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Pursue PHD?


New Member
Hello. I have a question that I am sure depends on my own feelings, but perhaps many of you have thought about and came up with an answer.
Here is my profile, so you can get a picture:

As an undergraduate I was a Math and Chemistry B.A. I was planning on attending medical school, so I took the MCAT, published some papers in chemistry and applied to a MPH program in Epidemiology at Columbia University. In the epidemiology program at Columbia I have taken Applied Regression, Categorical Regression and 3 classes in Study Design and SAS. Epidemiology is concerned with study design and data analysis, all in relation to the Biological Field. I am currently writing a thesis using Survival Analysis. Since January I have worked at Cantor Fitzgerald life markets, secondary trading of life insurance policies, as an Actuary/Programmer. I have worked part time while taking classes at Columbia. Since I have completed all of my coursework for the Epidemiology masters in one year, I asked the Public Health school to take some math classes, namely Topology, Real Analysis, Number Theory and Partial differential Equations at Columbia to prepare myself for math graduate school. I had not taken these classes as an undergraduate. Also, over last summer I took Time Series Analysis and ODE, and finished my last class for my masters degree. I have been accepted into a Masters Program at McGill University in Mathematics, full scholarship for January 2008.

SUNY Binghamton
Math BA. Chem BA.
Columbia University

Masters of Public Health
McGill University

Masters in Mathematics
Starting January 2008
I should be 24 at the end of the degree, roughly May 2009. Possibly one more term..that is ending in December 2009.

Now, here is the question. After McGill, there are three options:
1) Earn Degree at McGill and apply to wall street firms for quant jobs
Pros: Start making money, pay off some loans, have money while I am young
Cons-I will hit a barrier, or worse I will not get a job. Also, I will end up coding some ph.d's models.
2) Earn Degree at McGill and stay there for PH.D(which is probably what they want me to do because they are funding me for a masters.) Graduate when I am 27.
Pros: will have my ph.d and will be only 27 when I graduate.
Cons: Montreal is Cold and is not strong in Mathematical Finance.

3) Earn Degree at McGill and apply to a PH.D elsewhere(Caltech, Berkley, NYU, etc.)
Pros: A PHD program for a good school known in math finance will make getting a job easier.
CONS: I will probably loose some classes from my first masters in the transfer...so I will probably not graduate until I am 29.

My feelings:
-I absolutely love mathematics and would love nothing more then to learn more of it and stay in academia, but I would also like to have a more comfortable life(some money).
-After making money, I would like to go back into academia or even better teach classes and do research while working for a finance firm.
-I am not 100% sure that I will not change my mind and want to stay in academia.

I know this is a lot of information, but maybe someone will read it. Please let me know what you think? I am sure there are things I do not know. Please inform me of them, so I can make a good decision. Thank You


Active Member
I had to go through with that.

1) As far as "should I do my PhD", I would respond, do it if and only if you think you will enjoy doing a PhD. If you're going to crunch numbers, I've heard no clear answer whether or not you make up your opportunity cost if you get a PhD. But if you want to do a PhD, then odds are you're always going to want to do it, so to be fair to yourself, it's a matter of picking when, not if. Sounds to me you might as well do it now.

2) Whenever I hear say someone say "but if I do this I will be X years old when I finish" I wonder how that is really relevant. No matter whether you do X or not, you will age the same rate either way :-P. Now, if you have an internal clock telling you that you should do X, Y and Z before you are 30, please realize that you're the one making up the internal clock and as such, you are free to ignore it.


Older and Wiser
2) Whenever I hear say someone say "but if I do this I will be X years old when I finish" I wonder how that is really relevant. No matter whether you do X or not, you will age the same rate either way :-P. Now, if you have an internal clock telling you that you should do X, Y and Z before you are 30, please realize that you're the one making up the internal clock and as such, you are free to ignore it.
I totally agree with Joe. You make your own clock and sometimes circunstances don't play the way you want them.

I lost three years of school because I had to ran away from my country... and I have no regrets whatsoever. My advice is, don't put yourself under the pressure of a time table.

Andy Nguyen

When I was 20, my original plan was to make my first $1M by the time I'm 30. And have my own mansion by then. Apparently, it doesn't work out that way ;)

On the topic of Math PhD, do go in with very low expectation. A tenure-track assistant professor position will attract several hundred applicants. That is reality after you survive your 5-7 years in PhD program and couple more doing low-paid postdocs.

PhD is for people with a real love for research. If you are better than average in math and want to make good money, PhD may not be the best way to go. At least, it's my experience since I spent 2 years in a Math PhD program.

Bottom line, do something you love and have a realistic goal. At the end of the day, we work to live, not live to work.


Well-Known Member
i dont know whether it is offensive that we ask Dan about how he went through his phd life in a top math program; is a top Phd title gives him more payoff than pain and previous hardwork? just curious:)


Quant Headhunter
In the new version of our guide, out early next month, I spend several pages on choosing a PhD.
I have a special highlighted section that says choosing a PhD as a career move sucks big time. There is a high probability of dropping out, and you may be buying 3-5 years of misery.
I enclose part of the current draft on this topic:
It is of course because a PhD is now seen by many as a step to getting a good quant job, and so it is rational for them to ask for advice on which topic of research has the best prospects of helping their careers in a bank or hedge fund.

Many of the most successful quants have PhDs, and a large % of job ads ask for one as well, so it is tempting to think of a PhD as part of your career plan. We are seeing that as an increasing trend as more people become aware of quant finance work earlier in their careers, and understand that the Choosing a PhD topic purely on the basis of how you think it will help get you a job is a tragically bad mistake.

choice of PhD topic can seriously improve your chances of getting the best job, and the set of employment choices you can make when you have completed it.

There are both real and imaginary conflicts between doing a PhD “well” and steering yourself towards being an easy sell to employers in banks and hedge funds.

The nature of PhDs should be to do something new, and by definition that means we can’t say “fluid dynamics is good” or “labour market analysis is bad”, though to some extent we do give that opinion that to people when they ask. Creating software models of large complex physical systems is good, but the current market does not require that you model financial systems, indeed some managers have expressed the view that finance PhDs often are less rigorous than physical sciences, even if they are more focused on finance.

[FONT=&quot]Choosing a Supervisor[/FONT]
Of course to a large extent, you don’t choose a supervisor, they choose you, but you can make some effort to get one that will help you in your career. This requires a little care since if you are smart enough that they want you, they may well want you to follow them into academia.

A “name brand” supervisor has value apart from the expectation that he knows the subject rather well. There is a virtuous circle that he is more sought after, and thus if you score him you have demonstrated that someone wise in your field thinks you have merit beyond the sterile numbers of exam grades. He will more often have good networks of contacts useful for internships and first jobs. This makes him still more sought after. It is the case that at P&D we occasionally get directly approached by such illuminati which tends to commend more of our attention which is of course good for them.

As headhunters we recognise that having a hook to sell you to the bank can make the difference between getting an interview, or not. That is very useful, but once you are being interviewed it does not get you anything further, and of course you have set a high expectation.

The possible downside is that some PhD supervisors are frequently travelling, being on important committees, or engaged in writing yet another great book. This can mean that you do not necessarily get very much of the great one’s time. This is not restricted to the great and the good, and some supervisors do not engage as directly with their students as they might. Thus if you possibly can get to meet with his current students you will can research this with a little care.

[FONT=&quot]Location of Universities[/FONT]
This is very much a second order issue. It is useful to be in or near London, Chicago or New York because you can network with people in finance, and attend seminars and other useful events. This applies even if you are not studying finance, indeed it is slightly more important for people making one of the standard transitions into finance than for those directly studying it.

But to be of any value, you do have to put in the effort to go to these events and networking opportunities, since most won’t come and find you. We do meet people at London events who’ve come from Amsterdam or Paris, but most stay where they are put. There is more quant work than you might think on the West Coast of the USA, but one is not really part of the scene there.

Given the choice between two equally attractive programmes, you should optimise with respect to distance from one of the big three centres, but do not pick an inferior option just to be near the right people. If you are serious about this line of work, and prepared to do a bit of travelling, go where you will get the most value added.

An advantage of big universities is that banks will do campus recruiting for people like you.

As headhunters we often see these job specifications that say “PhD from top university” but we all know that many smart people are not at the “top universities”. This is especially true at PhD level where a leading researcher may not be at a leading university, and so his students don’t get that label.

You will see job ads that say that they want graduates of a “top 5” university. We have seen demands for the “top 7”, “top 8”, “top 10” and one day we are certain to receive “top 13” . These are a sign that something has gone at least slightly wrong with that firm’s recruitment process, not that it has high standards. Does “Top 5” (or Top 17, or whatever) mean in the US, or in the World, or in the UK ?
Do you feel able to compare universities in Argentina with those in Poland or Canada ?

There are many rankings, and include the universities “achievements” in dead languages, feminist poetry, astrology etc, so that most of these lists have no real utility at all, but it helps the more lazy people in the process do less work. But “branding” does have value, since on average a more prestigious place is more likely to have smarter graduates.
A PhD is a fine shiny badge to wear, and will help you get to many of the places you want to be, but it is not a risk free option, and it does matter what you do.

Failure Modes
You may be assuming that you do finish the PhD, which doesn’t always happen, which can make this a dangerous way of thinking about your future. Financial Markets are in constant change. A topic that appears exciting and lucrative today may well be yesterday’s news in 4 or 5 years when you finish your PhD. PhDs are quite unlike taught degrees. You will be working to a large extent on your own, and pursuing targets that are far less structured than the courses you have taken so far. If the topic does not really interest you, or is chosen on some ill conceived notion of what will get you get a job, there is a good chance that you will hit a vicious circle of low motivation leading to slow progress which causes you to lose hope that you will ever finish; resulting in a nasty cocktail of burn out, little learned or discovered. At interview this may express itself as an “attitude problem”, or simply not being very smart. A depressing % of PhD candidates quit, and that rarely looks good on the CV. However, some employers see your PhD as a form of filter, since to get into a good programme you have demonstrated some extra level of being smart and accomplished, and we sometimes hear that they don’t care all that much about whether you finish.

But the odds are not in your favour, and having a recoverable crash that consumes two or three years of your life is not anyone’s idea of a great plan.

Thus by far the most important thing in this section, and quite possibly in this whole book is to help you decide to do something that you genuinely find interesting, and which will engage you both at an intellectual level and attract some passion, since you must at some emotional level genuinely care at least a little about your work. Seeing it as simply the longest homework assignment of your life is buying years of misery, and quite possibly a less satisfying career at the end of it. If all that does not convince you, then it’s pretty clear to us that you can expect to earn less money. Which as members of the global finance community we see as immoral.