What kind of math nerd job should you have?
Say you’re a math nerd, finishing your Ph.D. or a post-doc, and you’re wondering whether academics is really the place for you. Well I’ve got some advice for you! Actually I will have some advice for you, after you’ve answered a few questions. It’s all about fit. Since I know them best, I will center my questions and my advice around academic math vs. hedge fund quant vs. data scientist at a startup.
By the way, this is the advice I find myself telling people when they ask. It’s supposed to be taken over a beer and with lots of tongue in cheek.
1) What are your vices?
It turns out that the vices of the three jobs we are considering are practically disjoint! If you care about a good fit for your vices, then please pay attention.
NOTE: I am not saying that everyone in these fields has all of these vices! Far from it! It’s more like, if one or more of these vices drives you nuts, then you may get frustrated when you encounter them in these fields.
In academics, the major vices are laziness, envy, and arrogance. It’s perhaps true that laziness (at least outside of research) is typically not rewarded until after tenure, but at that point it’s pretty much expected, unless you want to be the fool who spends all of his(her) time writing recommendation letters and actually advising undergraduates. Envy is, of course, a huge deal in academics, because the only actual feedback is in the form of adulating rumor. Finally, arrogance in academics is kind of too obvious to explain.
At a hedge fund, the major vices are greed, covetousness, and arrogance. The number one source of feedback is pay, after all, so it’s all about how much you got (and how much your officemate got). Plus the isolation even inside your own office can lead to the feeling that you know more and more interesting, valuable, things than anyone else, thus the arrogance.
Finally, at a startup, the major vices are vanity, impatience, and arrogance. People really care about their image- maybe because they are ready to jump ship and land a better job as soon as they start to smell something bad. Plus it’s pretty easy in startups as well to live inside a bubble of self-importance and coolness and buzz. Thus the arrogance. On the flip side of vanity, startups are definitely the sexiest of the three, and the best source by far for good karaoke singers.
Okay it turns out they all have arrogance. Maybe that’s just a property of any job category.
2) What do you care about?
Do you care about titles? Don’t work at a startup.
Do you care about stability? Don’t work at a startup. Actually you might think I’d say don’t work at a hedge fund either, but I’ve found that hedge funds are surprisingly stable, and are full of people who are surprisingly risk averse. Maybe small hedge funds are unstable.
Do you care about feedback? Don’t work in academics.
Do you care about publishing? Don’t work outside academics (it’s sometimes possible to publish outside of academics but it’s not always possible and it’s not always easy).
Do you care about making lots of money? Don’t work in academics. In a startup you make a medium amount of money but there are stock options which may pan out someday, so it’s kind of in between academics and Wall St.
Do you care about being able to decide what you’re working on? Definitely stay in academics.
Do you care about making the world a better place? I’m still working on that one. There really should be a way of doing that if you’re a math nerd. It’s probably not Wall Street.
3) What do you not care about?
If you just like math, and don’t care exactly what kind of math you’re doing, then any of these choices can be really interesting and challenging.
If you don’t mind super competitive and quasi-ethical atmospheres, then you may really enjoy hedge fund quant work- the modeling is really interesting, the pay is good, and you are part of the world of finance and economics, which leaks into politics as well and is absolutely fascinating.
If you don’t mind getting nearly no vacation days and yet feeling like your job may blow up any minute, you may like working at a startup. The people there are real risk lovers, care about their quality of life (at least at the office!), and know how to throw a great party.
If you don’t mind being relatively isolated mathematically, and have enormous internal motivation and drive, then academics is a pretty awesome job, and teaching is really fun and rewarding. Also academic jobs have lots of flexibility as well as cool things like sabbaticals.
4) What about for women who want kids?
Let’s face it, the tenure clock couldn’t have been set up worse for women who want children. And startups have terrible vacation policies and child-care policies as well; it’s just the nature of living on a Venture Capitalist’s shoestring. So actually I’d say the best place to balance work and life issues is at an established hedge fund or bank, where the maternity policies are good; this is assuming though that your personality otherwise fits well with a Wall St. job. Actually many of the women I’ve met who have left academics for government research jobs (like at NASA or the NSA) are very happy as well.