Mathematicians with personality are in short supply, so if you love math and finance and are willing to head to graduate school, a shift into a quantitative finance career could pay off for you.
Quantitative analysts are modern alchemists who transform raw data into intelligent business strategies. The ability to slice and dice data cuts across industry lines. For instance, credit card company analysts develop mathematical algorithms to detect fraud, grocery store analysts interpret data on shoppers' habits and investment banking financial engineers support equity option trading.
To break into the field, start with a business, finance, economics, math or engineering undergraduate degree, and then go for your master's or, preferably, a PhD in econometrics, statistics, industrial engineering, finance, math, operations research or quantitative analysis. Unless Wall Street is your goal, that degree doesn't need to be from a top engineering or business school, because the supply of US graduates comfortable with the high-level math analysts use is smaller than the supply of jobs, says Rita Raz, president of Analytic Recruiting. "Get a good master's from a state university, and you're marketable," she says.
Your biggest competitors for entry-level jobs won't be American. "A lot of American kids dodge the quantitative courses," she says. "Students coming from China and India have it over the US kids on taking hard-core quantitative courses, but [foreign students] have to develop the ability to communicate and sell.
With quantitative skills in such demand in finance, job candidates from outside the US who have the right analytical degree will find companies willing to sponsor them -- if the visas are available.
How much you make in statistical analysis depends upon the degree you obtain. With a master's in statistics from a state university, expect around $65,000 in New York City, $50,000 to $55,000 in a lower-cost market. With a PhD in quantitative analysis, you're looking at $75,000, and unless you go into investment banking, you won't be working 70 or 80 hours a week, Raz says.
Wall Street Tougher to Crack
Investment banking is extremely competitive at the entry level, so quality of training and education matter, says E. Daniel Raz, who handles investment banking recruitment for Analytic Recruiting. "If we are talking about [an analytic] PhD from a top school, the salary could be anywhere from $85,000 to $115,000 in New York City," he says. "The bonus could go as high as 50 percent of [the] base salary.
Once you're in, you'll find few competitors on your way up the career ladder. "The market [of] people with two-plus years of experience is very thin," he says. "The price really goes up if the person is able to communicate inside a financial institution and can do the work, as well as sell and explain and make it comfortable for people to deal with.
Pick Your Track
After earning an undergraduate degree in business, finance, economics, engineering or math, students seeking advanced training in quantitative analysis enter either a master's or PhD program, says Dr. Bin Gu, assistant professor of information, risk and operational management at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. For either program at McCombs, students need prerequisite math courses, including statistics, algebra, calculus, probability and programming, he says.
Within quantitative analysis, students pursue one of two tracks: applied or theoretical analysis. "What most of my colleagues do is use quantitative analysis in finance marketing," Gu says of the applied track. "Another side is theoretical -- developing estimators. Most PhD programs have openings on the applied side.
The most successful students are those who have good scores on the quantitative reasoning section of the Graduate Record Exam and who can break down a complex problem into small components to see how things are made up, he adds.
E. Daniel Raz suggests using your thesis or dissertation as a bridge into the industry you want to work in. Call a recruiter before you settle on a topic, he recommends. "Incorporate your goals -- and not your advisor's goals -- into your dissertation topic," he says. "When you write your dissertation, you are investing in yourself and preparing yourself for what you want to do. You influence your marketability.