If you were graduating in the 90s specializing in a theoretical area such as Theory of Computation or Measure Theory, you were an eyesore for employers. Today, graduating students of theoretical disciplines are some of the most attractive candidates for the top financial and technology firms. What has changed?
Today, the challenge is to find people who can combat tough problems in software architecture and financial engineering. These “elite” jobs are growing by the day and talent for these jobs is in short supply. This talent supply-demand gap has made hiring managers look more towards “deep-thinking theoreticians” than towards those with practical skills on their resumes (eg: keywords such as Object-Oriented Programming, Fixed-Income Products, Web Development). You think this is not making much sense? Ok – listen to what some hiring managers have to say.
- Hiring Manager A says that people with a background in Abstract Algebra are very creative when it comes to software architecture. This is not surprising because many software design patterns are inspired by Algebra and Set Theory.
- Hiring Manager B says that without a background in Measure Theory, one cannot properly understand how to price financial products. Again, this is not surprising because the fundamentals of pricing are deeply rooted in measure-theoretic integrals and conditional expectations.
- Hiring Manager C says that he likes his programmers to have learnt Haskell even though they don’t use Haskell in the firm. Once again, this is not surprising because the theoretical foundations of functional programming are at the core of healthy programming paradigms even in practical and popular languages such as Python or Java.
- Hiring Manager D says that these days everyone wants to be a data scientist but very few people can actually do a good job because they lack the requisite advanced academic training to handle high-dimensional data. Consequently, they end up with models that are either unstable or have poor goodness of fit.
There are a few arguments these hiring managers make.
1) “If the candidate has demonstrated the ability to navigate a deep, theoretical area in a school project/thesis, he surely has the ability to quickly ramp up on the practical skills required in the job”.
2) “Theoretical topics condition one’s mind to think with structure, discipline and depth. This greatly enhances their ability to innovate and supercharge our project.”
3) “Theoreticians tend to abstract problems and generalize their solutions to benefit various parts of our business.”
So, if you are a student engaged in a theoretical project or thesis and worried about your chances in the job market, think again! In fact, you can check how attractive you are to hiring managers for various interesting industry roles at http://zlemma.com.
If you are a recruiter for a top-notch company trying to identify candidates by searching for keywords that define the skills involved in the job, think about changing your approach. You might be better off looking for candidates with depth in an academic area that lends itself well to the practical skills involved in the job. This approach will make you a star recruiter in the eyes of your hiring manager!
There is one catch though – the theory candidate should have the personality to adapt to the practical world. If he seems more keen on writing papers than on writing code, he is not the right hire. He should be eager to develop a versatile set of skills. So you’ll want to carefully evaluate his personality during the interview.