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.