Math, Money, and Mayhem: Is Finance a Good Career Path?

By  Sam Stone

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Working in finance can be highly rewarding, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right career path for everyone. Is a job in finance right for you?

Whichever era you grew up in, there is likely at least one Wall Street-centric movie from your youth that’s indistinguishable from an action movie. It had intrigue, adventure, tequila, flashing lights, characters screaming in the heat of the moment, and above all, unfathomable sums of money at stake. But is that what working in finance is like in the real world? And if so, is that the career path for you?

Like most movies, the investor-action genre has some basis in reality and a lot of creative embellishment. Working in finance can be highly rewarding both personally and monetarily, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. Take some time to consider what real finance careers look like before deciding if it’s the path you want to take.

Types of Roles and Careers in Finance

Like medicine, engineering, or education, finance is more of a broad field of occupations than a specific job. There are many unique roles, careers, and specializations within the industry. 

“There are numerous types of careers in finance, from accountants, actuaries, and insurance brokers to portfolio managers, directors of operations, and financial planners,” said Michael Raimondi, CFP and Wealth Manager at Clarus Group

“From financial journalists to private equity advisors, there are so many specializations within the industry that a young person needs to gain exposure to as many sectors as possible in order to see what ignites their passion,” he added.

“So the question is: why a career in finance at all? Wanting to make money is a great answer, but it cannot be the only answer. A young person must figure out what they are passionate about. For me, it was helping people, which is broad, but helping people with whom I have a shared experience became extremely important to me and has led me to serve my community while building a robust book of business.”

Each of these positions has its own requirements for education, experience, licensing, and the skills you can deliver. However, there are a few shared themes between them. 

In all cases, you will likely need at least a four-year degree and a willingness to continue growing as you progress in your career. And crucially, all require you to effectively process information that may sound dull to some, in an environment that is anything but.


Actuaries carry the heavy burden of assessing and mitigating risk for large organizations. Every financial business, from investing to insurance, has some level of risk. But, of course, the goal is always to minimize this risk to maximize the profit potential. This balance is where actuaries come into the picture.

These professionals typically have four-year degrees in math or finance-related programs. They apply this heavily analytical background to gather and process data to help their organizations make informed decisions. This role can be demanding, but it is also in high demand, giving it excellent pay potential.


An industry that relies so heavily on numbers will always need people to look at and make sense of those numbers. As a result, there are many types of analysts in the finance world, such as economic, financial, and quantitative analysts (“quants”). 

In general, much like actuaries, these analysts work to build and understand mathematical models that help drive financial decision-making. Analysts typically have a minimum four-year degree, although many also have higher degrees such as MBAs or even Ph.D.s in various mathematical and economic fields.

Financial Advisor

Financial advisors are the many different types of professionals who help individuals and families manage their money. They have various titles, such as financial planner, wealth manager, finance coach, etc.

There is a range of educational backgrounds for financial advisors, but many have a four-year degree in something related to finance. Advisors also typically hold at least one of the many certifications available, such as:  

These advisors may help clients with anything from investment guidance to tax preparation. However, most professionals in this space stick to a particular specialty.

Some financial advisors are investment brokers who sell investment products to their clients and earn commissions. Others operate as fiduciaries, meaning they carry and uphold a legal requirement to put their clients’ best interests first.

Investment Banker

One of the flashiest and most high-octane roles in the finance industry, investment bankers deal with massive wealth at an institutional scale. They work with private and government entities to create wealth through various means, including large-scale investments, mergers and acquisitions, new asset offerings, and venture capital.

Investment banking is a prestigious and highly competitive role within the finance industry. Entrants typically need higher degrees, such as MBAs from elite institutions, to enter this field. For those who do, it is a wild ride with significant earnings potential.

Portfolio Manager

Much like investment banking, portfolio management is a prestigious and competitive financial role. Managers select investments and trades for a mix of mutual funds, hedge funds, and individual clients.

A portfolio manager is like a high-profile financial advisor. Both seek to process data and make clever decisions to maximize their clients’ overall return on investment. However, one of the main differences is that portfolio managers typically work at a larger scale, with financial institutions and professional investors as clients.


When it comes to high-intensity, fast-paced action, traders tend to find themselves right at the heart of it. Traders usually work for large investment banks or other financial institutions. They work on the front lines, buying and selling the assets in which their institutions deal. 

Working as a securities trader may prove a valuable inroad to other opportunities in the finance industry. Successful traders often go on to manage funds or portfolios. They usually have four-year degrees in finance or business-related fields, and many also seek licensing through exams such as the Series 7.

How Difficult is a Career in Finance?

While each career in finance is unique, each can offer a distinct basket of difficulties.

Most, if not all, finance careers require strong analytical thinking and education in various math fields. While this is an enticing invitation to some, it isn’t very comforting to others.

In many financial careers, you need to live and breathe numbers throughout your work and be able to grasp complex mathematical models quickly in your head. You can see this through the academic backgrounds of many individual fields and the ongoing testing, licensing, and certification requirements

There is also the high pressure to consider. So much of finance involves making decisions where real people’s money is on the line. Often, finance professionals need to make these decisions in a narrow timeframe and with imperfect information.

Frequently making high-stakes decisions can be mentally and emotionally taxing.

In the simplest terms, finance is not for the faint of heart; it is a high-ask, high-reward path to follow.

Tradeoffs of Working in Finance

There are several pros and cons to a career in the finance industry. And intriguingly, most of these pros and cons go hand-in-hand. Each is a simple fact about the industry. Whether it is a positive or a negative mark on the viability of these careers relies on your interpretation.

For instance, finance can be highly lucrative if money is your primary concern. Most roles offer a high salary range and access to further pay incentives such as commissions and investing opportunities. But, of course, they don’t give you all that cash just for showing up. You must meet rigorous education requirements, high demands for working hours and output, and constantly push yourself to continue offering value.

Finance careers can be highly engaging and intoxicatingly exciting. Yet, at the same time, you can expect long hours, significant pressure, and heightened emotions in the people around you.

The culture of Wall Street is a matter of frequent concern. The high demands and pressures create an interpersonal brusqueness that is wholly unhealthy for many people. Yet, for some others, the environment can be a great fit.

Another tradeoff is flexibility for instability. Employment at top investment banks and institutions can be somewhat cyclical. While finance professionals can typically find new work reasonably quickly, they also shouldn’t rely on any one company being their “forever” employer. 

How to Break Into a Career in Finance

In recent years, access to more traditionally exclusive financial roles has become slightly more democratized. But, at the same time, back doors into positions and opportunities to “work your way up” from the bottom are slowly closing.

This shift means there are no shortcuts for current aspirants looking for a career in finance. Instead, you will need to take a clear path in and deliver results to advance your career.

Where this path starts, in practically every case, is education. A four-year degree in a relevant field is a must for almost any career in finance. There are many options, depending on the specific type of work you are targeting — finance, mathematics, economics, business, etc. Higher degrees are required for some roles but can help you in almost any.

Typically, the more rigorous your program and the more in-demand your degree, the more options you will have. For example, a Ph.D. in mathematics, statistics, or computing from a respected institution will open more doors than a bachelor’s degree in business from a less-competitive school.

If you can surmount the education hurdle to get started in finance, then the path forward is clear: put in the hours, deliver significant results, and climb your way up by showing value.

Is Finance the Right Career Choice for You?

Whether or not your dream is to be the next Gordon Gekko or Jordan Belfort, a career in finance could be a world of opportunities. If you’re looking for an exciting world that will continuously challenge you and offer the potential for growth and financial gain, consider some of the many options you may have in finance.

Of course, it’s also not for everyone. Most careers in finance require a rigorous education, ongoing commitment, and thick enough skin to survive in a high-intensity environment that can be rather callous. Like any career decision, this one has many sides and is worth taking your time to consider carefully.

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About the Author

Sam Stone (Smarter and Harder)

Sam is the founder of personal finance and self-improvement blog Smarter and Harder. His mission is to start exciting new conversations that empower people to improve their work, lives, and money, and have fun doing it. In all things, he strives to lead with positivity, understanding, and more than a bit of enthusiasm.

To make Wealthtender free for readers, we earn money from advertisers, including financial professionals and firms that pay to be featured. This creates a conflict of interest when we favor their promotion over others. Learn more. Wealthtender is not a client of these financial services providers.
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