Another PhD vs MFE thread

Telecaster

New Member
Hi guys, I'm new here and I want to hit you with a question that's been mulled over many times before. However, given my specific case and the current economic climate, it would be interesting to hear 'up-to-date' views on the matter.

I'm finishing my MEng in Electrical engineering this year and I am considering my options. My short to medium term goal is to work in a quant or structuring team, but I also want to keep the trading door open. I have 2 main options in front of me:

1. Stay at uni and do a PhD in Electrical Engineering. I'm studying in London and PhD's here 'only' take 3 years, which isn't as bad as in the US. I will be 26 by the time I finish. This will give me some time to reflect on what specific area I would like to go into and basically get another solid qualification while the recession is in full swing out there.

2. Go to Cornell (MFE) or Columbia (Mathematical Finance) and hope for the best.

Although I like the idea of starting to work as quickly as possible, it looks like times are getting tough and your average young graduate with a bachelor's or master's degree won't cut the mustard anymore. It now seems like banks have raised their graduate entry standards from 'semi-illiterate' to 'nobel laureate'.

Also, the popularity of all these MF/MFE courses seems to be flooding the job market with way too many equally qualified graduates for a fixed (and maybe even shrinking?) number of positions. Most of the placement stats available on the web sites of MFE programs are between 2001 and 2007, i.e. during the bull market. Who knows what will happen to the class of 2008? hence my fear of being in the first post-subprime generation...

Finally, I had a long phone conversation with a quant head-hunter and he assured me that it was highly unlikely that I would ever move up to become head of a quant team without a PhD.

So do you think my opinion of MFE's vs PhD's is fair in today's economic context?

Many thanks.
 

Andy Nguyen

Member
I think you have a fair grasp of what is going on out there. I read an article somewhere today that post recession, the number of graduate school applicant jumps exponentially. Being in school during this time is the best way to fill gaps.
The phd option sounds good. I don't know how you learn things in 3 years that takes twice that in the US.
Your first step would be to get Dominic guide and spend the next 3 years customizing your degree so that it has employability significance.
 

alain

Older and Wiser
...Your first step would be to get Dominic guide and spend the next 3 years customizing your degree so that it has employability significance.
Contact Dominic directly. He might be able to give you a better advice since he is already in London.
 

Yuriy

MFE Alum
The phd option sounds good. I don't know how you learn things in 3 years that takes twice that in the US.
Andy, this is because many countries outside the US have different systems. For example, B.S. graduates might know as much as M.S. graduates in the US. By the time you get to Ph.D. you already know a lot :) and only need to take a few courses to fill in the gaps.
 

Telecaster

New Member
Thanks for the replies, I've emailed Dominic and I'm waiting for him to send me the guide.


Andy said:
I don't know how you learn things in 3 years that takes twice that in the US.
The reson for this is that in the UK we start doing research straight away, unlike in the US where the first year or two is pretty much a master's course. And we do that because after 4 years of undergrad education we've got master's degrees. And that's the case because starting from the 1st undergrad year we only take specialised engineering modules rather than a mix of general engineering and humanities modules.
 

bigbadwolf

Well-Known Member
The reson for this is that in the UK we start doing research straight away, unlike in the US where the first year or two is pretty much a master's course. And we do that because after 4 years of undergrad education we've got master's degrees. And that's the case because starting from the 1st undergrad year we only take specialised engineering modules rather than a mix of general engineering and humanities modules.
I can't speak for engineering but I can for mathematics. Many (most?) Ph.D. students in the UK overrun the three-year period. First of all, a four-year MMath doesn't prepare one for research, and secondly, Ph.D. programs in the UK often lack structure. A strong US math department (Berkeley, Princeton, etc.) will have many grad courses for first-, second-, and even third-year grad students. These are what are required for research in mainstream mathematics today. Good taught grad programs are few and far between in the UK: the ferociously competitive Cambridge Part III comes to mind.

And even if a British grad student does produce a Ph.D. thesis, his math background outside his narrow speciality is often so weak, he faces acute difficulty in broadening his interests, in relating his speciality to the broad trunk of mathematics, in developing as a research mathematician.

Having explained the weaknesses of the antiquated, ossified and underfunded British system of graduate education, I should mention some of the weaknesses of US programs. First of all, too much bureaucracy and red tape: get through the GREs, get through the prelims, take a whole slew of courses, show mastery of a couple of languages. And funding as a grad student usually requires working as a TA, i.e., teaching calculus (or worse) to morons, which tends to impede one's own study and fesearch. And drop-out rates in US math grad programs are anywhere between 50 and 80%.
 

Telecaster

New Member
I can't speak for engineering but I can for mathematics. Many (most?) Ph.D. students in the UK overrun the three-year period. First of all, a four-year MMath doesn't prepare one for research, and secondly, Ph.D. programs in the UK often lack structure. A strong US math department (Berkeley, Princeton, etc.) will have many grad courses for first-, second-, and even third-year grad students. These are what are required for research in mainstream mathematics today. Good taught grad programs are few and far between in the UK: the ferociously competitive Cambridge Part III comes to mind.
I think you are quite right: most PhD's actually take more than 3 years. Having said that, in my department I know nobody who has been a PhD for more than 4 years.

As for the graduate lecture course requirements, they are different for every PhD student here. Usually, if you have somewhat focused your undergraduate curriculum towards a certain direction you will probably not need to take any MSc courses during your PhD because you will have covered all the basic material before. I have some PhD friends who are taking some MSc courses here and there but that's because they kept their undergarduate curriculum too broad.

All in all, I think the British system puts more emphasis on 'teaching how to do research' rather than on actually carrying out 6 years of research in a specific area. Researchers change directions many times through their careers and the British system is supposed to produce good researchers with good adaptability rather than researchers who are experts in their own area but don't know much about other fields. Some of my professors tell me that the US system is still one of the best out there, but that by the time they finish, PhD students have grown bored of their topic and are going downhill, having reached their peak several years ago.
 

bigbadwolf

Well-Known Member
... but that by the time they finish, PhD students have grown bored of their topic and are going downhill, having reached their peak several years ago.
Quite. Grad students and adjuncts constitute the lumpenproletariat of the American academic scene today. Several years as a grad student, then following one's Ph.D., three year years -- and then another three years -- of nail-biting anxiety as a postdoc, hoping against hope that one gets accepted for some tenure-track position in an exceedingly crowded marketplace, and where universities are not even replacing retired professors but preferring to engage starving adjuncts instead. Then even if one does obtain a tenure-track position,knowing one is on probation for six years, and where the faintest whiff of non-conformity will lead to denial of tenure. No wonder American academics have no intellectual spirit left but become demoralised petty bureaucrats.
 
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