Financial Engineering Education as Gateway for a Quantitative Finance Career: Efficient Ways to Set Up a Successful Career

A financial engineering graduate degree is primarily a way to start or advance, a career in quantitative finance. It is useful in many ways: not only academically, but practically, by learning about career paths and deciding which suits your interests and background best, and by creating opportunities to compete for the right openings at the right time.

Based on a long experience fostering careers of both young and mid-career students and alumni, I will briefly share pointers on how to put a master of financial engineering (MFE) graduate degree in the larger perspective of a successful career in quantitative finance, from how to decide whether such to pursue an MFE, to thinking about shaping your career path once you graduate.

Before deciding that you want to do an MFE, make sure you learn about possible career paths. The comprehensive QuantNet Quant Internship and Graduate Recruitment Firms Listing includes an extensive list of career options from buy-side and sell-side employers. The book The Complete Guide to Capital Markets for Quantitative Professionals by Alex Kuznetsov and Mark Joshi’s On Becoming a Quant guide are also good sources of information.

Once the decision to pursue an MFE is made, a three-pronged process begins: deciding where to apply, putting together the most competitive application you can, and preparing for graduate studies.

Approach this from a career goals perspective: find the program that best suits and services your career needs, and then use the time you have before you would start the program to strengthen and update your background. By doing so, you can begin to set yourself up for a successful graduate studies experience, and therefore for better career options upon graduation.

There should be no doubt that programming will be an important part of your studies and future work. Improve your C++ and VBA skills, which should cover basic requirements whether you work in a highly quantitative role or in a more business-oriented role.

Brush up on your math skills:
  • Calculus—My book A Primer for the Mathematics of Financial Engineering was written with this goal in mind.
  • Linear algebra—Gil Strang’s Introduction to Linear Algebra has a strong numerical flavor.
  • Probability—A Natural Introduction to Probability Theory by Ronald Meester is both intuitive and rigorous.
Learn about finance in a quantitative context:
  • Salih Neftci’s An Introduction to the Mathematics of Financial Derivatives is good background reading.
  • Principles of Financial Engineering, also by Neftci, gives an excellent practical view of quant finance for trading applications.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of preparing for graduate studies from the moment you decide you want to pursue them. A strong and current knowledge of programming, mathematics, and finance fundamentals when entering the program is, in my experience, a great attribute of highly successful graduates, which translates into significantly better career opportunities.

Once you accept an admission offer, you have several more months to prepare for your studies. It is then time to contact the program and ask for specific instructions as to how to best use that time given your particular set of strengths and background knowledge.

During your studies, remember at all times that you are doing an MFE as a step toward a quantitative career.

Use the program resources—networking with graduating students, talking to industry professionals teaching in the program, and consulting with career advisors—to identify the areas you would like to work in by the end of the first semester of studies. Find out what skills are most valued by employers in those areas, and use this knowledge to decide which courses you will choose through the end of your studies, as well as what you need to emphasize in your studies.

Put your job search in a longer-term perspective. The goal should not be just to get a job upon graduation, but to find the right position that will allow your career to grow over time. This could mean a first job where you will further learn and grow your set of skills, or taking a position that could be used as an apprenticeship toward, why not, starting your own firm when the time is right several years down the road.

And it may all start the moment you begin preparing for your MFE graduate studies. You have more time between when you decide to pursue an MFE and when you start the degree, than between the beginning of your studies and when you start interviewing for internships. That time is precious and, used efficiently, could make a big difference.

Good luck!

About the author:
Dan Stefanica has been the Director of the Masters Program in Financial Engineering at Baruch College, City University of New York, since its inception in 2002. He teaches graduate courses on numerical methods for financial engineering, as well as pre-program courses on advanced calculus and numerical linear algebra with financial applications.
A version of this article appears in the QuantNet 2013-2014 International Guide to Programs in Financial Engineering