Dismal Science (s3c0nd g1st p1st)

I had just been contemplating this on the tree of woe when a message hit my inbox from a survivor of the STEM hunger games. I am presenting it almost entirely unedited. Thank you, Derek Action, for your careful examination of the vital question: “Now that I do math good, how do I get money?”

You’ll note that Derek delves more deeply into logistical questions than an advice book is likely to do. This is valuable attention to a frequently neglected point. You’ll also note that Derek has obvious familiarity with all stages of the process, and I’m sure that he’d be up for answering specific questions about them. Congrats, Derek, for getting out with a win.


If you studied a quantitative subject but didn’t go into finance because you didn’t want to “sell out”, but you’ve since discovered the Rat Faced Man, then this is for you. It is a guide I prepared with all the information I used myself to get from academia to a real job, and from a real job to a finance job with a top 2% starting salary. It mostly deals with the business of interviewing while you have a job.

I will include references to help with the technical interview preparation, which in finance is the equivalent of asking you to do a Rubik’s cube: you can easily impress the interviewer if you learned the solution beforehand, but otherwise, you will look like an idiot. The questions aren’t designed to test how smart you are, but rather to make you, and above all, the interviewer, feel smart. How else will you justify the big salary you will receive once you’re hired?

While interview skill certainly matters, interviewing for finance jobs is like a lottery, Consider that all the candidates who make it to the phone round will have strong CVs. The candidates who make it to the face-to-face interviews will be the strongest of the applicants. In the final rounds, it often comes down to luck: they will ask a set of brainteasers, and you may or may not know how to solve them. Candidates who luck out and encounter more questions they have prepared for (or previously encountered) will come out looking stronger than they actually are. Likewise, the smartest candidate in the pool could nonetheless have a bad day and flunk an interview. Interviewing (on both sides of the table) is a difficult skill to master, but as with most things, practice makes perfect.

This might mean you may not be able to get a finance job immediately after completing your degree, and you may not have the luxury to spend months interviewing. If this is the case, it makes sense to take a non-finance job with the aim to get back into finance after a year or so. It may even be easier to get into finance then: it’s easiest to find a job when you have a job. Try to spend at least a year at an employer, as spending less time at any one employer may look bad (this rule has exceptions, because multiple good positions in a short time might also indicate that a candidate is in high demand). Whether your first job is in finance or not, the ability to interview while working — a stealth job-search — is a valuable skill to develop. I will provide some guidelines here, mostly to do with the logistics of interviewing.

The most important thing is interview preparation. Think of it as being exam-ready. One is seldom as ready to take a calculus exam than the day before the exam. This is the position you have to be in when interviewing. If you are not exam-ready, you will definitely lose out to the multitude of other rat-faced candidates who are. Finding time to prepare is the hardest part of a stealth job-search. Think about it as having a second job. Put time aside in the morning or evening. If you have a lengthy commute, find a way to do preparation on the journey. The texts referenced in this guide are a great place to start. Don’t just read, you have to do the exercises. Find a sketch book to use or work on your laptop or tablet, but make sure you make preparation part of your daily routine for as long as you are interviewing. As with the calculus exam, you will not perform if you are not exam-ready, no matter how well you know the material. Unlike with the calculus exam, how well you do here will directly influence future income.

When you are exam ready, and if you have a strong CV, you will start getting invites to phone interviews. Very few finance houses will invite you for a face-to-face interview without doing a phone screen, therefore you need to be prepared for this preliminary stage. This can be difficult to do if you are in full-time employment. You need to find a place where you can take a call, where you will be undisturbed for 40-60 minutes, and where you will be able to do mathematical brainteasers with pen and paper. The best place to do phone interviews is in an office with a table with the door closed, while using a landline. This is also the hardest place to find when you are in full-time employment, unless your employer won’t get suspicious when you book meeting rooms around lunch everyday for long, private phone calls. Sitting in a coffee shop is another option, but it might be hard to find a quiet one where the risk of being disturbed is zero. You will have to scout for locations that are walking distance from your place of work, but not too close to risk discovery by your colleagues. Try and arrange the phone calls after work as far as possible. If it is not possible to do them after work, you will need to use your lunch period. Consider that an interview might take 40-60 minutes (allowing for the interview to start later than agreed), which might be your entire lunch. You also need 5-10 minutes to walk to your location, and 5-10 minutes to walk back. Moreover, you will need a clipboard or writing book with a hard cover to do the brainteasers and will need to carry it out of the office without arousing suspicion.

Some interviewing guides state that you should never use a mobile phone for phone interviews, as a landline will always have better quality. This is true, but in the case of a stealth job-search landlines are a luxury. Expect to use your mobile phone, but find a good headset with a good microphone. It may even be worthwhile to invest in a separate microphone, as the microphones that come with most headsets are sub standard. If you are often sitting outside, research a product known as a “dead cat” wind muff. My personal preference, while stealth interviewing in London, was to go and sit on a bench near the river, in a semi-secluded area. Oddly, rainy days were the best; there would be few other people present, meaning I could sit under my umbrella and do the interview relatively undisturbed, cold fingers aside. I flirted with the idea of using a phone booth, but I didn’t know whether anyone still used those and thought being inside one for 60 minutes might arouse suspicion.

If you pass the phone rounds you will get invited for face-to-face interviews. This can either take the form of a single interview, or a day of interviews (known as on-sites or superdays). For superdays, the best is to schedule them on Fridays or Mondays. That way you can take a day’s worth of leave under the guise of a long weekend, and avoid suspicion. One-hour interviews are more annoying, as you have to take a half-day or full day’s worth of leave, which is an expensive way to do things. Few financial houses would be willing to accommodate you by having these interviews after hours, but it is worthwhile to ask. While I recommend only using your annual leave days for interviews, some individuals engage in more risky behaviour like scheduling interviews on the same days as doctors’ visits, or by lying outright and taking a sick day. This can have very serious repercussions, and you will have to evaluate the risks for yourself. Your risk will depend on how replaceable you are.

With all of the above, there is the risk that your current employer might find out you are interviewing. This may or may not be a bad thing, depending on how you act, and how they act. In the worst case scenario they will, unbeknownst to you, become aware that you are job hunting and take actions to replace you. It is more likely that they will be too busy to notice, or that they will confront you if they do. If confronted the best strategy is to be upfront.

When asked whether you are interviewing, casually answer in the affirmative and point out that you are always interviewing. Interviewing keeps one on one’s toes, it is a great way to ensure one is up to date with the latest techniques in your field, and it helps one to estimate one’s value in the market. Say you have a personal policy to go for at least two interviews a year, regardless of your intention to take another job. There is a difference between job hunting and interviewing; you are merely engaging in the latter. It is a confidence trick, if you don’t act like someone who got “caught out”, you won’t be someone who got caught out.

Crack, T. F. (2008). Heard on the Street: Quantitative Questions from Wall Street Job Interviews. Self Published.
Joshi, M., N. Denson, and A. Downes (2008). Quant Job Interview: Questions and Answers. CreateSpace.
Wilmott, P. (2009). Frequently Asked Questions in Quantitative Finance. Wiley.


Scam in your Inbox

The tuition and fees listed below go into effect on July 1, 2017 for all degree programs at our Hyde Park, NY campus.

First Semester Freshman  
Tuition* $14,690
Application $50
Supplies $755†/$620††
Board**  $1,775
General Fee+ $740
Total $18,010/$17,875

I’m not what you’d call a “mathematologist”, but according to my iPhone, $17,875 * 8 = $143,000 to learn to cook. Don’t worry, though–you can borrow the money at a mere 7.9%, meaning that at $1,500/month, you can pay it off in 30 years. This will cost you a further $82,000 in interest.

$1,500/month is $18,000/year. It’s hard to put a price on education, but on the other hand, you can put a mean annual wage on a cook, and that wage is $24,410. Let’s be reasonable, though. A graduate of a CULINARY INSTITUTE surely won’t be stirring vats of prole chow in the basement of a Sodexho factory! They’ll be 90th percentile and earn the princely sum of $35,090. (Of course, that’s 42nd percentile overall.)

So let’s recap. If you go to cooking school, you borrow full freight, and you get a prestigious cooking job when you’re done, you get to keep $17,090 after your student loan nut. For a single, childless person filing in Illinois claiming the standard deduction and the maximum educational tax credit, there’s tax liability of about $5,000/year, so make that $12,090. You’ll be living on $1,000 a month for 30 years. Of course, that’s $10,680/year more than you’d make if you were a median cook earning $24,410. In that case you’d owe $4,338 in tax, leaving you with $2,072 to live on for an entire year. (This is about the GDP per capita of Uganda).

How’d this happen in the richest country in the world? No, not Qatar, the USA! Some would have you believe that this happens because kids don’t do enough chores. These people are imbeciles. What they’re doing is like trying to bail out a ship that’s been hit by a torpedo. The truth is that the USA has a highly productive population, but very few “producers” are allowed to keep much of what they’ve produced. We thus have the strange spectacle of a rich nation full of hardworking people who are poor.

I’m singling out schools for this treatment because the social function of schools is education, not profit. Obviously the faculty and staff need to get paid, but there’s a sort of social consensus that schools are places to get help. This consensus is reflected in law — Harvard isn’t taxed as though it were a huge investment company, though maybe it should be. But there’s an inchoate sense in which hospitals, doctors, universities, schools, etc. are places where people used to be able to go for help, but no longer can. They’re no longer havens in a heartless world, only another venue for incessant, hostile competition.

This has been a long time coming. Financial institutions are also growing increasingly scammy. Perhaps it’s no wonder that one of the most famous movies ever is on just this topic– or that it’s a fantasy.

“I’m Too Smart to Be Poor!”

These days, the old “go to college” life script is failing. But what about the “become a professor” life script? Even during the long, palmy Boomer afternoon, people knew that professors were poor, didn’t they?

Come to that, what valuable skills do academics have, exactly? It’s true that many academics have deep insight into interdisciplinary cultural analysis, but it’s not clear who’s going to pay for that or why. Essentially, in becoming an academic, you are betting that something will turn up, because society is morally obligated to pay for academics.

I don’t want to make too much fun of this–this is a type of decision-making that made some kind of sense in a simpler world. In the brief interval of, say, 1950-1975, ratfacing somewhat receded and people could rely on their intuitions of “decency” and “propriety” as genuinely effective heuristics for making life decisions. There’s a sense in which it’s tragic that this came to an end; there’s a certain nobility to an urbanizing population working out its small-town, stiff-necked Protestant values and creating vast quantities of positive externalities for all to share and enjoy.

That said, however, I absolutely do want to make fun of various rats manqués who expected social justice sinecures and are instead finding out that universities are run by people who “Think Different“, in the sense that they care very much about posturing as humanitarians and giving their customers curated experiences while ruthlessly exploiting workers, business partners and even their own families.

Therefore, let’s all laugh heartily at the miserable lives of failure facing the people whose job market looks like this:

University of Illinois-Chicago.
Visiting Lecturer-German Basic Language Program Director for AY 2017-2018.

The Director will coordinate 14 sections in the blended basic German language sequence (first through fourth semester), supervise and train about 10 teaching assistants, teach three advanced language and culture courses, and participate in departmental events, such as the High School Day.

Qualifications: Candidates must be ABD (PhD preferred), have a strong teaching record, and have a background in Second Language Acquisition or a related field. Native or near-native competency in German is required. Preference will be given to candidates with experience in language program direction, materials development, and computer-mediated learning.

Currently this is a 67% position for $28.000 and benefits are prorated.

Reminder: this is around 35% of what a McDonalds manager makes in Chicago. At least it’s slightly more than welfare–although after student loans, it’s probably a wash. No wonder revolution is so much on the academic mind. #FightForFifteen!

Further Evidence of Vidya-Induced Poverty

We’ve been complaining for some time at The Rat-faced Man that vidya derails your life. More accurately, it enables persistent patterns of treading water by providing a pleasurable alternative to getting out there and striving in the juggalo-haunted hellscape.   Well, for once, the upper-class twits over at The Economist have made themselves useful by providing a write-up of a study on the subject (together with a handy link to a 4,000-word thumbsucker on the subject by a The Economist journalist.)

Of course, as a magazine focused on IYIs, The Economist has to TURN CONVENTIONAL WISDOM ON ITS HEAD and show off its sophisticated tolerance:

[T]he share of jobless or underemployed young people choosing to game rather than focus on career will probably grow. That is not necessarily something to lament. Games are often rewarding and social, and time spent gaming sometimes displaces less healthy or rewarding pastimes.

Well done, boyo, jolly well done indeed, innit? That’s how you know you’ve got a magazine for ~le sophisticated reader~ indeed.

If the pull of work is not strong enough to overcome the desire to game, the first response should be to ask whether more can be done to prepare young people for good jobs—and to make sure that there are some around when those young people enter the workforce.

Or maybe we could just gamify work!

Like a lot of IYI things, this article in The Economist manages to convey information that is simultaneously correct and toxic. I mean, yeah, gaming probably isn’t going anywhere. And it would be a good idea to “make sure that there are some [good jobs] around” for young people. (The elided subject is telling. Who exactly is to be making sure of this?) On the other hand, the bland reassurance that the article wants to induce has the same narcotizing effect, in the end, as the vidya. It wants to soothe people who don’t need soothing.

I’m not here to provide a general solution for society. We used to live in a world of cows, but we now live in a world where prosperity is for rats. I don’t know how to turn rats into cows or how to get rats to give milk, but this much I can tell you: Netcraft confirms that vidya addicts are dying. And dying is for suckers.

fr0st g1st p1st

You know you’ve hit the big time when people offer to do free work for you. Is there anything more rat-faced than getting other people to prepare content for which you can take all the credit? (If there is, please let me know, and please show me, for free, how to do it.) It is therefore in this spirit that I offer up my first guest post, by “a Microwave Engineer.” My comments are in square brackets/italics here and there.

How to Interview for a Job
by a Microwave Engineer

If you’ve actually gotten a job interview in today’s economy, congratulations!  Many people are having trouble even getting to this stage. Now it’s time to sell yourself to your prospective employer.  The sales job is not an act of telling how awesome you are.  Instead, it’s a conversation between two parties (you and your prospective employer) about what the job requires, who you will be working with and for and whether your skills are a good fit for the job.  Be sure to show up ahead of schedule, treat the front desk people with politeness and respect, and wear a wedding/funeral suit that fits.  Bring a notebook to write down each interviewer’s name and what was discussed. [This is absolutely key, because you will be joining a business team, and this shows awareness of this fact. -rfm] The higher the position you are interviewing for, the longer the interview will take. Do as much research on your interviewers and their work as possible before you are in front of them.  If someone has written an interesting paper or article or was in the news, be prepared to discuss it with them.  If you don’t know who will be interviewing you, ask.  If the job is technical, be prepared to answer technical questions correctly.  This can involve a couple of weeks of guessing at the questions you may be asked and preparing answers.  Make flash cards, etc. [All of this bolded advice in particular is solid gold and will greatly increase your interviewers’ affirmative commitments to hiring you. -rfm] None of this prep is wasted if you don’t get the job.  After prepping for the current interview, you may choose later to interview with this employer’s competitors or you may discover how your current experience is related to another job that is a better fit or pays better.

The Job
During the interview, step one is to ask a lot of questions about the job and take notes.  At this stage, prove you are a good listener by letting the interviewer speak and, when he is done, repeating an accurate summary of the job back to him and then asking, “Do I understand this correctly?”  It’s axiomatic that employers like good listeners.  You are also trying to determine if you can do the job.  You don’t want to take a job you can’t do.  While it’s great to take a job that’s a stretch for your current skills, it’s a terrible idea to take a job where you’ll be fired in six months for selling yourself into a job you can’t do.
Your Experience
After you understand the job, the next step is to explain how your experience relates to the job.  This involves explanation.  Don’t over-think this: be confident and sell yourself.  It’s great to practice this part with a wife or friend who is a known solid performer in some field.  Becoming successful in any field follows a similar process, so your successful friend/wife/husband is the right person to practice-interview you.  Solid performers hate have trash-cans on their teams and know how to weed them out.  Remember: relate your experience and interests to the job description above.  SPEAK TO THE PROMPT.  Don’t yammer on about how awesome you are generally, because you’re not.  Managers have a huge fear of hiring someone who doesn’t work out who they can’t get rid of.  Set their minds at ease.  Always remember that you are being hired to bring more money into the company than you cost in wages, benefits and taxes.  Make them believe you will do this.  This is especially true for jobs that pay a lot of money.  If you’re getting high pay, you’d better deliver on it.
The Team
Interviews are conducted by your direct manager and your potential team.  While you’re interviewing, ask yourself, “Can I work for/with these people? Do I like them? Will they like me?  Where will I be working?”  You’re well advised to be curious and ask probing-but-respectful questions that can help you avoid years of heartache in the future.  Just as managers are afraid of hiring the wrong person, you should be afraid of taking a job with the wrong people.  Almost any job can be good if the team is fun, hardworking, and creative.
Wrap Up
Thank every interviewer for their time.  Figure out how to get them a thank you note before you conclude with each of them. Write thank you notes and deliver them.  [This advice is, IMO, situational. In some jobs it is not expected and might look funny—for example, in on-campus recruitment for legal or banking jobs. -rfm] Follow up with the hiring manager.  Be sure to get his contact information.  Put yourself in the shoes of your hiring manager: interviewing really sucks and it’s hard to find good talent.  If you act like a professional, it’s easy to set yourself apart from your competitors for the job.
Closing thoughts
If you don’t get the job, it doesn’t mean you are a loser.  Rather, the job wasn’t a good fit for you or someone else was better-qualified.  Every interview is an opportunity to get better at interviewing.  I often interview for jobs I am only modestly interested in just to hone my skills.  I find it fun because I know I’m going to win.  Once they think they have to have you, negotiating salary should be pretty easy.
Ask questions in the comments.

Stevedore Jobs


The Rat-faced Man wants to draw your attention to salience. This is the house term I’m using to describe how much attention a career path (or a life script) commands. No one can think of every possible job or opportunity. What’s more, our socializations run along similar lines, so all of us are likely to have gaps in our maps of possibilities.

Popular media doesn’t help, because when it does address the question of unusual jobs, it tends to do so from a sensationalist, clickbait position that is grossly disinformative to people trying to make life decisions. Stuff like that isn’t far removed from “it’s the ice roads for you, my son!” If you’re the kind of person who’s going to go into crab fishing, you probably aren’t getting the idea from BusinessPundit.com.

Even slightly less misleading pieces are still pretty misleading. Most of the jobs listed have a high rate of churn, so they are constantly hiring, but that doesn’t mean they have enough structural demand to meet the number of qualified applicants. Instead, they constantly burn through new ones but retain relatively few for long-term career tracks. It’s not impossible to thrive in this environment, but if you go the IT route (for instance) you should expect a succession of short-term contracts with relatively high base pay but little in the way of stability or benefits.

The title of this post refers to the fancy name for a dockworker job. Back in the early 20th century, it was strenuous, unskilled labor, packing goods by hand and loading them with a rope and pulley. Today, however, it’s performed with equipment. And equipment operators can do pretty well, even if kids today have no idea that this career path exists.

This is how kids actually think:

In fact doctor is the most popular profession for girls, at 16%, followed by teacher at 7%, scientist at 4.5% and chef/baker at 4%. Among boys, the most popular future job is pro athlete at 16%. Firefighter comes in second, at a little over 5%, followed by engineer at just below 5% and astronaut at 4%.

Overwhelmingly, what you see are civil service, public safety, doctorlawyerscientistengineer, and computers. In other words, things that are on TV or otherwise highly visible in books by Richard Scarry. Is it really possible that we’re letting millions of people get derailed because they are selecting occupations using a dartboard and books for toddlers?

In a sane, functional society, we probably wouldn’t have delegated career guidance to network TV and people who make under $1,000 a week. Since we have, as a highly-skilled professional with hiring experience, allow me to step in and use my expertise to link a reddit thread:

Guidance counselors: it’s one thing if your job can be made obsolete by a robot. What about when you’re outperformed by reddit?

Training for Failure

Unlike the neighbors, who had expensive wall-to-wall carpet and furniture sets from Seaman’s, we had wood floors and oriental rugs, and I grew up believing that we were superior because of it. Even when I got older and began to run into my financial problems, I never had a conscious desire for a lot of money. I was never interested in being rich. I just wanted to live in a place with oak floors.

We’ve been talking about media-driven life scripts for a while now here at the Rat-faced Man. The protagonist of today’s episode, Meghan Daum, is an interesting case because, on the one hand, she’s won all kinds of prizes—a Guggenheim, a PEN, even a 2016 NEA fellowship (good timing on that one, Meghan)—and on the other, she’s also survived long, lean years as a broke writer. It’s not the worst outcome possible, of which more in a moment, but it’s not the best either. I consider the arc to be catastrophic early flop followed by slow rebuilding. What’s amazing is how avoidable the former was and how much of a win in the second act it took to settle the debts from the first.

By now, the “caviar ambitions/Wonderbread resources” trap should be familiar, so no need to belabor it. Basically, Ms. Daum fell in love with the lifestyle depicted in Woody Allen movies and decided that she’d rather be Mia Farrow than the wife of a suburban orthodontist. In order to become a hip part of the arts scene, she took poverty jobs (which today would be unpaid internships—the events in this article took place over 15 years ago) and got to enjoy a romantic life of credit card debt and cockroaches until she finally got smart and moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. Note that “[h]ousing is 84% cheaper in Lincoln.” Her $1,055 apartment in Manhattan would have cost $169 in Lincoln. Imagine what kind of apartment you could get for $169 in Lincoln, then move it 10 roach-infested stories into the air and you’re getting close. Her $59,000 earnings in Manhattan were equivalent to $21,000 in Lincoln, or to put it another way, if you were earning over $10.50 an hour in Lincoln, you were coming out ahead. Store managers in Lincoln were clowning on her almost as bad as NYC garbagemen were.

Ms. Daum was born in 1970 and is thus a mid-period Gen Xer. And:

[I]mportant national and cultural events [helped] delineat[e] the evolution of boomers’ group-hug approach to life, [but] Eddie Bauer shopping bags and Sprite tags provide the anthropologically significant evidence explaining Gen-Xer traits like “materialism” and” competitiveness.” Gee, how’d that happen?

In 1997, I guess it was excusable for a bunch of interns at Wired to make fun of Eddie Bauer and Sprite when talking about consumerism, but the really insidious consumerism is left untouched by this easy mockery. The really insidious consumerism, as we’ve had no choice but to learn in the post-crisis era, is predominantly about education and housing as part of a “lifestyle.” I guess somebody somewhere may perhaps have ruined his life by compulsively buying more Sprite than he could afford, maybe? What about the 40% of people who aren’t paying their student loans? A little perspective is warranted, surely? It’s sobering to think of how much Ms. Daum really paid for those threadbare Persian carpets and creaky oak floors.

But at that, she’s lucky to have escaped a worse fate:

I never thought I’d be living in my car at age 66. When I was younger, I never thought I’d spend my golden retirement years living out of my car. For most of my life I had a roof over my head, food on my table, and steady work as a journalist and writer. I grew up living a middle-class life. I was able to live and travel to many places close and far from my native state of New York. Most of my adult life has been in California and Nevada, but I also traveled around the world to Europe and India after graduating college…

CeliaSue Hecht’s writing work has been featured in more than 40 local and national newspapers and magazines, on her dog travel blog, in newsletters, and in five romantic travel guides. She has traveled around the world and has written and led seminars and workshops in the US and Europe. Her travels have included about 245 cities.

From the sounds of it, Ms. Hecht’s travels may soon include even more cities! Brunch courtesy of La Poubelle.