The term “mergers and acquisitions” conjures up images of back-slapping, suit-sporting Ivy League grads lounging about in mahogany-paneled boardrooms. In the rarefied world of high finance, the thinking goes, you’re either born with it…or you don’t belong.
Maybe this was the case at one time, but certainly not anymore. Every year, thousands of bright young people from all backgrounds go to school to learn about mergers and acquisitions, many in the hopes of becoming bona fide finance experts. Could you do the same? Absolutely. Here’s how:
You might not need an Ivy League pedigree anymore, but it remains hard to break into the M&A field without a four-year degree. Hone in on a program that plays to your strengths and has some relevance to the world of finance: business administration, accounting and economics are all worthy pursuits.
While you’re in school, strive to gain the sort of real-world experience that will shorten your learning curve once hired. The best route is probably an unpaid internship with a local bank, insurance company or investment firm. Be warned: Internship spots are limited and often quite competitive.
Pass Your Exams
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) requires M&A professionals to pass the Series 79 licensing exam, a complex and difficult test that demands careful study and a deep understanding of the material. The exam isn’t open to everyone: You need to be sponsored by an employer, either prior to hire (with employment possibly contingent upon passage) or within six months of your start date. Though you can’t take the test on a whim, the nice thing about the sponsorship model is that your employer is likely to cover any exam fees.
Series 79 is just the first step in the long walk toward M&A legitimacy. As you get deeper into the business, you’ll likely be compelled (or feel the need to) accrue additional credentials and certifications. For instance, you might need a particular certification to be considered for a promotion or a new job. One certification that nearly all M&A professionals eventually obtain is the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation, which requires you to take and pass three related courses and exams — a substantial burden that, for better or worse, has become table stakes for anyone looking to rise through management ranks.
Invest in Professional Development
It doesn’t stop with your CFA designation. Most firms expect their M&A professionals to invest in professional development throughout their careers. Even if your employer doesn’t have any special requirements, FINRA does: Prior to renewing your practice license, which must be done once every three years, you need to complete a two-step continuing education course that includes detailed instruction on new financial regulations.
Becoming a Finance Expert Isn’t for Everyone
The fact that you’re capable of something doesn’t necessarily mean you should rush into it with abandon. That’s especially true in the world of mergers and acquisitions, whose recent embrace of egalitarianism hasn’t altered a fundamentally cutthroat nature. If you’re going to be successful in M&A, you’re going to need a thick skin and plenty of self-confidence. The meek might inherit the earth, but only after someone else closes the deal.