The Impact of Wall Street on Grad School

I don’t need to be an insider to tell you that Wall Street employs lots of PhDs. PhDs of various denominations, but mostly those with backgrounds in Math, Physics and Engineering are employed by various Wall Street firms by the thousand. I don’t think too many of them exactly work on the kind of stuff that they were doing in grad school, but certain general skills that they pick up and hone through their multiple years in grad school are found extremely useful by banks.

So while scores of older scientists and economists and policymakers lament the “loss” of so many bright minds to science, has anyone at all considered the reverse possibility? Of the impact that Wall Street has had on grad schools in the US?

One thing you need to face is that there are not a lot of academic jobs going around. The number of people finishing with PhDs each year is far more than the number of academic jobs that open up each year. I’m mostly talking about “assistant professor” kind of jobs here, and assuming that becoming a post-doc just delays your entry into the job market rather than removing you from the market altogether.

In certain fields such as engineering, there are plenty of jobs in the industry for PhDs who don’t get academic jobs, for whatever reason. Given this, it is “cheaper” to do a PhD in these subjects, since it is very likely that you will end up with a “good job”. Hence, there is more incentive to do a PhD in subjects like this, and universities usually never have a problem in finding suitable candidates for their PhD programs. However, there is no such cushion in the pure sciences (math/physics). There are few “industry employers” who take on the slack after all the academic positions have been filled up. And that is where Wall Street steps in.

The presence of Wall street jobs offers a good backstop to potential Math and Physics PhD candidates. If they aren’t able to do the research that they so cherish, they needn’t despair since there exists a career path which will enable them to make lots of money. And knowing the existence of this career option means more people will be willing to take the risk of doing a PhD in these subjects (since the worst case isn’t so bad now). Which in turn enhances the candidate pool available to grad schools.

So even if you were to believe that complex derivatives are financial “weapons of mass destruction”, there is reason for them to exist, to encourage the financial sector to pick up PhDs. For if PhDs were kept out of these jobs, it is real academic research in “real subjects” such as the pure sciences that will suffer. By picking up PhDs in large numbers, the financial sector is making its own little contribution to research in pure sciences.