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I'm finishing up a PhD in math and am thinking about options outside of academia. So far, I've really only focused on pure mathematics, but I have a year left of grad school. Suppose I am interested in looking for a job in software engineering, finance, or some other quantitative field. What should I be doing in the next year? What classes should I take?

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Have you looked at the other questions with the career tag? There's at least three on that tag's front page which seem germane. –  Cam McLeman Aug 21 '10 at 20:46
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Yes, I have read some of the other posts, but many of them seem focused on what jobs might be available to mathematicians, rather than what a mathematician should do in his last year of schooling to prepare himself for these jobs. –  Maxim Aug 21 '10 at 20:48
    
I would agree with Martin's answer that you don't really need to take classes to get a non-academic job, but I should point out that the classes you might want to take to prepare for a job in finance (stochastic processes, optimization) are different from the classes you might want to take to prepare for a job in software engineering. –  Peter Shor Aug 22 '10 at 22:09
    
I think this question is sufficiently well-defined and focused (it asks for specific recommendations, not general opinion or advice) and so for the moment I would like to cast a "vote to stay open". If you disagree please give a reason in comments. –  Yemon Choi Aug 23 '10 at 4:17
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3 Answers 3

up vote 18 down vote accepted

This is the perspective of someone who went from a math PhD to the media industry and then to software/tech (and enjoyed it immensely). I can't speak for finance.

Don't spend time on classes; instead, figure out the skills you want to acquire, and learn them yourself. One important reason to sidestep classes is that from now on you will have to learn things all the time without the benefit of formal instruction! So part of what you're going to be teaching yourself is how to learn quickly outside the classroom. Also, while it's always helpful to read theoretical material, you'll probably want to spend the majority of your time learning by doing.

A good approach is to actually do the job you want. Software engineering is a very welcoming world and there are a lot of avenues. Follow and then join an open-source project. Put up your own web site that does something interesting. Help out a nonprofit. Here's a more offbeat thought: almost every newspaper and magazine in the US is currently (a) in a financial crisis; and (b) desperate for technology help. It's quite possible that, even with few qualifications, you can get an unpaid internship at a name-brand place that will net you good recommendations and excellent experience. Note that this will be helpful even if you ultimately want to work in an industry that's not desperate and in a financial crisis :-)

Finally, keep in mind that a big benefit of the "do the job you want" approach is that you'll discover whether you actually like the job before you commit full-time. If you don't like it, choose something else. And keep this attitude long after you've graduated: one of the wonderful things about the non-academic world is the total freedom to change your career when you want.

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Although Martin seems to speak from experience (which I don't), it should perhaps be pointed out that if you have no (or very little) prior programming experience you might want to spend some time with classes to get into the basics. After that it's all about doing actual programming, getting actual experience instead of taking classes. –  gspr Aug 21 '10 at 21:09
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To gspr's point, I'd agree that if you have zero programming experience, you might consider taking an intro class. One clear benefit is this will give you a community of people you can ask questions of, commiserate with, etc. Just make sure you augment the class with meaty projects of your own... –  Martin M. W. Aug 21 '10 at 21:22
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I have to say that Martin's remark are in line with what I've seen. In my own answer, I insisted on taking relevant classes because I view it as one piece of evidence to show that you're truly interested in the job. But I forgot to mention that it's just one piece, and that doing things is even more important. In particular, one of my students got a job offer out of the blue because someone had noticed his excellent contributions to an open-source project. –  Thierry Zell Aug 21 '10 at 22:38
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Most classes are pretty useless, because they teach too little or the wrong material, but keep an eye out for exceptions. For computer programming, you might do better by struggling through a highly regarded short introductory book. Avoid books that are too long or verbose unless you are good at plowing through such things (I'm not). Also, it helps a lot if you can find and talk constantly to people who made or are making the same transition. There are a gazillion little things, starting with the right clothing to wear, that you want to start getting used to. –  Deane Yang Aug 22 '10 at 20:03
    
Deane, is there a "highly regarded short introductory book" you could suggest? –  Michael Lugo Aug 23 '10 at 0:54
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In case you consider moving to finance, I suggest reading Options, Futures, and Other Derivatives by John C. Hull . It is a standard work in the field.

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Dear Maxim:

I gave this answer recently, based on a bunch of people that I personally know who went into non-academic fields. By the way, and I should mention this because I believe it's extremely relevant, these are all people based in the US (almost all are foreign-born in case you're wondering). Working in a non-academic field with a math phd is a lot more rare in my native France; your mileage may vary extremely depending on where you're trying to get a job.

The thing most of these people had in common is that they researched really carefully the career they wanted to do, and they took classes relevant for that career. It does not seem to matter what kind of math they did, and I believe most employers are not too bothered by how theoretical one is (quite the opposite, I suspect they may eye "applied" math with suspicion, as being less applicable then they think they are).

Your biggest challenge when looking for a job is selling yourself: for a non-academic job, it means really convincing your employer that your heart is in that career, that this is not a second-best for you.

Edit: to comment on your particular case further, I think you need urgently to figure out which of these fields is the best one for you, so that you spend your remaining year as efficiently as possible.

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