About a year ago, a survey revealed that "financial advisor" was the most desirable job in the country. High pay, flexible hours and a satisfying sense of being helpful, the article said. What's not to love?

No wonder I get so many inquiries from college seniors, exhausted day traders and retiring military officers in search of a new career. I'll bet you get your share of calls from strangers and relatives of clients asking for suggestions about the best way to get started in the advice business. So I thought if I packaged together some of the bits of counsel I have offered along the way, you could add your own insights, and maybe together, we could help aspirants decide realistically whether they are suited for this job. Not the job extolled in the survey, but the real one you and I work at every day.

Newbie On Line One

As I clicked off the Edgar Web site where I had finished downloading IBM's 10-k, the intercom crackled to life. My associate, Mike Roeder, announced, "Newbie on line one." "What movie?" I asked, misunderstanding his announcement. "It's that nephew of Mrs. Sullivan, the econ major you agreed to spend some time with to teach him what's involved in becoming a financial advisor. And remember, my job is not available!"

Mike doesn't have to worry about his job security. He's been doing a terrific job for us since he joined the firm in January. Anyway, I just agreed to meet with Mrs. Sullivan's nephew as a professional courtesy, not because we were interviewing for another planner candidate. Whenever I agree to this sort of "non-interview," I suppose the non-interviewee is really hoping to make a strong impression and spark our interest in his or her potential. But I keep saying yes, anyway, for two reasons.

First, because it is fun to be a part of the birthing process for new professionals. America is going to need thousands of good, honest personal financial advisors in the coming years, and like any seasoned advisor, I enjoy being part of their decision process and formation. And besides, it's flattering to be asked! Second, you never know when you will meet that standout personality who sparkles with such wit, wisdom and integrity, that you know you should create an opportunity rather than letting him or her go to work for your competitors.

Career Opportunities

At 8:30 a.m. sharp, Jeremiah Sullivan, a 21-year-old senior at University of Maryland, entered my office looking like he was about to present his first case before the Supreme Court. As I glanced down at my Friday khakis and golf shirt, I thanked him for dressing so respectfully and apologized for forgetting to apprise him of our almost-weekend dress code. I directed him to a chair at the conference table. As he removed his suit jacket, I was reminded of something my mother always taught me, "It's always more comfortable to be overdressed than underdressed." Jerry was off to a good start!

For the first 10 minutes, the young man held up his end of the non-interview, as I peppered him with the usual questions. What subjects did you excel in? Which did you like most? Why? Have you had any summer jobs in the financial field? Do you like to write? Are you patient? Get along with a lot of different people? Have you thought about grad school? Any relatives in the advice business? Tell me about your computer skills. What do you suppose a personal financial advisor's workday is like? Does that appeal to you? Why?

Jerry was articulate and thoughtful in his responses. For that I was relieved, because now I can tell Moira Sullivan honestly that her nephew makes a nice impression and that he is a credit to his family. Now we move into the harder stuff.

"Are there many entry-level job opportunities in the advisory field, Mr. Martin?"

"Please, call me Mike. Most personal advisors today work for large financial institutions such as brokerage firms and insurance companies, and they are always hiring new grads. A majority of those positions are compensated by commissions or have a salary that is directly influenced by the employee's 'production.' A growing percentage of advisors, though, are self-employed independents or work for fairly small independent advisory firms. Some of them have arrangements with brokers so they can sell commission-based products. Others conduct what are called fee-only advisory practices. Our firm is an independent, fee-only advisory practice." His wrinkled brow suggested that this description was not particularly enlightening.

"I've put together some of our firm's printed materials for you to read over when you have time. That will help you understand our approach to the advisory business." I pointed to the full folder at his elbow. "Have you had a chance to visit our Web site?" He blushed just a little as he sheepishly mumbled something about his busy exam schedule. I said, " I understand," as the image of my own first bumbling job interview flashed through my mind. But my silent thoughts were less generous: "Now I have to waste valuable time to go over what you could have familiarized yourself with before we met." Though I didn't say what I thought, I did decide I owed it to my client (his aunt) to mention as offhandedly as I could that he would get more mileage from subsequent interviews by visiting company Web sites beforehand.

"When I started working in 1964, I don't think there were any independent advisors offering financial planning and investment advice. In those days, there were no 401(k)s; most people retired from their jobs with pensions, not lump sums of money needing to be managed. Loan advice came from bankers, tax advice from CPAs, investment advice from brokers and your former roommate sold you life insurance. Bankers and CPAs were salaried, but insurance and securities brokers worked on commissions. When their customers (and they were called customers then, not clients) accepted their advice to buy or sell a policy or security, that's when the broker got paid.

"For some of my early years on Wall Street, I worked on commissions. I remember noticing that I exhibited much more enthusiasm for my recommendations late in the month when my mortgage was coming due and the kids needed shoes. It began to dawn on me how hard it was to be completely objective when I needed to make a sale. Today I call it a 'conflict of interest'; then I just knew it made me uncomfortable. If you pursue the idea of becoming an advisor, you will get used to the fact that compensation methods are a very sensitive topic, and people hold very strong opinions on both sides of the commissions vs. fees debate.

"Figuring out which kind of compensation is comfortable for you is going to be important because it will be a major factor in determining what kind of organization you work in. I strongly recommend that you talk with successful professionals from both the commissioned and fee-only worlds and form your own conclusions. But to answer your question, there are far more starting-level job opportunities in the large firms where you will be expected to build your own client base and be compensated accordingly. However, independents are growing rapidly and adding staff, so that direction is a serious alternative today.

"Finally, many successful independent advisors at one time took the risk of hanging out their own shingle. Starting your own practice is an option, eventually. But until you have acquired a reasonable range of skills, you're better off taking a 'day job' to pay the bills and using your evenings and weekends for a combination of studying and taking pro-bono or nearly-free assignments to get a feel for what it is like to work for clients."

Don't Give Up Your Day Job

"Jerry, sometimes I am asked about job opportunities by a 40-year-old army officer or an engineer who has developed an interest in investing and financial planning; they are trying to figure out how they can afford to make a career transition. Because they usually have families to support, my first advice to them has to be, 'Don't give up your day job.' But you are in a great place to begin building toward a career as a personal financial advisor, if you decide that's what you want to do. You're young and energetic, you're used to studying, and you have no dependents and modest personal financial needs. As you surmised from that survey, there are lots of things to like about working as an advisor. But it is a tremendous responsibility. People will trust you to guide them in very important aspects of their lives, and you don't want to take that on unless you have prepared yourself to do an excellent job.

"A good advisor can eventually be compensated very well, can even own and run his or her own firm. But the road is longer than you might imagine. I left the corporate world in 1987 to start Financial Advantage. With 23 years of professional investing under my belt and degrees in economics and law, I thought I had all the skills I would need to excel as an advisor. I was also fortunate enough to have a good nest egg to support my family while I launched the enterprise of my dreams. Despite my advantages, I was humbled to discover that I needed a lot more education and that it took nearly seven years before I could draw a real paycheck.

"It doesn't have to take that long. I made some classic mistakes, like taking on too much overhead (I bought a small office building and ended up being a landlord, which is a great distraction). I did not have a serious business plan (no definition of the services I would offer, what my fees would be or who my target audience was, just for starters!) Here are a few suggestions I can offer you from my own experience.

What It Takes

"The world of financial services has a long history of charlatans and pretenders; it's a history that you will need to overcome if you are going to win the trust of good clients. There are three requirements for success in this profession that I would urge every candidate to consider thoughtfully before pursuing a career as a personal financial advisor:

1) Become competent. One of the defining characteristics of modern financial planning is that it attempts to coordinate all the aspects of a client's financial life. To really serve as a person's or a family's primary financial advisor, you will need a surprisingly broad range of knowledge as well as a sense for when you need to invite in specialists. This sort of skill requires both study and experience. Being "interested in stocks" is not enough. (I mention that because a number of young people I have met in this sort of non-interview offer as their reason for wanting to be a personal financial advisor that they have "always been interested in stocks.") True competence is a demanding, lifetime pursuit. The more competent you become, the more valuable your service will be.

2) Get credentials. Competence is the first requirement, but even when you have a serviceable set of skills, you'll still need to convince either a prospective employer or prospective clients of your abilities. A CFP or CPA/PFS will at least demonstrate that you have been exposed to a wide range of financial knowledge and absorbed enough to pass a cursory exam. If you prefer to be a specialist in investing or insurance, you might consider a CFA or CLU. Decide what sort of advice you want to offer, research the credentials in that area and pursue your selection. Now, don't get all full of yourself when you have letters after your name. My opinion ... they are beginner's credential, a sort of uniform that lets the world know what you do. Like anything else in life, maybe 20% of the credentialed people will do it really well. Plan to be one of them!

3) Develop a heart for service. Before it is anything else, providing financial advice is a service business. If the idea of serving people is not attractive to you, this probably isn't your best career path. If people's troubles are an annoyance, if solving problems with emotional overtones doesn't engage you, if you want quick results and clear solutions, you might not be happy in this work. But if you can handle uncertainty, are a good listener, a good communicator and a patient problem solver who takes personal satisfaction from helping people, this just may be your calling.

I started my little monologue about how a good advisor needs to be comfortable with both words and numbers, and that it seems to me that not many people fit that description. But I could see from Jerry's body language that my work already appeared considerably less glamorous to him than when he first read that famous survey. I hope I didn't overdo it because I really love what I do. I just think it's better for the profession, and for future clients and career seekers alike, if prospective advisors have a realistic idea of our work before starting out on the long journey.

I hope you have lots of chances to guide the next generation of personal financial advisors. They need you.

J. Michael Martin, JD, CFP, is president of Financial Advantage in Columbia, Md.