Choices for Financial Math Majors

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When weighing your credentials in financial mathematics against your career goals in trading, remember that your first job doesn't necessarily define you.

You're close to earning your master's degree in financial mathematics, but when you scan the job ads all you see are positions for quants. That's the situation one student found himself in as he scoped out opportunities on Wall Street. He identified many trading desks seeking candidates for roles in logistic or programmatic trading, or for graduates of MBA or Ph.D. programs. "It leaves me wondering," he wrote us, "where do I stand with my qualifications?"

Acknowledging "it's a great question," John Mazzei, managing director at New York-based Rand Thompson, is quick to point out that "there's a distinction between a career goal and a first job." After receiving his master's degree, the first stop for our correspondent will be an entry-level job as a quant or research analyst, he says. It's after he's proved his "reputation and talents" that he'll be able to move to a trader's job - "if that stays his goal." Mazzei notes that during their initial time on the job, the goals of junior staffers often change - as does their employer's view of how to make use of their talents.

Bret Engelkemier, head of U.S. Equity Trading at Citigroup, holds similar views. Trading operations aren't usually looking for one specific talent or background, he says. "We're more worried that you understand advanced algebra, advanced calculus, and the like," he explains. "We'll teach you the other stuff."

The level at which firms like Citigroup transact business requires "things you're not going to find out about in a grad school class," Engelkemier points out. What differentiates candidates "is being good, knowing higher-level math, being a great computer programmer," he says. "There's a rapid convergence between traders, quants and technology and the lines are blurring."

Also, remember there's more to succeeding in the financial world than math skills. "If he's the brightest person in the world but he can't communicate, it's hard to monetize (his talents)," Engelkemier says.

While you're still in school, Mazzei suggests using your alumni group to learn more about the real world. "Contact a graduate from a few years back who's now a trader and find out about their career path," he says.

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