How to Become a Quant Math, CS, Data
First, let me clarify something. Usually, “quant” is used to refer to the math wizards who work in quantitative finance. They can solve hard math problems, they can find patterns in big data, and they can code up efficient algorithms along the way. (A related buzzword from the tech industry is “data scientist,” a person who analyzes large data sets.) I like the term “quant” because it has such a nice ring to it and because it covers the three pillars of mathematics, computer science, and data analysis. I apply the term “quant” to the class of people with expertise in these three areas, whether they work in finance or elsewhere.
Expertise in any of these three areas is valuable, but the combination of all three is many many times more powerful than any one or two on their own. There are a vast array of problems that require all three. If you browse this blog, you will find plenty of examples.
People with this combination of skills are in low supply and high demand. They can work in academia, industry (tech, finance, more), government research labs, or start their own businesses. And they generally earn a great salary. In short, they have it made.
If you’re naturally gifted at math, hard-working, and ambitious, then you’ve got what it takes. Now just spend the next ten or so years following these steps and voila, you’ll be a kick-ass quant.
Don’t go to a liberal arts college. They will probably not have all the math, computer science, and statistics courses that you want. Plus, they will probably require you to take a lot of humanities courses. Instead, go to a sizable university or an engineering/technology school.
For your undergraduate degree, the rank of the university doesn’t matter much. Unless you have a great scholarship to a better school, your best bet is probably your state’s top public university. In-state tuition, along with some scholarship money, can allow you to graduate with minimal debt.
This is the most important section of this whole guide. Choosing the right courses is everything. Imagine two college students, Ann and Beth, both majoring in math. Each spends about 50% of her waking time on coursework (i.e. in class or studying or doing homework). Ann is interested in history, art, and literature, so she takes a wide range of courses in addition to her math major. She completes the minimum requirements for the math degree, and in the end about 30% of her courses were quantitative. Over the course of her degree, she will spend a little over 2000 hours thinking quantitatively. Beth, on the other hand, goes all out, taking as many quantitative courses as her univesity allows while still fulfilling the general degree requirements. Perhaps 95% of her courses are quantitative, for a total of nearly 7000 hours spent. Ann knows more about Shakespeare and the French Revolution, but Beth is way better prepared to become a quant.
Non-quantitative interests are great. But if you’re serious about becoming a quantitative genius, these interests should be considered hobbies. Read about the French Revolution during your free time or during the summers. Don’t take a course on it, at least not at this point in your life.
Double-major in math and computer science. To fulfill science requirements, take physics courses. To fulfill social science requirements, take economics courses. To fulfill humanities requirements, probably philosophy courses are your best bet; in particular, check for critical thinking and/or logic courses and see it they would count.
Make sure you take a few statistics courses along the way. Take as many physics courses as you want; go for a physics minor if you want.
I may write a future blog post on studying. For now, let me just mention one tip. There are some great lectures, such as MIT OpenCourseWare, available to watch on Youtube. Watch these! The lecturers are almost certainly better than your professors. Watching these videos while eating is an efficient way to make the most of your meal times.
There are other good sources of information on productivity. My favorite author on the topic is Cal Newport who stresses the importance of deliberate practice. An interesting and related topic is flow.
So, I know that I just recommended watching math lecures during your meals. It may seem that this quant-training regimen requires you to spend every waking moment studying. Don’t do that! Relax! Watch TV, play video games (but not an MMORPG), play intramural sports, go to bars every now and then, make friends, and have fun. There’s no rush. Becoming an expert takes years and years. Work hard but don’t burn yourself out.
A very serious student probably spends about half of his waking time on coursework. That’s plenty. The real key is taking the right courses, as described above. If you do that, then you’re going to become an expert without having to overwork yourself.
Work hard, be smart, and good grades will take care of themselves. Don’t be a perfectionist. Worrying about grades is not worth the time or the stress. Also, prioritize quantitative courses over non-quantitative ones. For example, if you’re taking an art history class to fulfill a requirement, getting a C- is no big deal. Spend your time on the courses that matter.
Simplify and streamline your life as much as possible. For example, live on campus. Get the meal plan. Etc.
Use Dropbox to make sure all of your files are backed-up and are available from any computer. Use a coherent directory structure within dropbox to keep things organized. Make a “Courses” folder. Inside that make a “1-Freshman” folder. Inside that make folders “1-Fall,” “2-Spring,” and “3-Summer.” Inside each of these, make a folder for each course you take during that term. And so on.
Type up all of your homework assignments so that you don’t lose them and so that you will have them forever. As an added bonus, they will look more professional and impress your professors. But how do you type up mathematics? LaTeX!
Install and learn LaTeX during the summer before you start college. During your first semester using it, it will probably make assignments take a bit longer. But once you’re fluent, assignments will take about the same time to type as they do to write by hand. And keep in mind that you’re developing your LaTeX skills throughout college, so typing up official documents will be a breeze in your professional career.
Writing a blog is a fun way to connect with the world. It also helps you form and retain your ideas. Finally, it is another piece of work that you can show off to employers when the time comes.
However, blogging can be time-consuming. One way to streamline the process is by basing many of your posts on interesting coursework (reports or homework problems, for instance). Furthermore, there are ways to display LaTeX on the web. Once you’ve typed up a clever homework solution in LaTeX, you may as well put it up on your blog too if it only takes a few more minutes.
Don’t join a fraternity or sorority. Their social events consume a lot of your time, making it hard to get much work done. Serious athletic teams are overly time-consuming too. Also, don’t join any political groups. They can be time-consuming, and they tend to be hotbeds of terrible reasoning. (For similar reasons, I suggest not reading the news.)
The math club or computer science club might be fun to join if you’re interested. Just remember to keep your life simple. It becomes difficult to stay organized (and sane) if you accumulate too many obligations.
Starting at the beginning of your sophomore year, try to get hired at your college’s tutoring center. (You might need to apply at the end of your freshman year. Email the center to inquire.) This is a job that benefits you: it forces you to spend hours thinking quantitatively and reviewing your old material. And you’re getting paid for it! Now that’s efficient.
Most people who use the tutoring center need help with very basic courses. Try your best to spend most of your time tutoring higher level courses if possible. Also, don’t work too many hours per week. Four to six hours is probably good.
You may hear that you can make more money by private tutoring. Yes, you can charge a little more, but in my opinion it isn’t worth it. Cancellations and time-changes are common, and it’s a hassle dealing with that week after week. You won’t have time to deal with that. The routine and fixed hours of the tutoring center more than make up for the lower wage. After all, this job isn’t really about the money. It’s mostly about you thinking quantitatively and having a job to list on your resume.
During the summers after freshman year and after sophomore year, I recommend taking summer courses. You could stay on campus, but that can be expensive. Some colleges offer online courses, which would be the most convenient option. Or you might try taking courses from a local institution near home and then transferring the credits, but that can be a bureaucratic headache.
During the summer after junior year, do an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) in either Math or Computer Science. These are beneficial experiences, they look great on your grad school application, and you get paid for them. Applications for REUs are usually due in February, so don’t miss the deadline. They also require recommendations from professors, so you’ll have to give them some time as well. You should probably start working on your applications at the beginning of the junior year’s Christmas break.
In your spare time during this REU summer, study for the GRE General Test and the GRE Math Subject Test.
If you come up with any interesting ideas, build them. It’s fun and educational, and it’s another way to show off your skills and your initiative. Over the past few years, I’ve created several web applications, a podcast, a few R packages, an Arduino library, and this blog. Any code you produced for these projects should be available for download (on git-hub for example). You might also consider joining an open-source project.
Side projects are fun, but don’t over-extend yourself. You can only do so many things at once. Keep your life simple and avoid overly distracting habits/addictions.
Buy the review books, study hard, and ace your standardized tests. They’re important for admission to grad school, and even some job applications request to see your scores. Take both tests during the Fall of your senior year, unless you’re planning to take a “gap year” between college and grad school.
Do a two-year Master’s Degree in Applied Math. Again, I recommend a university where you’re eligible for in-state tuition rates. Find a professor who will let you join his research group during the summer between the two years of your program. Work hard throughout that summer; you will need a good letter of recommendation from this professor.
Do your PhD in Statistics; apply to good programs.
A major benefit of this course of study is that it keeps your options open for so long. It provides you with skills that will make you a powerhouse in any industry or any field of study. If you do have a specific goal in mind (let’s take finance as our example), I recommend that you don’t specialize until a few years into your PhD program. At that point, get some books on quantitative finance to read in your spare time and during the summers. And complete a finance-related dissertation.
Congratulations, superstar, you’re a quant!
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