Home > data science, hedge funds, math education, women in math > What kind of math nerd job should you have?

What kind of math nerd job should you have?

July 31, 2011

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.

  1. July 31, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    “Do you care about making lots of money? Don’t work in academics.”

    Unless, of course, you are Larry Summers, in which case you can monetize the one day a week that your university allows you to pursue outside financially rewarding activities.




  2. JSE
    July 31, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    “Do you care about being able to decide what you’re working on? Definitely stay in academics.”

    Right on — I think it’s the very high level of autonomy that makes academia different from almost any other “professional” job. Certainly it’s unique in its combination of autonomy and security.

    Of course I will push back on your claim that laziness is “expected” for post-tenure academics. I would say, on the contrary, that the system does a good job of selecting for the kind of people who will continue to work very hard post-tenure, despite the lack of financial incentives for doing so. (The sympathetic take: academia selects for people who are passionate, ambitious, and intrinsically self-motivated. The unsympathetic take: academia selects for people who are acutely status-conscious.)

    “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.”

    In theory, a do-gooder could get their do-good on pretty effectively by spending the lion’s share of their Wall Street money charitably. Do people do that? Or does Wall Street select for those who want to keep their money, in the same way that academia selects for people who will work hard without financial incentive?


  3. Wondering postdoc
    July 31, 2011 at 10:09 pm


    I love your blog and, as a mildly disaffected postdoc who wonders if he might be happier doing something else, found this post especially interesting. I know a bunch of people who have left academia to go into finance, but I don’t know anyone who went to a startup. Could you tell us more about startups that hire mathematicians? What does data scientist mean? Also, how would one go about finding and getting such a job?

    Finally, have you heard of other good math jobs out there?

    Any info will be greatly appreciated!


    • August 1, 2011 at 11:03 am

      I’ll write a follow-up post soon about this, and I’ll also put you in touch with people to talk to if you’d like.


  4. August 1, 2011 at 6:04 am

    “Do you care about titles? Don’t work at a startup.”

    What the…?

    A start-up consists of maybe ten people, and one of them’s the CEO, and one’s the CTO. If you want to be able to say “Hey, I’m the CTO!” seriously, go work for a start-up.

    I agree about the stability and lack of vacation though. And I don’t recommend going into it for the stock options. Unless you’re one of the founders, make them pay you a decent salary in money. If they can’t, it’s a bad sign for how well the company is likely to do.


    • August 1, 2011 at 7:05 am

      It’s somehow true and somehow irrelevant though, what your title is when there are 10 people; there is a real distinction between a founder and a non-founder, and sometimes also a “C**” versus someone else. In my case I’m someone else, and I believe in general data scientists are not typically given “C**” titles.


  5. RW
    August 1, 2011 at 6:39 am

    I’ve worked at startups my entire career and used almost no mathematics.
    It’s a bit different now that “Data Scientist” is becoming a standard role. However, in my experience in recent interviews, startups are looking for someone who can perform both analysis on the data, as well as do all the data engineering.

    If SQL queries and figuring out how to parse and store huge amounts of log files float your boat, being the data scientist person at an early stage startup could be awesome. If you’re mostly wanting to do analytical work with the data, you might want to wait until the startup becomes more established, because presumably by that time they’ve hired someone else to do the infrastructure bits.

    A data scientist role at a startup that does not involve > 70% programming and infrastructure and instead involves doing math most of the time sounds like a unique position.

    Although unsexy compared to wall street and startups, don’t forget about actuarial work. The other mathematician in my family went that route and it seems very amenable to having a family. Not as well paying as Wall Street, but better than startups.


    • August 1, 2011 at 7:03 am

      At my company, it’s very model-based, and although I have become proficient at SQL, it’s not my main job; I actually do statistical modeling most of the time. But you’re right that I certainly could have asked the question, “Are you interested in learning to program?” because in both hedge funds and startups if you are unwilling to do your own programming, then forget it. And thanks for mentioning actuaries.


  6. August 1, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Dear Cathy — I love your blog! I agree that laziness is selected for. But I would interpret “laziness” as “ability to avoid doing things I don’t like”. IMHO, that is a super essential skill in academia. Since the organization and duties of being a faculty member are so nebulous, the assignment of the least pleasant tasks (which are among the most important for departmental well-being) is haphazard. A colleague who is expert at avoiding these will have more time for research, advising, etc. And that will give them a leg up in their “career”, i.e., those aspects of academia which matter to colleagues outside of one’s own department, dean or promotions committee. So I actually strongly encourage junior colleagues to develop these skills. On the other hand, for senior colleagues who act this way, I have nothing but contempt (happily for them, they could not care less what their colleagues think).


  7. August 1, 2011 at 10:20 am

    There are a few of us who went down the startup path. Well, I know of two: Cathy and myself. I would be happy to answer you questions about that world, how to go about getting into it, etc.


  8. Dan L
    August 1, 2011 at 11:14 am

    I’ll take on the actuary profession, armed with my small but nonzero knowledge about it:

    Vices: conformity, lack of ambition (is those really vices?). Those who entertain delusions of grandeur in their youth rarely become actuaries. Consider that your level of success essentially has a ceiling, and the list of famous actuaries has zero names on it.

    It’s a notoriously stable job. The money beats academia but is a joke compared to Wall Street (but with much lower hours). Your salary stream is steady and fairly predictable. Not sure about family-friendliness, but it must surely beat academia and start-ups. You should enjoy working with numbers (as in actual named integers, like $14,500).

    @JSE, while it’s true that there do exist rich philanthropists who are true do-gooders, I doubt any of them became rich for that reason. The reasoning, “I want to become rich so that I can do good by giving away my money,” is way too self-serving to pass the BS-ometer.


  9. FogOfWar
    August 1, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    There’s a regular ranking of “best job all in” (sorry, no link), which weighs pay, hours, interest of work, and other factors. Actuary has been at or near the top of the list for 20 years or so…


  10. August 4, 2011 at 10:27 am

    “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.” … work for the government or teach math to kids…both are likely to break your heart and make you pull your hair out…but this is for people who care, right? You can sell out later and make your millions on Wall Street.


  11. RW
    August 5, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Thanks for the reply. Perhaps you have some advice for someone like me.

    At one point last summer I saw a job ad at OkCupid describing pretty much what I was looking for in a job: http://webprofessionaljobs.com/okcupid-com-data-scientist.htm

    Alas, instead of just doing the obvious thing and applying for that job, I tried to turn my job at the time into the above description. I failed. Instead of analyzing data, I got stuck manning the unix infrastructure and batch programs that did data transforms from production into the analytics databases, a task which broke two engineers before me. Many long nights were spent waiting for batch jobs to run, to ensure their correctness for the next day. No cool graphs were drawn. Before becoming an alcoholic casualty like the others, I left in order to spare my own health and sanity.

    How would you suggest a typical startup engineer (with a math degree) get a position doing something a bit more analytical? I know how to get a job doing web startup infrastructure: Have a few demo sites, put some code up on github, have them call my references. I’m not sure how to get a job as a “data scientist.” Make some graphs of NYC city data with Matplotlib? Go back to school for a Master’s degree? Start a blog about my statistics homework?


    • August 9, 2011 at 5:25 am

      Well one thing I’d suggest is probably giving up on your current job, at least when you’re ready. I think in general people stay too long at unhappy jobs. And yes, starting a blog about your statistics homework would rock, if it’s enlightened and thoughtful. And it would be something you could point to in an interview to show that you are not the typical candidate who has forgotten their math. In general the more you do math and the more thought you put into it, the more you can show off those thoughts to the people around you, and that’s all good when you want to sell yourself in a new persona. Good luck!


  12. Michael Hutchings
    August 6, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Thanks for the helpful post. Whenever I have a student who is thinking of going into finance, I am going to make them read your blog first.

    I would like to disagree with two of the things you wrote about academia. First of all, after getting tenure, one’s duties tend to increase, rather than decrease, as one is expected to do more “service”, while continuing to do just as much teaching and research. Second, my university at least is quite family friendly: you can get a teaching reduction after having each kid, and for each kid you can stop the tenure clock for a year (up to two years total). Both parents can do this. Your university may vary.


  13. AM
    August 9, 2011 at 3:14 am

    Mathbabe, fantastic post and blog. Do you have any views on whether or not someone who’s left academia post-PhD or post-postdoc can, after some years away, get back into academia and mathematical research?


    • August 9, 2011 at 5:21 am

      Good question. I don’t know, although my dad did that in computer science, by starting teaching night classes at Northeastern and then getting a permanent position at UMass Boston. Maybe there are other people who would know.


  14. human mathematics
    August 31, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    So again with the white-collar perspective. A) Assuming that one can actually get any of the above jobs. B) Arrogance is probably a feature of all of these jobs because they are all desirable, well-paid, and can purport to reward intellect.

    I would add to start-up vices the following: grandiose belief in the importance of the internet; Mac m*sturbation; “entrepreneur”, “garage” and “VC” worship; and BS of the underlying business model.

    Re publishing — anybody can start a blog, and therefore anybody can publish freely. (link tweet “publish: to make unavailable to the public”)

    As for making the world a better place — most people accomplish that by working or being nice people. Huge transformations require being hardworking, innovative, and lucky. *Feeling* like you’re making a difference — I’ve noticed while working at non-profits — may be negatively correlated to *actually* making a difference.

    Startups have terrible child-care policies? Is that true in California?


  1. August 4, 2011 at 4:40 pm
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