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Investment Industry Career Paths

If you are a college student or a job seeker looking for a varied career that allows you to work with people and in which you can make a positive social change, a finance career might be for you. Within the financial system, there are many people-facing roles that provide services to facilitate successful saving and investing for both individuals and companies. Explore below to get familiar with finance industry and investment management jobs.

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Structure of the Financial System

Let’s take a broad look at how the financial system is set up and why so many financial services jobs exist to support saving and spending activities.

  • The financial system helps link savers, including individuals, companies, and governments who have money to invest with spenders who need money to achieve a variety of goals
  • Most often, investors cannot analyze, plan, and execute all saving and spending activities on their own, so intermediaries (i.e., financial services professionals) are needed to support these activities either directly or indirectly.
  • Within the financial system, the investment management industry offers a range of products and services to savers and spenders to channel funds between them. Investments can be made in a wide range of assets, including real assets (e.g., land, buildings, machinery, cattle, gold, forests, etc.) and financial instruments (e.g. shares, debt securities, mutual funds, etc.)
  • Financial services intermediaries can also play an important role in the areas of corporate management and strategy, such as planning mergers and acquisitions or assisting with capital raising for startups; they can be key in minimizing risk for institutions across many organizations, from hedge funds to commercial banks; and they can be advocates for ethics and compliance with laws and regulations in their clients' industries. 

Jobs in Finance: Types of Career Opportunities

To find out if finance is a good career path for you and what a typical finance career path looks like in the investment management industry, visit our finance professionals job description pages:

Quantitative & Analytical Roles

Client-Facing Roles

Transaction-Focused  Roles

Buy-Side vs. Sell-Side Jobs: What's the Difference?

You may be familiar with the descriptors "buy side" or "sell side" to describe investment firms. Knowing the difference between these two groups may help you to narrow your financial career search to jobs that fit your interests.

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Buy Side

The buy side is comprised of institutional investors that seek to deploy capital into a wide variety of assets, such as equities (stocks), fixed income (bonds), real estate, infrastructure, etc. Using the language of "savers" and "spenders", this side deals more with the savers, including both retail investors (individuals) and institutional investors (pension plans, endowment funds, foundations, etc.).

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Sell Side

The sell-side is the part of the industry that is involved with the creation and sale of securities, primarily providing investment products and services. The sell side works for the companies they represent (e.g., an investment banker advising a company) and the investors they serve (e.g., a trader transacting on behalf of another investor). The major institutions on this side of the street are generally big banks.

 

The buy-side/sell-side classification does not apply to all firms in the investment industry. In addition, the buy-side/sell-side classification is somewhat arbitrary and not easily applied to many large, integrated firms. For example, many investment banks have divisions or wholly owned subsidiaries that provide investment management services, which are buy side. These functions are on the buy side, even though investment banks are sell-side firms.

Front, Middle, and Back of Office Roles

Another set of terms you may encounter in financial job descriptions is "front office", "middle office" or "back office". These terms are used to roughly group the major activities that happen within sell-side firms. The terms front office, middle office, and back office are generally not used when describing buy-side firms. However, the main departments of buy-side investment management firms are similar to those of sell-side firms. These departments include sales and client relations, investment research and portfolio management, trading, compliance, accounting, and administration.

Front Office Middle Office Back Office

Definition

Client-facing activities that provide direct revenue generation

Core support activities that enable the firm’s services to be carried out successfully

Houses the administrative and support functions necessary to run the firm

Examples

Trading, Portfolio Management, Sales, Customer Service

Risk Management, Information Technology (IT), Corporate Finance, Portfolio Management, Research

(especially if these departments do not interact directly with clients)

Accounting, Human Resources, Payroll, Operations

Responsibilities

Some practitioners consider the trading department to be a front-office activity, especially if the traders regularly interact with clients. Some consider research to be a front-office activity because it generates revenue from clients.

On the buy side, the front office also includes the portfolio managers, private equity / real estate directors and their analysts. They are the ones who ultimately are making the investment decisions.

IT activities are particularly important because most firms in the investment industry need to process and retrieve vast quantities of data efficiently and accurately. Risk management activities are also critical because they help ensure that the firm and its clients are not intentionally, inadvertently, or fraudulently exposed to excessive risk.

For brokerage firms and banks that provide custodial services, the accounting department is especially important because it is responsible for clearing and settling trades and for keeping track of who owns what.

Financial Education: Majors & Degrees

Most financial services jobs will, at a minimum, require a four-year degree (in the United States) or the international equivalent to a bachelor's degree. Hiring managers often prefer to recruit entry-level employees who have graduated with a degree in finance or a major in a related field such as accounting, business management or economics. In mid-to-senior level employees they often look for those who have previous career experience making financial decisions or giving financial advice. An advanced degree such as an MBA or professional development certifications such as the CFA charter and CPIM Certification are typically helpful for those who already work in financial services and are looking to improve their career opportunities.

How to Break into Finance from an Unrelated Field

Making a career change from an unrelated field to a finance job is not impossible, but you will need to familiarize yourself with the finance industry and financial regulations to improve your chances of success when applying. Whether you aim to work in an investment bank, commercial bank, hedge fund, investment firm, or in the finance department of an organization, you'll need to understand how financial markets work.

Finance Skills: Are My Talents a Good Fit?

The following skills are commonly transferrable across most finance roles, regardless of their buy side vs. sell side designation or where they might sit in a front, middle, or back office schematic.

  • Interpersonal communication
  • Attention to detail
  • Teamwork and relationship building
  • Analytical competency and critical thinking
  • Knowledge of global current events
  • Understanding of the financial system

Use the table below to see common financial, communication, and analytical skill sets that are more particular to the job divisions we outlined above:

  • Quantitative & Analytical Job Skills

    Mathematical Skills

    • Statistical inference
    • Forecasting 
    • Financial modeling
    • Financial risk analysis
    • Valuation   

    Programming Skills

    • Python programming
    • R programming
    • Data visualization
    • SQL querying
    • Database architecture
    • Machine learning techniques

    Communication Skills

    • Project management capabilities
    • Cross-functional teamwork
    • Workflow process management
    • Explaining complex concepts to a non-expert audience
  • Client-Facing Job Skills

    Financial Knowledge 

    • Investment strategy & processes
    • Performance measurement & risk management 
    • Familiarity with financial analysis tools 

     

    Communication Skills 

    • Public speaking
    • Using data to tell a story
    • Persuasion
    • Negotiation 
    • Emotional intelligence 

     

     Business Knowledge 

    • Expertise in client's sector 
    • Awareness of regulatory environment
    • Commitment to ethical best practices 
  • Transaction-Focused Job Skills

    Financial Transaction Knowledge

    • Understanding of markets & exchanges
    • Portfolio management & execution
    • Knowledge of asset classes & investment vehicles

     

    Personality Traits 

    • Entrepreneurial mindset with enthusiasm for driving profit
    • Willingness to work hours that correlate to global market openings & closings 
    • Comfort working in fast-paced environments 

     

    Other Key Skills

    • Analytical & problem-solving skills
    • Project management
    • Interpersonal skills
    • Meticulous recordkeeping

How Can the CFA Program Help You?

The CFA® Program curriculum is designed to provide you with the expertise and real-world skills in investment analysis that will help you begin or advance your career in finance. Candidates take on the CFA® Program exams for the final, prized result: becoming a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA). The CFA charter confirms your mastery of investment concepts and dedication to promoting ethics in the financial sector.

Explore whether CFA Program is the right choice for your next career steps

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