Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The real world

I'm back in Eugene, and very jetlagged. Quite disorienting, the past week. I went from a physicist enclave in a mediterranean walled city which dates to 800 BC, to the luxotopia of Manhattan island, to the eco-hippy university town in the pacific northwest I call home :-) Which one is the real world?

Yesterday, waiting for a lunch meeting, I met an old friend for coffee. We wandered into the recently renovated MOMA in midtown, with its quiet sculpture garden. His employer, like all the big banks, is a major donor, and his ID card gained us immediate entry. Manhattan is like a big amusement or theme park for financiers. Relative to their compensation, all the rides (taxis, restauarants, everything but real estate) are free! See the drivers in big black sedans dropping off perfectly groomed, uniformed children at their $25k/y private schools, where the headmistress greets each child by name.

Today someone added the following comment to an old post on this blog entitled Don't become a scientist:

What about your children?

I'm a phd physicist who loves his work... but is dreading the day when he has to tell his kids they'll be going to UMaryland instead of Princeton because daddy loved his work too much. Grass is always greener, I guess... but... when you're 34 and trying to raise a family on what amounts to a lower-middle class scientist salary... you have a tendency to wonder why you didn't chose the path of the lawyers who process the paperwork for your patents. After all, they make a lot more money on my intellectual property than I do.


Dave Bacon said...

Okay, so here is a crazy thought. One reason physics in particular is not well compensated (as compared to, for example, computer science) is that while there is a fairly robust market for physics PhDs among the finance community, it seems that few physics faculty ever take such jobs. Thus while the finannce people steal good talent, since there is no market for physics faculty, once they've got you at faculty level you are stuck (baring a Nobel prize or such!) So I've been wondering if maybe physics departments might do better by acknowledging the market they are supplying and attempt to more into this market themselves! Encourage professors to start starups, join Wall St. firms, etc, etc.

steve said...

I completely agree, but most physics departments are too narrow minded to support any of this.

A more palatable step might be for professors to openly train students in a dual track way, preparing them for the day they might become a software developer or quant.

I tell research students that they must learn to program in a modern language, and that I'll teach them finance theory if they decide to leave physics at the end of their degree. (Also, if we have a good startup idea there is always that option :-)

In the end this will affect the supply-demand curve for physicists. Some students who learn the real score will opt out earlier.

If things don't change (perhaps we are already there), scientists will be selected as much for their willingness to endure difficult career conditions as for their scientific ability. But will our discipline care? We only want True Believers.

randomPhysicsGradStudent said...

Steve, I kind of wish I did my Ph.D. with you...

Anonymous said...

I second randomphysicsgradstudent's comment!

I think it would be a mistake to have all bright people going to finance directly; there is so much one would miss if one does not do physics, esp. theo. physics.
I notice that whenever I talk to my colleagues with just an engg or MBA after doing eco and the like. They have no clue (and most/all? of them never will) about the insights of even early 20th century physics, like relativity and quantum physics, let alone the exquisitely beautiful ideas of quantum field theory. I know it allows me to appreciate everything so much more, not to mention reduce everything I come across in day-to-day work as a "piece of cake" :)

So my ideal career path would be to have Prof. Steve Hsu as my Ph.D. supervisor, learn particle theory and QFT, and in the final year master quant and go work as a quant and earn a decent livelihood :-)


PS said...

To the grad student:

consider quant as an intermediate step to running your own hedge fund :)

Try yourself in the Trading Olympiad


Anonymous said...

This isn't entirely unlike the problem faced in medicine, where we only want the people who are in it for the love of it, but we get many, many people attracted to the money and prestige.

steve said...

I thought I posted this comment some time ago, but Blogger seems to have lost it:

MFA and randomphysicsgradstudent:

I doubt I am worthy of your praise, but I do care more about what happens to my students than most advisors!

It is true that a graduate physics education allows you to appreciate the world (even economics or engineering) in a much deeper way. Some would say that is itself priceless! :-)

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