In my book (paperback edition: http://bit.ly/quant2, $9.82; Kindle edition: http://amzn.to/quantkindle, $3.99), I give some advice for readers who are already working in a non-financial industry and who are looking to get into the quant industry, on how to answer the question given in the title of this post.
As an econ professor at a large public university in the U.S., I have many undergrad students who already have a fulltime job but who are trying to finish their education and hoping to get a better job — and some of them want to land a career in high finance. So every semester, a few of them would come to me seeking advice on how to answer such a question at a job interview.
Tip#1: Do not mention money as the motive for your wanting to change careers. I’m sure this is by far the most important reason to you personally, but it’s best to leave it inside your heart rather than airing it out in front of an interviewer. There’s a cliché much respected in the hedge fund industry: A fund manager who only pursues money is doomed to failure, but a fund manager who pursues success will surely succeed. What this says is that while everyone in the finance industry is foremost motivated by money, it’s when you have a non-monetary goal, such as coming up with a market-beating strategy or doing better than your peers, that can motivate you better. The end goal is the same, but it’s how you frame the pursuit, and how you convince other people of your motives, that makes a world of a difference. This difference matters when you look for a job, and matters when you’re actually on the job. So financial interviewers often look down on candidates who talk nothing but money. People in finance have very little loyalty to their firms or bosses, but when it comes to interviewing future colleagues, they want to think you value loyalty and team work more than you value money. So always keep that in mind when you approach this question.
Tip#1a: But what if an interviewer pointedly asks you “Is money a reason why you’re switching careers?” Don’t lie. Unless money is truly not a reason in your case and you have very strong evidence to back up that claim (such as “I was a jet fighter pilot and I’ve always believed an ace pilot like me would thrive in a trading environment, that’s why I’ve been constantly on the lookout for an opportunity like this…”), you can acknowledge that better pay is indeed a reason, but not the main reason. Then, steer the conversation towards the lines of answering mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Tip#2: Besides money, do not mention any reasons that have nothing to do with your professional goals. For example, some people blurt out that they’re looking to change careers because they want to find a better-looking boyfriend/girlfriend, or they want to impress their friends’ wives/husbands, or they want to please their parents who want their kids to have a high-paying and respected job (the last of which is a pressure many Asian candidates face). If you’re genuinely not interested in your current job, you can frame your answer in terms of how a job in finance can provide you with the types of challenges and satisfaction you seek — and never fail to mention how you can contribute to the employer’s growth. (In an interview, always try to squeeze in a statement or two about how you can be a valuable asset to the employer, even when talking about yourself.) If you’re switching purely for personal reasons — scoring a better mate or pleasing your parents — leave those behind at home, instead talk only about your professional goals.
Tip#3: Do adequate homework on the employer and on the industry before you set foot in the door. Interviewers really, really hate candidates who know nothing about the firm or group for which the interview is held. Out of respect for your interviewer, you should understand what the firm and the specific department/group do and what they expect of candidates. If you walk in acting clueless as to what they want, the interviewer will surely think of you as a disrespectful person who’s wasting his/her time and will end the interview quickly, and not in your favor. There were countless times when I simply shook hands with a candidate to bid good-bye a couple of minutes after I shook his/her hand to say hello, once I realized that he/she had done absolutely no background research on what my company or what my group was involved in. Put yourself in the interviewer’s shoes for a moment: would you be interested in talking to someone who comes to you for a favor, yet who knows nothing about who you are and what you can offer?
Tip#4: Tie in your current situation to the job for which you’re interviewing. What kinds of skills can you bring to the table for the employer? What past projects in your current field that you completed reflect your competency and your “pursuit of excellence”? What accolades did you earn that represent your strengths? Before the interview, come up with a list of positive attributes that you can associate with your current (or past) job, and for each positive attribute prepare at least one specific example. Do not lie about your achievements in your current career. Many seasoned interviewers can smell BS the second it surfaces, and it’s always possible that HR may contact your past employers to verify the things you told the interviewers, such as “I was the Salesman of the Year at my company of 3,000 salesmen last year” or even something as innocuous as “My boss has praised me numerous times about my work efficiency.”
For candidates looking to switch into finance from another career, interviewers are interested in first what skills and knowledge the candidate brings to the new job and second whether the candidate is genuinely interested in staying in the new industry (as opposed to someone who sees the financial industry as another kind of lottery game). Keep these concerns of interviewers in mind as you march into a financial interview.