and UBS, most quantitative-related juniors studied STEM subjects, with mathematics in particular being highly prized, although there were also finance and engineering students in the mix. Masters in Financial Engineering graduates might stand to benefit the most, however, although the small number of courses means that their alumni network is spread thin.

As mentioned above, your best bet after an undergraduate course will require you to think big. Bigger than just a CQF, in fact, because most quantitative roles are completely indifferent to your understanding of the financial services industry, just your ability to create hyper-complex mathematical models. For that reason, quants are disproportionately likely to hold some sort of masters degree or PhD in a STEM subject. This includes physics, but also maths, chemistry, or computer science. In France, many quants historically studied the Masters in Probability and Finance at the Ecole Polytechnique and University Paris-VI under Nicole El Karoui. She has now retired, but the course continues.

Qualifications you need to work in Risk Management

Working in risk isn’t necessarily as intense as working in a front-office function, but it does require a similar sort of education - risk professionals, after all, use numbers as frequently in their jobs as investment bankers do. Looking at Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank risk juniors, the most popular degrees were in economics and finance, although there were also law and accounting degrees represented in their junior cohorts.

Additional qualifications in risk are a bit more varied, however. Although there were some risk professionals who held a CFA, the more specifically-relevant qualifications in the field are the Financial Risk Manager’s (FRM) qualification and the Professional Risk Manager’s (PRM) qualification. Although both are based in the US, and the PRM specifically is seen as a prerequisite to a career in the field, both are recognized worldwide. Both require two year’s of work experience, however, so not to concern yourself with until your career has begun.

Qualifications you need to work in Technology

The qualifications you need to get into a bank’s technology team depends on what exactly you want to do there, but as a rule of thumb, you’ll need a computer science degree, as a look at Goldman Sachs’ tech analysts shows. There were some exceptions, but mostly for software engineering graduates – computer science was the clear king of that particular hill.

A lot of the junior class held master’s degrees, too. Masters degrees in financial technology, such as those offered by Imperial College London and the University of Hong Kong, could be particularly valuable here.

In the age of AI and AGI, however, that might not be enough to make the big leagues. Some bank roles, such as cutting-edge machine learning roles, can require a PhD in those topics or adjacent ones such as Natural Language Processing (NLP).

It's also possible to get directly into a banking role before your bachelors degree even starts (kinda). Some banks and universities, mostly in the UK, have partnered to offer degree apprenticeships, which are a combination of formal university education and work experience. They're very difficult to get into, however.

Additional qualifications are harder to pin down, but depend on what you want to specialize in. In a lot of cases, they simply aren’t necessary – but if, for instance, you want to work in network engineering, it can help to have a Cisco-issued qualification such as a CCNA or CCNP.

Another entry point for a bank technology role is via the cloud. Banks works with different and varied cloud computing providers - such as Goldman and Amazon, or Deutsche Bank and Google - and specializing in their respective cloud services isn't unheard of as a way to get into the industry. All major cloud providers also offer qualifications and certifications to prove knowledge, and there are internships that also offer them in the process.

Qualifications you need to work in Compliance

Working in compliance is often associate or put next to working in risk, but the two hire very different people. A glance at JPMorgan’s junior compliance personnel, for instance, shows that a significant number studied law in some capacity, although not all – there were still significant numbers of economics graduates, but not as many finance. That’s a natural byproduct of a less numerically focused profession than other roles in an investment bank.

There are a number of additional qualifications that can be done in pursuit of a risk career, too. The CISI Diploma in Investment Compliance, for example, is a UK-focused qualification. There’s also the International Compliance Association’s ICA’s Compliance certificate, which is also UK-focused, although not as widely recognized as CISI’s.

There’s also scope for specialization further into your career. In private banking, for example, there’s the Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist (CAMS), issued by the US-based Association of Certified Anti-Money-Laundering Specialists. 

Qualifications you need to work in Accounting & Finance

Accounting in finance is probably a bank’s most normal division - it hires accountants. That means it has many of the same sort of hiring process as, for example, a Big Four accounting firm has. That’s mostly true, and a lot of trained accountants pivot to working “in the industry” for firms such as investment banks.

Taking a look at Bank of America’s accounting and finance juniors, most graduates are in economics and finance, as well as the expected accounting. There were also a number of mathematics graduates, but not very many outside of this group.

The additional qualifications are important in accounting and finance roles, but you’ll pick most of them up over time. Accountants pick up professional qualifications as they train, including the Associate Chartered Accountant (ACA) in the UK, as well as those given by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), or the Chartered Public Accountant (CPA). The exact qualification you’ll collect depends on where you work, both in terms of organization and geography.

Qualifications you need to work in Operations

People in operations make the magic function in an investment bank, but they have different skillsets than the people than make the magic happen. The junior ranks of Goldman Sachs’ operations team has an extremely varied range of graduate backgrounds, with law, economics, history, and management science all represented. If there was one choice that was more popular than others, however, it would be business, although not by much.

There aren’t really any additional qualifications to get if you work in operations. You have a lot of scope for extracurricular activities - hedge fund DE Shaw, for instance, hires painters and poets.

There's also the Investment Operations Certificate (IOC) from CISI, although like all CISI qualifications, it's primarily a UK-recognized qualification. It can also feed into CISI's global operations management qualification, a Level 6 diploma, which is hypothetically equivalent to a bachelors degree. CFA institute's IMC qualification might also be useful here, as a knowledge demonstrator.

Qualifications you need to work in Custody

Custody jobs are kind of like the operations jobs of the asset management industry in terms of function, although the day-to-day activity is very different. Therefore, no degree is strictly needed, but it probably won’t hurt to have a finance or business-related background. An analysis of State Street's custody analysts show a variety of degrees, with finance and law probably the most represented, although not by much.

Also like bank operations, custody has limited external qualifications associated with it. The Investment Operations Certificate (IOC) from CISI might be useful here, but once again, that’s mostly in the UK. There’s also the Diploma in Investment Operations (DIO), from the same organization.

Although custody roles are more operations than asset management, it might still be worth holding CFA Institute's IMC, if not the CFA charter itself.

Qualifications you need to work in Fintech

Fintech degree and qualification requirements are very much dependent on what the function you want to fulfill at a fintech is. As the name “fintech” implies, however, you’ll need a technology based with which to finance things. Looking at Stripe, the world’s largest fintech unicorn, a majority of their junior ranks are tech-related roles, held by computer science graduates. A compliance or operations junior will, of course, not have the same requirements.

There are a lot of auxiliary qualifications for fintech aspirants, although none are really essential. Some universities such as the UK’s University of Stirling offer straight up degrees in Financial Technology (FinTech), as does the University of West England, as a masters. Oxford University’s Saïd business school, meanwhile, also offers a 7-week online “fintech programme”, for a rather exorbitant price tag.

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AUTHORZeno Toulon

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