Do You Need a Degree to Be a Trader?

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Written By
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Written By
Dan Buckley
Dan Buckley is an US-based trader, consultant, and part-time writer with a background in macroeconomics and mathematical finance. He trades and writes about a variety of asset classes, including equities, fixed income, commodities, currencies, and interest rates. As a writer, his goal is to explain trading and finance concepts in levels of detail that could appeal to a range of audiences, from novice traders to those with more experienced backgrounds.

A degree is not always necessary to become a trader.

While some firms may require formal education for credibility and foundational knowledge, many prioritize hands-on experience and skills such as analytical thinking and synthesis of ideas.

Moreover, the accessibility of online resources and platforms allows individuals to learn and practice trading independently.

Additionally, certifications and short courses can provide focused, practical skills needed in the trading sector that you can’t get through traditional schooling.

Thus, the necessity of a degree can vary based on individual circumstances and the specific requirements of a trading firm.

Of course, if you are trading on your own, there are no strict requirements. Of course certain skills, abilities, learning, and training are necessary.


Key Takeaways – Do You Need a Degree to Be a Trader?

  • Varied Paths to Trading: The necessity of a degree for trading careers depends on individual and firm-specific factors. Many successful traders prioritize practical experience, analytical thinking, and other cognitive abilities over formal education.
  • Value of Alternative Learning: Access to digital technology, online resources, and certifications allows individuals to acquire practical trading skills independently, often leading to successful careers without a traditional degree.
  • Benefits of Formal Education: Despite the alternatives, a degree can offer structured learning, networking opportunities, and meet certain employer requirements, providing a foundation and credibility in the trading field.


Reasons Why You Don’t Need a Degree

Emphasis on Different Cognitive Abilities

In trading, creativity, vision, intuition, synthesis, idea generation, and decision-making skills are most important.

Those things are more difficult to teach and assess in school.

In school, a lot of the focus is on memory and processing speed (largely because they’re easier to grade and measure) as well as your ability and willingness to follow instructions.

Memory, processing speed, and following directions are generally of limited value in trading because the computer and technologies you use handle all those kinds of tasks in a way that’s much faster, more accurate, and less biased than any human could hope to do.

The ability to become a successful trader, investment banker, etc., is not very dependent on academic qualifications.

Firms value the skills and attributes that candidates bring, which can be developed outside of formal education.

Related: David Rubinstein on the Qualities of Good Investors

Practical Experience

Learning how to navigate financial markets and understanding economic dynamics often come from practical experience rather than formal education.

This kind of expertise is more effectively acquired through hands-on experience rather than through theoretical education, which might not prepare individuals very well or give them much (or anything) in the way of practical skills.

Access to Information

Digital tech has democratized access to information, providing individuals with a variety of resources online.

These include tutorials, courses, and platforms that facilitate learning and practicing trading without the necessity of formal education.

This enables individuals to build a career in financial markets with self-guided learning.


Building a network and establishing relationships with mentors in the field can offer insights and knowledge that aren’t readily available in formal education settings (though formal education can help open these).

Networking allows individuals to learn from the experiences of seasoned professionals, which can be very useful in carving out a successful career in the financial markets.

Creative Strategies

Success in the financial markets – especially since tactical trading is a zero-sum game – often comes from new strategies and thinking outside the conventional frameworks.

Formal education settings usually focus on established theories and models, which might not encourage out-of-the-box thinking.

In contrast, experiential learning fosters innovation, enabling individuals to develop unique strategies that can lead to success.

Personal Traits

In the financial markets, personal traits such as discipline, patience, and psychological resilience often hold more weight than formal education.

These traits assist individuals in navigating the markets, helping them to achieve success through perseverance and a balanced approach to trading.

There are always setbacks in trading. Nothing ever goes in a straight line.

Learning from Mistakes

The financial markets offer a platform where individuals can learn quickly from their mistakes, a vital aspect of experiential learning.

This continuous cycle of improvement helps individuals to refine their strategies and adapt to the market conditions, fostering a career built on practical knowledge and experience.

Certifications and Short Courses

Instead of pursuing extensive formal education, individuals can opt for certifications and short courses that focus on imparting practical skills necessary in the financial markets.

These courses offer a more direct route to acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in a financial markets career, without the time and financial commitment of a full-fledged educational program.

Investment banks and trading firms often prioritize the pool of talent over specific educational content when hiring.

This means that while having an undergraduate degree or an MBA can be beneficial, it’s not the core reason these firms hire candidates.

The curriculum itself isn’t the primary concern; rather, the focus is on the qualities and potential of the individuals.


Reasons Why You May Need a Degree

Credibility and Knowledge Foundation

Having a degree can lend credibility to a trader, showcasing a solid foundation of knowledge in finance and market principles.

Formal education may provide understanding of the theories and concepts in finance, economics, and business, which can be beneficial.

Meeting Employer Requirements

Many trading firms and financial institutions have set educational qualifications as a prerequisite for certain positions.

Having a degree can therefore open up opportunities and meet the employer requirements. This can facilitate entry into reputed organizations that prioritize formal education.

Sometimes, degrees act as a sort of filtering mechanism.

For example, it’s well-known in investment banking that there are “target schools” where most bankers come from.

When there are thousands of applications for one spot, requiring a degree is a simple way to start cutting the pile.

Significance of Undergraduate or Business School Reputation

For roles in investment banking, the prestige of the business school can be more critical than the specific curriculum studied.

Top-ranked MBA programs are preferred because they are seen as pools of highly accomplished individuals – with the educational institution doing a lot of the filtering for the company (via their admissions process and candidate’s aptitude to get through the program successfully).

Success in securing positions in recognized trading or investment banking firms can depend significantly on graduating from a top business school.

Access to Structured Learning

Pursuing a degree offers access to structured learning, where individuals can systematically acquire knowledge and skills under the guidance of experienced educators.

This structured approach can sometimes offer a more in-depth understanding compared to self-guided learning, preparing individuals better for a career in trading.

Networking Opportunities

Educational institutions often provide a platform for networking, where students can connect with peers and professionals.

This network can be a valuable resource in building a successful career, offering opportunities for collaboration and learning from experienced individuals.

Research and Analytical Skills

Formal education often emphasizes the development of research and analytical skills, which are important in trading.

Through a degree program, individuals can learn to analyze market trends and data effectively, helping them to make informed decisions in the trading sector.



Most Financial Professional Have a Degree, But…

Most people working in so-called high finance have college degrees, but a majority will tell you that they didn’t get a whole lot of value out of the academic part of it or the experience, in general. 

A lot of the information you’re taught is outdated, irrelevant, or simply wrong and won’t teach practical, monetizable skills that are useful for an employer or for an entrepreneur running their own business. 

Most of the skills they learned came from their actual experience working in the industry learning how to solve real-world problems. The education and training then ends up falling on the employer (if they go into salaried work) because they didn’t learn very much that’s actually useful and prepares them for employment. 

In some branches of finance (e.g., hedge funds, private equity), some firms won’t hire directly out of undergraduate or MBA programs because they haven’t developed the skills they’re looking for because they simply aren’t taught in schools.

They would prefer that an investment bank, asset manager, or some other firm hire them first instead to reduce the cost of training and cost of hiring wrong.

And even those firms that hire for entry-level don’t particularly care about your curriculum, but rather the potential and attributes of the candidates and being able to cost-effectively hire out of a particular talent pool.

Some financial professionals, like financial advisors or accountants, learn practical skills through CFP or CPA training, which is independent of traditional university education. Some asset management firms value the CFA credential, while other branches of finance find zero value in it.

Even roles like quantitative finance, which has a more academic bent to it, almost all of it will be a function of self-teaching or learning through real experience. Academic models are simplistic and flawed, and the adversarial and technologically intensive nature of the work means many models and operating procedures become outdated quickly and adding value requires a lot of creativity, synthesis, vision, and other cognitive abilities that aren’t typically valued, developed, or rewarded well in an academic environment.


Conclusion – Do You Need a Degree to Be a Trader?

It depends.

It’s dependent on various factors including individual circumstances and specific firm requirements.

While a degree can provide a solid foundation of knowledge, credibility, and access to structured learning and networking opportunities, it’s not always a prerequisite for success in trading.

If you’re self-employed you can often do whatever you want.

The decision to pursue a degree or opt for alternative or more hands-on learning routes should be based on individual goals, learning preferences, and the specific requirements of the career path chosen within the trading sector.