Written byDavid O'Boyle
The conversation that follows occurs all too frequently when in talks with master’s students:
What do you want to do?
Be a quant at a buy-side firm.
Do you have a PhD?
No. (Strike 1)
Do you have any full-time financial industry experience?
No. (Strike 2)
Do you code?
I’m not a computer science major but I’ve taken some courses and can quickly come up to speed. (Strike 3)
For those of you who don’t know baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out. Those answers will not get you a job as a quant (that’s short for quantitative analyst). I don’t care if you are a math Olympiad from an Ivy League school and you took one class in C++. Yes, you can probably come up to speed quickly. No argument here. But guess what—the guy a chair over from you is also interviewing for the same role, and he is already up to speed. On day one, he can hit the ground running. Who do you think is getting hired?
So let’s brainstorm some solutions.
Let’s first consider the PhD. By all means, get it if you can. It’s a tremendous intellectual achievement, a true test of discipline and resolve, and it also makes it much easier to land a job. But it also takes close to a decade of sacrifice to finish and for some that’s too much. So what do you do? Tip your caps to the doctors and then mark them as your competition here on after. As an underdog, you will have to focus on developing yourself so you can eventually give better answers to the other two remaining questions:
1. Do you have any full-time industry experience?
2. Do you code?
Before going further allow me to define what I mean by coding. In short, it means knowing one of three languages (C++, java or C#) and occasionally, more now then ever before, Python.
Here’s why it is important to code: In an unstable job market, employers want to maximize employee output. That means a job that used to be just research now involves research and coding and implementation (and probably some quality assurance). Seven years ago that description would be laughable; it was three different job descriptions for three different people (a quant researcher, a software engineer, and a QA).
With that said, let’s revisit bettering our response to the first question, whether you have any full-time industry experience. You don’t. So the task becomes proper job selection. Ask yourself: What present available position can act as a stepping stone to get me where I want to be later? Let’s be clear on the following point as well. When you’re young, having financial experience is less important than relevant financial experience. Getting a job at an investment bank doing derivative sales won’t get you anywhere near the quant space. You are talking and making sales calls, not not writing algorithms and modeling.
In life, there’s always a back door. Now you have to find it. You have the quant aptitude from school but you need a way to make that aptitude tangible (aka CODING! I repeat: Coding. Coding. CODING.). Therefore, become a software developer. Down the road you’ll be thankful for the job security it provides, for every company on the street wants them, and now you can start harnessing the needed skill set for your quant dreams. Do it for two to three years, see how it goes, and if all plays out accordingly, revisit your quant ambitions after.
If an entry-level software developer job in finance doesn’t present itself, no worries. Silicon Valley and other rival telecom firms are always seeking and developing great engineers, many of which are coyly molding themselves for Wall Street down the road. Especially with the era of big data now underway, these types are becoming more and more marketable to financial firms. Surf that wave into the future or be drowned by it. It’s your choice.