Disenfranchised math grad student seeks direction
March 7, 2010 5:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm a second-year math grad student and all I know is math -- but I want out. What are my options?

I'm a second-year math grad student in a mid-size US city, and over the past year have resolved that I really don't want to do this anymore. I'm no longer interested in the subject: I've changed directions radically (from topology to probability theory) and though I enjoyed doing something different, I don't see myself doing research in any field.

In fact, I don't really see myself in *any* job. I did my undergraduate degree in pure math in England, which means that I took *only* math classes for my entire undergraduate career. Math is really all I know. Though I have an academic interest in mathematical finance, I really don't want to be just another suit pushing money around. Other than academia, finance and the defense industry (which I am not interested in on conscientious grounds), what is there for me?

I'm twenty-three years old -- am I too old to start all over? If not, how do I figure out what I want to do in life? I've been trying to think about this for over a year now, and it's been driving me crazy.
posted by pewpew to Work & Money (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know what you should do, but I can safely say that if you are too old, then the rest of us are totally fucked. Man, to be 23 again.
posted by milarepa at 5:39 PM on March 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

You really do seem like an obvious candidate for a hedge fund. I realize you don't want to be a "suit pushing money around," but a lot of people think it's a hell of a lot of fun. Plus, how many millions of dollars does it take for you think that pushing some money around might be kind of cool for a while?
posted by isamuel at 5:44 PM on March 7, 2010

Sounds like a regular quarterlife crisis.
posted by mnemonic at 5:45 PM on March 7, 2010

Teaching? Private schools might hire you as-is, or you might have to/want to take a quickie teaching degree thingy.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:46 PM on March 7, 2010

Computer Science would be perfect for you, provided you enjoy the work. People with serious math skills are sadly not as common as they should be in CS, and they're in high demand.

You wouldn't have to commit to another 4-year degree, either. I'm not sure how common this is, but UBC has an excellent CS department and they offer a 2-year Bachelor of Computer Science (Google-cached because the CS department's website is down for maintenance) program for students who already hold a bachelor's degree. Same classes as the regular undergraduate CS students, but finished in half the time.
posted by ripley_ at 5:47 PM on March 7, 2010

You may be able to take additional courses and get into a profession that requires a lot of math courses, but that isn't totally math based. This would reduce how long you'd have to spend being re-educated for another career. Engineering comes to mind, if you'd be interested in that, but I'm sure there are others.
posted by Diplodocus at 5:50 PM on March 7, 2010

I don't know much about finance, but have you ever encountered Mutant here on Metafilter? His example has shown me that you can be really successful in econ/finance without being "just another suit pushing money around". Maybe you should get in touch with him.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:51 PM on March 7, 2010

I don't know Mutant, but I would second the notion that not all people working in finance are suits pushing money around. Especially if you end up working for a hedge fund. The people who work at hedge funds typically work on the bleeding edge of finance, and the work is generally very heavily quantitative. But none of this matters if you have a moral aversion to finance.
posted by dfriedman at 6:02 PM on March 7, 2010

Well, the classic response is, if you want to continue in a math-related field, to work in industry.

Do you know about the MAA and SIAM career websites? If not, I would suggest you spend some time poking around in them.

You might consider applied statistics. Penn State World Campus has an online certificate program. With your background, I anticipate you would find the classes straightforward. This would give you options in the pharmaceutical industry. I have heard that statisticians in general can make good money in industry.

(Alternately, have you considered something like culinary school? That was always my backup job idea in grad school.)
posted by leahwrenn at 6:06 PM on March 7, 2010

Don't worry about your age. I am a career changer too (35 yrs.), and I believe only you can do is to strive for happiness. Thus, it is better to search for a satisfying job than to suffer. A few ideas:

a) Search for a new career, which is somehow related to your earlier studies.

I made a mistake and started from the scratch, and it will take years before I can show I am capable of doing something real careerwise. YOU HAVE TONS OF OPTIONS, but as you have not been doing anything else you do not see them. Thus, start searching for professions, which use applied mathematics. They are plenty and their number is actually increasing, as suggested above.

b) Make a plan for a smooth shift

There is life outside university world although it does not seem like it. Let's assume you were interested ummmm..... e.g. Quantitative Finance (risk management, portfolio optimization, derivatives).

- show somehow to your potential employers that you are interested in the field. Participate your schools finance club and take a few courses in finance. Apply for interships and create a network, while finishing your current degree.

- Make a decision if you want to change your major or get a double one MS in Financial mathematics or Finance. If not possible anymore, have a professional certification such as CFA or e.g. Certificate in Quantitative Finance.

- Learn needed skills: Matlab, eviews, Excel, C++ coding or whatever.

- rewrite your CV and include your new finance related achievemetns

c) Apply for a job

- be patient and willing to start from the bottom :)
- don't worry, with some much math under your belt, you WILL FIND an applied math position somewhere...

posted by Doggiebreath at 6:07 PM on March 7, 2010

Whatever you go for, let it be your own idea. If you decide to become a suit pushing money around, do it because you think that's your best option, not because it's the only option.
posted by water bear at 6:08 PM on March 7, 2010

have a professional certification such as CFA

There's nothing wrong with the CFA designation (I'm in the middle of pursuing it), but it's not really for people who want to work in quantitative finance. Its curriculum is all algebra-based, and is meant primarily for portfolio managers.

I'd imaging people with a very heavy math background would get bored of it rather quickly.
posted by dfriedman at 6:09 PM on March 7, 2010

Oh---and also, if you haven't already, talk to others in your department, both students and faculty. Of the 15 that started with me in graduate school in math, only 5 graduated with a PhD. Everyone else went and got jobs of various sorts. One guy became an actuary: apparently the first four actuarial exams were pretty easy for him (with some studying) based on his most-of-a-masters' in math. Another friend went and got a job with one of the math publishing companies, among other things, writing and checking solutions for upper-level textbooks. Another student got a job at Microsoft (this was in Seattle in the late 90s). Others just decided that math grad school wasn't as fun as they had hoped, and went and found other things to do.
posted by leahwrenn at 6:11 PM on March 7, 2010

One guy became an actuary: apparently the first four actuarial exams were pretty easy for him (with some studying) based on his most-of-a-masters' in math.

Do consider actuarial science as a possible career direction.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 6:51 PM on March 7, 2010

Lots of great suggestions in this thread. I would add: have you considered a Ph.D. in statistics? It might have the same qualities that you like about probability theory and math finance, but (apart from a rather small zone of theoretic statistics, which will look a lot like the math you're used to) it's squarely aimed at applications, not just financial and military but medical, economic, sociological, etc.

I also think you should talk with people in hedge funds and national security before being so sure these fields are closed off to you. I know lots of folks in these areas who are anything but money-pushing suits or cogs in the military-industrial complex.

Finally, 23 years old is far from too old to start over. From my 38-y.o. perspective it's barely old enough to start the first time!
posted by escabeche at 7:13 PM on March 7, 2010

Jobs that require critical thinking skills are a good option. Most of my education (including a grad degree) is in math/stats, but my job is more like a consulting job.

If you are willing to consider additional schooling, you might consider law. I have heard that math students do rather well on the US law school entrance exam.
posted by Terriniski at 8:49 PM on March 7, 2010

As mentioned above, computer science is always a good suggestion for those who're crossing over from/to math.

For getting started on a programming career, you probably won't even need to have additional paper qualification apart from what you've already had now. To get started, I would suggest the following:

1. Pick a popular language and get the vendor certification in it.

2. Get a cert / diploma in computer science from an online programme concurrently during your grad study. Get out of the grad programme when you think it's enough to earn you a master's.

3. Actually develop something, and host it somewhere public.

Item (1) and (2) are required in order to pass the HR barrier. Item (3) is required to make sure that you know your stuffs during interviews.

Other alternative possible exit routes would be applied math, statistics or operational research. Finally, 23 is not too young to change your mind. Heck, when I was 23, I just managed to complete my bachelor's. I'm now turning 29 and just started applying to grad school.
posted by joewandy at 9:15 PM on March 7, 2010

A background in probability would seem to suit you quite well for a career in Secure Communications, almost as important now as in Turing's day, more so all the time, and looking like growing steadily for the foreseeable future.

It's not like it's some kind of pure mathematical backwater either, considering that a resolution of ?(P =NP) in favor would strike a mortal blow to the credibility of all public-key cryptography instantly, and the work that may solve it could easily come out of communication theory.

There's a great book that gives a lot of the flavor of this kind of math: Number Theory in Science and Communication by Manfred R. Schroeder, which may be my favorite math book of a couple of hundred for its unique quality of being everywhere dense yet never less than effervescent and spritely.
posted by jamjam at 12:28 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

The people who work at hedge funds typically work on the bleeding edge of finance, and the work is generally very heavily quantitative. But none of this matters if you have a moral aversion to finance.

If you finish your grad work and go work at RenTech or something, maybe there you will work on heavily quantitative stuff and do actual math and be on the bleeding edge. In my experience, though, the overwhelming majority of hedge funds are not quant-driven and do nothing mathematically cutting-edge, or anything cutting-edge. Even some of the funds that *are* quant-driven are not in any way mathematically cutting edge, they may be doing very simple stat arb or similar things: simple insight, bunch of programming, some testing, but not really math. I'm pulling these numbers out of my ass, but I would be willing to bet that more than 50% of the actively managed assets in the US are managed by funds that are at least 90% invested in equity long-short strategies. Maybe its different in the rest of the world.

I know quite a few people who've gone back and forth between math and finance. The people who enjoyed finance (or tolerated it or stayed with it or thought it was a good trade) got something out of it besides satisfaction that they were doing math at their job and getting paid for it.

One of my friends who did math undergrad went to architecture school and now works one some sort of crossover between architecture and computation stuff. Pretty big zag from math undegrad, but he seems to enjoy it and he uses his math knowledge all the time. He seems to have taken the "identify a field where math could be useful and important but no one knows it, so you have a leg up" strategy rather than the "what fields are critically depended on math knowledge" strategy advocated by most of the posters above (quant finance, crypto, CS, etc.)
posted by jeb at 5:55 AM on March 8, 2010

I am seconding the suggestion to get a master's or Ph.D. in statistics. Research projects of all kinds, in both industry and academia, require competent statisticians. The statistician's role in such projects is not carrying out the research per se, but serving as a consultant providing their skills and know-how of various statistical techniques to analyze the data and allow the researchers to draw valid conclusions.

For example, some universities have a statistical consulting unit, and if working as a statistician there one would get to help out in a wide variety of projects, provide instruction, and do additional consulting on the side. Also note that statistical techniques are behind search algorithms and data mining, and so statistics expertise can open up doors to companies other than financial and defense industry ones.
posted by needled at 6:08 AM on March 8, 2010

Seconding actuarial work. I recall it's being rated, by whatever organization does such things (the American Actuarial Society?) the #1 job in terms of overall quality of life. A friend of mine was a high school math teacher for some years, a job he generally seemed to like. But when his crisis came (as it comes to many people) he went for a Masters in mathematics, and then entered the actuary field.

I don't really know much about it, except that it seems to be driven to a large degree by the taking of tests. That is, one must take a test to qualify as an actuary, and further movement up the actuary food chain is driven by your taking and passing various additional tests. Not sure how accurate that characterization is, and while at your age this may sound like a perfectly horrible existence I can assure you that there are worse things than test-based promotions.
posted by lex mercatoria at 1:53 PM on March 8, 2010

I asked a mathematical friend if she'd like to contribute, and she wrote:

"Yes! There are lots of disciplines that utilize mathematical skills. Some have been already mentioned by other posters -- engineering, statistics, finance. But I don't think anyone has mentioned Operations Research. OR is sort of a hybrid between math, business, industrial engineering, and statistics. The "official" definition (as put forth by INFORMS, the professional society) is "the discipline of applying advanced analytical methods to help make better decisions."

There's lots of room for someone with a background in probability theory. Other mathematical fields used in OR include linear algebra, combinatorics, and game theory. OR topics include mathematical programming, network theory, scheduling, dynamic programming, and control theory.

Links for more information include these from the INFORMS home page...


...and Michael Trick's OR page. (Professor Trick is an associate dean at Carnegie Mellon)


Hope this helps!"
posted by dmo at 11:11 AM on April 5, 2010

« Older RSS Feed for commodity data   |   Church wine? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.