Current PhD. Student Considering the Switch to Quant.

Best career option:

  • Transition into industry immediately after completing MS.

    Votes: 0 0.0%

  • Total voters
    17

Robert C.

New Member
Hi all,

This is my first post here ~

I am hoping that there are experienced quant's or recruiters on this board who could help provide me with some career guidance. I am strongly considering changing career course towards something more lucrative.

Let me begin with a quick bio:
  • I currently attend a top 10 PhD program in physics. I have finished my first year with a 4.0 and am about to complete a second summer of research at CERN.
  • Graduated w/ top awards at/near top of class from a prestigious (but non-Ivey) undergrad Univ.
  • Co-authored a major publication in Science during a summer REU at NASA.
  • Strong C++ and data anal. skills stemming from research
  • My token MS. in Physics will be completed this year
  • I am free to take any credit hours I want for this whole next year, so I am planning on taking first/second year graduate courses in financial mathematics and econometrics.
So why leave academia already? A question worth trying to answer: Two summers at CERN have given me a great chance to get a lay of the land in experimental high energy particle physics. I have been doing acceptable research and my advisor is reasonably happy with my progress. But, what I have learned is that being a high energy physicist is just a job.. much like many others.

I have become pretty disillusioned with academia. I am not a lazy individual, but I'm not sure that I want to spend the next 4-5 years of my life working 60-80 hr. work weeks (what my advisor expects) for minimal compensation (minus the potential doors that my PhD will open)

A bit of research has shown me that it will probably be more lucrative and less stressful for me to just leave academia. It would be great to help solve the mysteries of the universe, but honestly I have other driving passions in my life. This does not mean that I don't enjoy being challenged and learning new things (quite the contrary)..

I am pretty sure that I will enjoy the work and rewards that come along with being a quant. I can tolerate 60 hour work weeks if the payoff is big (traveling is an expensive hobby ;) )

With all this being said, I was hoping to ask a few questions:
  1. With my bkg. (and intention to take many financial classes this year) is it a better idea to pursue the open job market or work towards acceptance into a MFE program?
  2. What kind of job//salary can I reasonably land? (Assume that I have decent enough social skills and want to try living in a large city such as NYC)
  3. What is the best way to begin testing the waters? I have never looked for a job before so I was considering looking into websites such as Indeed.
  4. What is my best first step?
Thanks for taking the time to read my very lengthy post! If you don't have time to write a response please vote above.
 

Yike Lu

Finder of biased coins.
Hi Robert, everybody says they have good C++ and data skills, but I have found in interviewing people that the variance in what that means concretely is actually quite high. As such my best advice would be the following:
(1) Get the lay of the land here by reading some of the job guides available (use the search).
(2) Go through the job search process. Look at postings, go to interviews / phone interviews.
(3) If at any point you feel like you don't have a piece of required knowledge, go back and further your education.
(4) Small gaps can be filled with self study and/or the right online courses mixed with practical application.
(5) If you have a large knowledge gap and/or feel overwhelmed by the number of topics you must learn / master, that is the time to consider MFE.
(6) On the other hand, you may just get a job right off, as some places interview for concrete skills while other interview for potential. I interview much more on the concrete skills side.

You have the optionality to protect yourself a little by staying in your PhD until you have a good alternative, so use it. But once you have something you're sure you want to pursue, no reason to stay.

ps, I did HEP research myself back in undergrad and came to the same conclusions.

edited: added small gaps
 
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Robert C.

New Member
Hi Yike,

You have given some very good advice. Thank you so much for taking the time to write me a response. It's interesting to hear that someone else has felt the same way about HEP. I will probably begin by following steps 1-4 this year as I move towards a potential transition into finance.

I am certain that my skills in physics far surpass those in math and C++, so I may be over-estimating my competency with C++.

I won't go too far into details here but my education has not been that formal in CS. I have taken a data structures course and I self taught C++ before beginning research.

I have worked with and am familiar with basic data structures, inheritance, pointers, scoping, enums, and templates. Where would this put in terms of ability to land an intro level job?

Perhaps what I should really be focusing on is sharpening my C++ skills? I know there is a lot of "concrete" skills that I am lacking, so I wonder what an employer values the most.

edit: I'm guessing that mastering the skills listed in the C++ online certificate from QuantNet is a good start?
 
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Yike Lu

Finder of biased coins.
Those are good basics. I would add the following things (generally in the CS department, not C++ specifically):

* General comfort with Linux command line tools
* Comfort in Excel with VBA
* Basic functional programming.
* Python.
* Software engineering / design.

The last is kind of hard to get without experience. How do you know what kinds of designs are bad unless you've screwed it up.

In my experience, the stuff I was doing for CMS is very different from the work I do now. In that sense, the certificate is a good place to start getting experience with that difference.
 

Daniel Duffy

C++ author, trainer
* Software engineering / design.

The last is kind of hard to get without experience. How do you know what kinds of designs are bad unless you've screwed it up.

Indeed. Aka experience.

Ideally, (IMO) you develop a prototype, throw the BS code away (twice). 3rd time is super.

One small issue; manager thinks s/w product is ready to ship when '42' is outputted.
 

Daniel Duffy

C++ author, trainer
I may be over-estimating my competency with C++.

Possible.
You did not actually say how much C++. It is a huge language.

I once met someone who worked for 20 years on C (not C++) using Microsoft Visual Studio VC++ :) But he said he was a C++ programmer..

Honestly, physics students learn how to work with arrays. (using malloc() in many cases).
 
You probably do have "good C++" skills, but you have to keep in mind that the financial industry's definition of "good C++" skills is totally different than academia.

For starters, they are focused on writing a different kind of code. Whereas you and I write "research grade" code, they write code that must never fail (otherwise, a lot of money could be lost). That means sacrificing speed for tons of error checking. It also means bending over backward to use fancy OOP techniques to make the code maintainable by many people as it grows larger over many years.

They also sweat a lot of details, like the differences between GCC 4.8 and 4.9 or what exactly was introduced in C++ 11. Or how do you write a functor or make your own copy constructor.

So my suggestion is to read a real C++ textbook to learn all of the little details and nuances. Then, practice writing some enterprise grade code where you:
1. Use unique_ptr
2. Practice pointer arithmetic, malloc/free, new/delete, etc.
3. Religious error checking (check for null pointers, parameter values out of range, NaNs, Infinities, etc.) Try/catch blocks.
4. Write your own template classes and functions
5. Practice inheritance and polymorphism (e.g. virtual functions/constructors/destructors)
6. Make sure you know the ins and outs of the STL (containers, streams, algorithms, etc.)

Then practice a LOT (nightly for for some months) on HackerRank until you have worked through a lot of the C++ questions. I think a lot of the top places receive an overwhelming number of applications, so they use programming skills to sort the applicants and take the top. You need to be good at writing bug free code on a piece of paper, without an IDE or reference.

Anyway, I'm working in research, and although I have a good job and make good money, I realize I'll never be rich or even able to retire in where I grew up (the way this asset bubble is going). But I realized I need to take a full year, studying every night, to be prepared to interview for that TOP position.

Even though a lot of these places claim they are so "academic" and that they train people, its not the 1980s where there were not a boat load of MFEs. Nowadays, it seems they can afford to wait for that top physics PhD who actually knows how to write professional-grade C++ to come along. That way, they can slot right in with no training time. Its not like a university or national lab where we hire people for their ability, and expect them to learn.
 
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Robert C.

New Member
Thanks ShowMeTheLight.. that is incredibly informative. I think you have laid out the best path to getting stronger at programming (as far as what will help get a job goes).

What C++ book did you begin with?
 
Thanks ShowMeTheLight.. that is incredibly informative. I think you have laid out the best path to getting stronger at programming (as far as what will help get a job goes).

What C++ book did you begin with?
Yeah, as Daniel Duffy pointed out, I'm not yet a C++ guru. Getting there...

The book I like the best is the one used at Stanford, Programming Abstractions in C++, by Roberts. It seems to have the most enjoyable reading and yet is fairly academic and rigorous. Its not intended to be a reference book.
 

Yike Lu

Finder of biased coins.
Why do people 1) choose physics, 2) want to leave physics?
I don't get it.
Specifically for High Energy...
(1) It sounds cool, discovering the mysteries of the universe.

(2) It ends up being a lot of grunt work for little pay and the mysteries of the universe won't have any real-world application for probably 100 years.
 

TehRaio

Active Member
Why do people 1) choose physics, 2) want to leave physics?
I don't get it.
1/ When I started my undergraduate degree I was more interested in learning physical concepts/models (mechanics, electricity, thermodynamics etc...) than pure mathematics. Physics makes use of mathematics, it's sort of an alternative applied math degree for those who are into the topics covered.

2/ an economist who himself switched from physics to economics after his undergrad told me that physics is fun until you realize you have to get money to live.

It's such a shame though, I'm not sure this is worth opening a separate thread to discuss this but I've read somewhere that there are more Physics PhD in Finance than in Physics (I wonder if the same happens with Math, or CS PhDs too).

I wouldn't want to spend 5 years working on a topic that I stop using right out of school. I guess the mathematics, and computing skills are not wasted but still, time is better used investing the same amount of time and energy in a PhD in mathematical finance. That's where I agree with @Robert C. wanting to get out early and transition into finance.
 

Daniel Duffy

C++ author, trainer
These are nice answers by Yike and Teh. I think it is indeed worth thinking about it because it is a recurring pattern of disillusion with physics, grass is greener on the other side etc. etc.

It sometimes reminds me of this joke

An engineer thinks that equations are an approximation to reality.
A physicist thinks reality is an approximation to equations.
A mathematician doesn't care.

But seriously, maybe physics and finance do not overlap as much as we would expect?

It would seem IMO that skills needed fall in the categories; methods-based, algorithmic, computational, Polya-type curiosity to solving it etc.

// my two cents I did theoretical physics as undergrad (SR/GR/QM/EM) but I cannot see them as being useful as a basis for finance. Not enough 'hard' maths in these topics. And I was not terribly interested in knowing the age of the universe to be honest.
 
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Daniel Duffy

C++ author, trainer
Thanks ShowMeTheLight.. that is incredibly informative. I think you have laid out the best path to getting stronger at programming (as far as what will help get a job goes).

What C++ book did you begin with?
BTW, That's an interesting way the BS PDE is written on your avatar:) I've never seen that before.
 
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Yike Lu

Finder of biased coins.
It's such a shame though, I'm not sure this is worth opening a separate thread to discuss this but I've read somewhere that there are more Physics PhD in Finance than in Physics (I wonder if the same happens with Math, or CS PhDs too).
I don't at all consider it a shame specifically for Particle Phys (HEP + theoretical), since the applications of the actual discoveries will be nil for many years (IF they arise at all). The sideshow technical innovations (HPC and ML specifically) are where you see people branching off into finance, but the main event stuff isn't very applicable.

I feel differently about applied physics, engineering, and specific sub-branches like quantum computing and condensed matter, which have high applicability.
 

Yike Lu

Finder of biased coins.
String theory is not even close to being testable. At this point it might as well be religion.

The LHC is 27 km in circumference. To reach the energy levels required to test String theory with current understanding, I remember reading the track would have to be as large as the solar system.
 
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