The finance industry is wide ranging, and contains individuals, firms, and institutions that provide financial services to businesses and individuals. The career paths in finance can range from detailed-oriented operations roles like financial analysis to fast-paced sales roles like wealth management. Finance is a growing industry, with 7% expected job growth between 2021 and 2031 outpacing the national average, and had a median annual wage of $76,570 versus the national average of $45,760 in May 2021.
Financial firms include a broad range of different types of companies and industries, such as auditors, banks, insurance companies, wealth management firms, real estate firms, hedge funds, venture capital firms, and much more. In the United States, there are a host of regulatory agencies that regulate or assist in regulating the industries, including the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), and North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA).
Within the finance industry, there are three broad directions that can help you narrow down your career paths in finance: personal finance, corporate finance, and public finance. We’ll be exploring each of these three categories below, and also sharing advice on how to pursue a career in each area. We also cover the financial licenses and credentials required for each. Let’s get started!
Personal finance is focused on helping individuals manage their finances and make financial decisions. This is the most publicly recognizable finance job, and also the one where you’re working with everyday people (collectively referred to as “retail” or “retail investors”) to help them reach their financial goals. Because of this, some people find personal finance very gratifying.
Personal finance encompasses a few different areas, which can be broadly categorized into:
Made famous by Hollywood movies and pop culture, wealth managers are the primary entry level sales position for those looking to enter into the securities area of the finance industry. In a wealth management role, you are first tasked with acquiring clients, and then facilitating their investment transactions. Client relations and attention to detail are crucial to this role, as your clients will be putting their trust in you to manage their money effectively.
Wealth management advisers can execute transactions on almost all types of securities, including:
You need to get your FINRA Series 7 license to be able to transact almost all types of securities on your clients’ behalf.
This is the career path for those that want to guide their customers’ financial futures. Investment advisers are a hybrid of sales and financial planning, tasked with acquiring clients and then advising them on what they should do with their money. This can be very rewarding, as you can watch the financial fortunes of your customers grow and help them reach their financial goals like buying a home, paying down debt, sending a child to college, or preparing for retirement.
This may seem similar to wealth management, but the key difference between wealth management advisers and investment advisers is that the former sells products and executes transactions, while the latter gives financial advice. However, it is typical for someone to become licensed in both fields and take on both roles for their clients – recommending what they should do with their money, and executing the transactions that their clients want to make. Those that are licensed in and working in both roles are often referred to as ‘financial advisors’ colloquially.
Check out our deep dive on the topic if you’re interested in a career in wealth management and financial advising.
Becoming an investment adviser will require that you get a Series 63, Series 65, or Series 66 license. Check out that post to learn more about each one.
Insurance sales is similar to a wealth management career path, but the products that you will be selling will be focused on protecting your customers’ assets and their families. Like in wealth management, your role will primarily focus on acquiring clients and then facilitating their insurance transactions. There are many sub-industries within insurance, including homeowner’s insurance, car insurance, and more, and each sub-industry is massive in its own right.
If you work at an insurance company, you will need to be licensed in both the types of insurance you’re selling, and may also opt to get your FINRA Series 6 license to be able to sell both investment companies and variable annuities products to your clients.
Insurance sales people can execute transactions in the following areas with their Series 6 license:
Notice that this is a subset of the types of transactions that you can execute with a Series 7 license. If you’re unsure of which license is right for you, check out our guide on the Series 6 vs. Series 7.
There are many other career paths available within personal finance, such as real estate or estate planning, that we did not cover here, but the broad strokes are the same: you will be trusted with your clients’ financial future, and it is up to you to deliver results that help them reach their financial goals. This can be a very rewarding experience, and lead to bonds with your customers that last a lifetime. It is also a field that can require a lot of hard work, but the upside is that your earnings potential is very high, and often remains so throughout your career.
Most employers in personal finance typically hire students with a bachelor’s degree from a four year university. In the past, these jobs also often required that applicants have a degree specifically in finance, accounting, economics, or business administration, but that requirement has become more lax as personal finance roles have changed. Personal finance roles used to require a lot more in-depth knowledge and ability with numbers, but now much of that is handled by the administrative staff of the company you work for, and the focus of the role is on customer relations and sales. This means that personal finance firms are hiring people with much more diverse backgrounds in the last few years, such as retail sales, technology sales, and customer service.
All that said, it’s not necessarily a straight line to transition from a retail career to a finance one. In order to get a job in personal finance today, you must have a demonstrated ability to connect with and handle customers in high-stakes situations, some kind of business background, or a demonstrated interest in the industry you’re applying to. You can also show your proficiency in finance industry terminology, rules, and regulations by passing the FINRA SIE exam before applying for jobs. This is recommended for anyone, but is especially important for those that are not coming from a directly related field.
If you don’t feel like you qualify, don’t be discouraged: there are countless success stories of people who broke into the personal finance industry without the credentials asked for above. Check out our deep dive into how to get a career in finance to learn more about how to accomplish this as a recent graduate, switching industries, as a foreigner, or with no experience at all.
Corporate finance is focused on the management of business finances. Corporate finance roles are more numbers-focused and encompass many important tasks that are crucial to the success of businesses, such as: raising capital, forecasting, financial risk management, company reporting, financial strategies, investing, business-to-business financial advising, and mergers and acquisitions. Corporate finance jobs come with high pay, travel benefits, and a lot of prestige, but can come with a lot of pressure and long hours.
Corporate finance includes several high profile careers, which we’ll explore below:
Financial analysts are responsible for researching and evaluating the financial state or decisions of companies. This can be both internal and externally facing, depending on the role. The work performed by financial analysts is often used to make management or investment decisions for their company or clients. Financial analysis roles are very numbers-driven, and require good data analysis and math skills.
If your role is at a wealth management firm or a firm offering investment advice to clients based on your work, you may be required to obtain a FINRA Series 87 license. Many financial analysts also choose to pursue the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation, which is very rigorous and has three levels of exams, or the Chartered Market Technician (CMT) designation, which is similarly difficult.
Investment bankers help their clients raise money, grow their business, acquire new companies, and sell companies. Their clients include other large corporations including other financial institutions, private equity firms, hedge funds, and others. They also occasionally work with governments. Investment banking is one of the most lucrative and sought after careers in the finance industry, but it also has a reputation for having a very high workload.
Investment banking can be further divided into two main paths: underwriting, and mergers and acquisitions. Underwriting involves helping companies raise capital, most famously through initial public offerings (IPOs) but also through other means. Mergers and acquisitions involves helping companies buy or sell other companies or assets to or from another party.
Investment bankers are required to obtain their FINRA Series 79 license before interacting with clients on deals.
Venture capital investor is another highly sought after role, especially for those that are excited by new technologies and the allure of helping startup companies grow from nothing to massive corporations. Venture capital investors scout for startups that could be good investments for their firm, and also decide whether to invest in companies. Some venture capital investors also work closely with their firm’s portfolio companies to improve their business and raise additional capital.
Venture capital investors do not necessarily have to be FINRA-licensed to be employed, but many come from backgrounds in which they had obtained a FINRA license for previous roles.
Corporate finance jobs can be some of the most competitive jobs to secure in the finance industry. Most employers expect a bachelor’s degree from a four year university, with a specialty in finance, economics, business administration, math, statistics, or the social sciences. These roles are highly competitive, and so most successful candidates went to a top university and also had a high GPA at that university, in addition to being a part of clubs and societies related to the corporate finance world.
One way to get a leg up on other applicants is to show demonstrated interest in the field through independent projects or ‘doing the work ahead of time’. For example, someone looking to become a venture capital investor could arrive at an interview with a brochure of ten companies they recommend for investment, tailored to that firm’s specialties and stage. Another way to increase your chances is to use resources to improve your skills beforehand. Companies like Finance-able, WallStreetOasis, and Investopedia have created courses specifically designed to help corporate finance applicants, including interview preparation, Excel skills, and more.
Public finance, also known as municipal finance, is focused on managing the finances of public institutions, such as states, counties, cities, school districts, and government agencies. Public finance roles are concerned with tax collection, distribution of government funds, budget management and accounting, financing of public projects including tax-exempt funding, and improving the financial efficiency of public systems such as schools, roads, water, infrastructure, and public transportation.
Unlike personal finance and corporate finance, most public finance jobs are in the public sector – aka working for the government. Thus, many people who pursue a career in public finance are passionate about improving public services and helping the government best serve its people. This can be very fulfilling, but the pace of change can be slower than the other finance arenas as many changes require layers of approval or even voter approval.
Public finance roles may require specialized certifications and licensing, much like the FINRA-related roles above.
Public finance jobs typically require a bachelor’s degree from a four year university in finance, accounting, economics, or business administration. And they often prefer that you have a master’s degree in one of those areas. Academic credentials are important, and a high GPA is very helpful. Additionally, some interest in the government or public policy is encouraged, including political campaigns, local administration, or serving as treasurer or finance lead for local politically-aligned organizations.
One of the best ways to get a job in public finance is by interning for the organization that you want to work for. By having a strong internship, you get a foot in the door, prove your worth to the organization, and build relationships that will help you land the job. Another good way to get a leg up on other applicants is to volunteer or work for the campaign of an elected official that is related to your target organization. This will both give you valuable relevant experience and also a strong connection to the organization if that elected official wins.
If you want to work in finance, chances are you’ll need a FINRA Series license. What is a FINRA license? Below is a quick breakdown of some of the different entry-level licenses and the finance career paths they unlock put together by Jeremy L. Pardue on WallStreetOasis. We liked this guide because it’s very quick to read, and have his permission to post it below. We have also compiled a complete list of all FINRA, NASAA, MSBR, and NFA licenses). All exams require sponsorship from your firm and are provided by FINRA unless otherwise noted.
FINRA SIE: Your general investment knowledge test – it’s composed of material previously tested within other tests and merged into one entry exam. The SIE exam serves as a benchmark for candidates seeking sponsorship for other exams. No sponsorship required. (Achievable has a FINRA SIE course, and you can try a FINRA SIE practice exam free to get a sense for the test.)
FINRA Series 7: Allows the previously listed Series 6 transaction types plus stocks, bonds, direct participation plans, and options. Generally referred to as the Stock Broker License. (Achievable has a FINRA Series 7 course, and you can try a FINRA Series 7 practice exam free to get a sense for the test.)
FINRA Series 9 / 10 is basically the supervisory equivalent of the 6. The 24 is the same for the 7, and is known as the General Securities Principal.
FINRA Series 52: Municipal underwriting exam, used to be included in the 7 prior to 2008. Examination is provided through the MSRB.
FINRA Series 57: For securities traders.
FINRA Series 63: Allows you to solicit the sale of securities. (Achievable has a FINRA Series 63 course.)
FINRA Series 65: Allows you to provide investment advice for a fee. (Achievable has a FINRA Series 65 course.)
FINRA Series 66: The combination of the 63 & 65. (Achievable has a FINRA Series 66 course.)
FINRA Series 79: The investment banking representative exam. It permits you to render advice for M&A, debt/equity public and private offerings, tender offers, etc.
FINRA Series 86 / 87: Research analyst exams. 86 is the first part, and 87 is the second. They present competency standards for the role. CMT and CFA holders can request exemption from the 86, but will still require the 87.
Careers in finance are lucrative, impactful, highly competitive, and often stressful. For most, the benefits far outweigh any negatives. Just remember to do your homework before applying to finance industry roles, and make sure to show professionalism, personability, skill with numbers, and attention to detail. And if you know a FINRA SIE is required for the role, consider passing the FINRA SIE exam before applying to give yourself a leg up. Good luck!