Reality Check: Are You Sure You Want to Be a Quant?

The last two days I took a sick leave. While resting at home, I watched a 3-disc DVD program called Navy Seals: BUDS Class 234, a six-part mini-series about young men training to become members of the elite U.S. Navy special forces group. (The original series apparently aired on the Discovery Channel a few years ago.)

The toughest part of the 6-month SEAL training, called BUD/S, is the first three weeks, when the new recruits are put through endless physically and mentally demanding tests one after another. The goal, as the announcer explains, is to make sure every young man who wants to be a Navy SEAL knows what it takes, and to make sure that every person is committed to being a SEAL and to being willing to deal with the difficult situations under which these warriors will be required to perform their duties. Anyone with a shred of self-doubt is dropped from the program.

While Wall Street is physically nowhere near as demanding as fighting in a war, it can still be a stressful and exhausting place to work. Physically, you often need to put in long hours, and as a quant you’ll likely sit in front of a computer 10-15 hours a day, sometimes with nary a break.

But the real challenge is mental, just as what the Navy SEAL trainees, as well as real SEALs, have to deal with in their line of work. As my book mentions, it’s likely your boss will be a jerk, or even an asshole, who puts little respect in his or her employees. Your coworkers may see you as a competitor. The workload can be demanding — but unlike what the SEALs do, quants work with extremely boring stuff. Take me for example. I often spend a lot of time working on mindless (and needlessly useless) mundane tasks like QAing Perl scripts or manually calculating some numbers nobody gives a hoot about. Actually I just lied to you. I do that all the time. It’s a good thing I have a cute toddler son at home for me to look forward to going home to every workday. Otherwise, I’d probably have picked up a drinking habit or some other unhealthy lifestyle. Trust me: 99% of the quant work out there is very boring and carries no social value whatsoever.

So, if you want to be a quant only because all your friends are working as quants or working on Wall Street, or if you think you can make a lot of money, you should double-check your vision of reality. If you’re already enjoying the non-financial field you’re studying or working in, I highly recommend you think very, very carefully before attempting a switch into finance. Before you commit, question and double-question your motivation and level of commitment.

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10 Responses to Reality Check: Are You Sure You Want to Be a Quant?

  1. Steven says:

    humm…..Brett, you sounds so serious,  come on, "99% of the quant work out there is very boring and carries no social value whatsoever"???   How about the career developing strategy, "to be a I-Banker with Quant skill"? That is what I am planning right now. BTW, how old is your son? He must be so adorable. hahaha, Have a enjoyable weekend ahead! –Steven

  2. Scott says:

    Hey Brett,
    If being a quant involves working extremely long hours and performing tons of boring work, then what is your personal motivation for working as a quant on Wall Street? Have you, or are you, possibly considering a different line of work? If so, what? Not trying to bust your balls…just curious. 🙂
    In terms of the salaries I see on, such as $300,000, ranging to $900,000, is this really a common reality for most quant’s on Wall Street, or is this more like surfing the pipe dream in Hollywood, where only the best of the best like "Tom Cruise" get to make this kind of bread? If these salaries on the website are BS, what is an actual average salary and bonus for a quant?
    Much love,
    Scott R. Woodbury

  3. Brett says:

    Nice comments. 🙂  Don’t overlook the fact that the blog entry was trying to link the Navy SEAL trainees to future quants.  What I was trying to get across was, it takes a lot of commitment to become a quant.  Many people try it and regret their decisions and ending up going back to their non-financial careers.  If you’re going to put you through the painful process of looking for a job and interviewing, you should at least have done some "soul searching" and asked yourself if this is really what you want to do.
    As to why I became a quant…  I tried many things in my life before: sales, entrepreneurship (dot-com), IT, management consulting, trading, economic analysis, etc., but in the end, I decided since I got a Ph.D. in economics (with concentration in econometrics and financial economics), quant finance was the best career for me.  After all, I spent 5 years getting my Ph.D. and it would have been a waste if I kept on trying different things (e.g., I’d always wanted to be a moviemaker like Ang Lee) only to find out I wasn’t good at doing other things.  At least I liked econometric modeling, and I had adequate computer skills.
    Do I question my decision?  Of course I do, because the work I do day in and day out is extremely boring.  Like one of my coworkes who has left the firm used to say: "This f*cking job is killing all my brain cells!"  The pay is good, but not great (another message in my book).  Are there interesting quant jobs out there for me?  Maybe, but I have familial reasons to stay put for now and deal with the ennui with dignity.  After all, I’m an adult, and I have a family, so I simply can’t indulge in the free-exploring lifestyle I could afford to enjoy when I was in my 20s.
    A lot of my readers who have e-mailed me seem to imply that they want to get into quant because, one, they have quantitative skills, two, their communications skills aren’t strong enough to allow them to work in management or sales, and three, they want to make enough money to support their families.  I think all of these are legitimate reasons.  All I was saying in the blog entry was, you need to be prepared.  You need to be committed.  You need to have done all your homework before you make the jump.  You need to keep your expectations realistic.  Again, all these messages can be found in my book as well, but the blog entry used the Navy SEAL training program to drive these points home.
    Scott: as for your 2nd question, those job listings are posted by headhunters and they usually require lots of experience.  But I also believe that most of the salary expectations are inflated.  My personal experience has been headhunters tend to tell me I’d make $2 while the real total comp is only going to be $1.50.
    Good luck!

  4. Wu Chao says:

    I just happened to talk with a quant who is 45 years by age, but looks like 55. He should be pretty successful. However, I am scared of that.

  5. Yanis Ps. says:

    OK. Let me get this straight. 1. It’s boring.2. It’s exhausting3. Not rewarding4. No social value at all to it 5. You probably want to kill yourself being in this field6. The pay is questionable and the lists goes on and on….Then the author is asking:"…double-question your motivation"WHICH MOTIVATION??? What reasons are left for anyone to do anything that’s related to this field?That’s what I’d like to know.

  6. Muddy says:

    Interesting!  I am a SEAL that is considering a career in quantitative finance.  I love my job, but am looking at moving on(I’m a geek at heart)  I want to find something I can stick with as a career, but is still consistently challenging and rewarding.  My current career is going to be a tough act to follow, but I thought quantitative finance could fill my needs.   We could do a job swap for a week.  Maybe we both would appreciate our positions more afterward. 🙂

  7. Brett says:

    I personally think SEALs (the Navy guys, right?) should be paid more than Wall Street slimebags.

  8. mic says:

    The analogy is greate…like a seal or wanabe seal who is tough I am tough and willing to take on the challenge..but oop!!why does the quant himself finds the job boring.

  9. What Do Quants Do? says:

    This is a great glimpse into one of the challenges of being a quant. However, for weeks now I’ve been trying to figure out what it would be like to be a quant, and I still have no idea. All the books seem to focus on getting interviews and landing a job, but none really talk about what it’s *actually* like being a quant. Sure, it’s long, boring, stressful hours…but what one person finds boring, another might actually enjoy.

    Some background on where I’m coming from: I’m currently finishing up a PhD in Computer Science, and I’ve actually become somewhat disenfranchised with the academic world. Academia (going for tenure, in particular) seems to be lot of long, hard, and stressful hours of thankless work for crap pay (it seems a entry-level quant would make more than a tenured professor!). At this point in my life, the academic freedom of working on whatever I want doesn’t really hold much pull with me. Within the past 5 years, I’ve become very interested in finance, the stock market, and so on…so I’m considering being a quant.

    The problem is that I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to actually be a quant. Examples of things I’d like to know:
    * What do quants *actually* do, day-in day-out?
    * What is a typical day, week, month, and year is like for an entry-level, mid-career, and top-level quant?
    * How a quant would move from one position to another (i.e. get promoted, raises/big bonuses)?
    * What is the work environment is like? Does everyone hate each other, or do they kind of work together and go out for drinks together at the end of a hard day?
    * Do quants work by themselves, crunching numbers, and sending them to their boss all day long, or do they work teamed up with a trader, other quants, or other coworkers of some kind?

    If answers to these and similar questions are already somewhere on this website, please do point me to them! Otherwise, I’d love to hear from anyone who could tell me about their careers as a quant. I’d like to have a pretty good idea of what I’m getting into before actually trying to get into it…like this post tries to convey.

    Thank you in advance, and best of luck in whatever careers you’re pursuing!

    • Mighty says:

      Wow i love the way you guys get involved here sharing your experiences and knowledge, thank you for helping some of us. I just droped out of university doing engineering and now i’m considering studying to be a quant. Is it worth it

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