Forums  > Careers  > Broad Question: Caltech for Aspiring Quant?  
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Total Posts: 6
Joined: Jul 2018
Posted: 2018-10-02 02:21
This may be too broad / off topic for this site, but it is something that I have been wondering and researched a bit on other sites (e.g., Reddit & Quora) yet have not come up with anything definitive.

Has anyone here either gone to the California Institute of Technology or worked with someone in the field of quant finance / HFT / etc. who attended Caltech? And in the case of the latter, what is your "review" of that person? I.e., what are some things this Caltech grad did better than others and in what respects were they lacking? Caltech is quite different from a great deal of the finance feeder schools (e.g., Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc). It is much more of a research-based school than it is one for preparing students to go work at Goldman Sachs. Yet, as of 2018 it has the highest average SAT score for their undergrads, so it isn't about the capability of the students necessarily. I have talked to several grads, and many of them go off to get a PhD in their respective field in hopes of becoming a professor or working in academia, and many others go to the Silicon Valley--not one have I found that went into finance.

I am asking mainly because I would like to study physics and computer science at Caltech for my undergrad (currently in high school). I want to work in quant finance, but also study physics at the university level (and hopefully the Caltech level). Any insight is appreciated, thanks.
California Institute of Technology

just here for phun


Total Posts: 384
Joined: Jan 2015
Posted: 2018-10-02 18:19
It's helpful to have some idea behind the mechanics of how the graduate job market works. Most people get their first out of school job through on-campus recruiting (OCR). This doesn't apply to every job or firm, but you're substantially more likely to end up working for a company that recruits at your school. The way OCR works is that AcmeCo will pick a list of "target schools". Each school they add to the list demands time and resources. A group of AcmeCo employees will have to take time out of their busy schedule to travel to the school, run recruiting events, interview candidates, etc. Needless to say the larger the firm, the wider net they'll cast in terms of target schools.

The way firms decide on their "target schools" is basically some mixture of reputation and prestige, previous success (or lack thereof) of candidates from that school, how much a pain in the ass it is to get there, how easy the school's career services make things, and personal loyalty to fellow alumni. You might think the curriculum or rigor or the programs and degrees matter, but it largely does not. In almost any job 95% of what you learn in school is irrelevant. AcmeCo will pretty much just pick a target background based on the belief that the students are intelligent and ambitious, and therefore will probably be reasonably successful at any cognitively challenging role.

I don’t have anything specific to say about CalTech. But if you’re dead-set on doing something in field X, your best bet is to go to a school and choose a degree where a lot of institutions recruit for X at the school and a high percent of graduating seniors in that program get a role doing X. Your best bet is to push the admission and career office at your prospective colleges for concrete information about this.

A word of unsolicited advice, though. I would be wary of focusing on any one field in general at your age. I’m in my thirties and have been doing this for a decade plus, and even I’m not 100% sure that I’ll be in quant finance 5 years from now. It’s good to keep your options open and your ear to the ground. Who knows - maybe your passions will change, maybe you’ll do an internship in finance and hate it, maybe the job market will shift, maybe some new interesting field will pop up out of left field, maybe you'll discover a hidden talent for playing ukulele.

A second piece of unsolicited advice. It’s common for very ambitious people your age to naturally gravitate towards the hardest, most difficult path possible for their college years. It’s the no free lunch intuition. The harder I work, the bigger the reward. Nowhere in life is this less true than undergrad. Often times one particular school or program will have more prestige and better prospects despite being less rigorous, more lacksadasial and easier than its counterpart. It’s not fair, but it is the way things are.

Even if your cost function doesn’t penalize work and stress, at the very least judge your options based on their outcomes not their inputs.

Good questions outrank easy answers. -Paul Samuelson


Total Posts: 29
Joined: Oct 2008
Posted: 2018-10-02 22:45
I can't stress enough how much EspressoLover's response hit the nail on the head. The best contents of my post will likely be my recommendation to read his again. However, I do have 0.02 to add. Hopefully it helps a bit.

Your observations of not seeing many alumni in quant/HFT space isn't far from my experience and those I work with. I've had the pleasure of crossing paths with a couple individuals who did their undergrad at CalTech (grad work at CMU and MIT) during my career. While they both were intelligent individuals, I would hardly say the sample size is anything I could draw any conclusions from. Both have since moved out of the industry since, but again, not something to draw any conclusion from. I'm sure both could find employment in the HFT/quant space but are likely/hopefully working on more interesting problems now given their interests in hardware solutions for ML methods.

In addition to echoing EspressoLover, here is a little advice I wish I would have been given (or wish I would have listen to) in the years ahead of you.

Try to pursue joy in your academic pursuits. You have the benefits of having a very wide possible scope of topics/subjects to pursue at the moment. You will have to specialize a bit eventually. There is no reason to force the issue before you've had a chance to try a few different dishes on the academic buffet. Perhaps you will find you do have a true love for quant finance, but you're on course to learn more in the coming years than you have collectively so far (and in depths you may probably haven't experienced), so there is a good chance you may not have discovered the thing you'll really want to chase after (it may not yet exist).

Also, Caltech may not be the perch to jump into life from. Not sure if you've been accepted yet, but looking around me right now I am surrounded by people I have a great deal of respect for and while they all/most likely had academic success, they come from a wide variety of colleges. While there are plenty from target schools like CMU, Princeton, Harvard, and MIT, there are also people from Purdue, Illinois - Urbana-Champaign, and Wisconsin - Madison. And had it not been for me seeing their LinkedIn profiles, I likely wouldn't have been able to guess which group each of them came from. The general common thread to those that have success in this industry seems to be general curiosity, and the willingness to work/tinker/hack at a problem until it is both understood and solved. It would appear to me that those traits seemed to be acquired from years of incremental practice, as far as I can tell. Point being, there are a lot of paths you can take to get to your goals. And while I wish you the best with hopefully reaching yours via some great years in Pasadena, if that isn't in the cards you can still certainly have the time of your life at any of the many fine universities you could end up at.

Finally, I'm a living example of what not to do according to EspressoLover's second piece of advice. There really isn't the correlation between success and stress that my college class planning would have suggested. Probably should have been a physics undergrad and left it at that, but I ended up graduating with 2 undergrad majors and a masters that I was so fried getting that I basically tried to run from them by going to law school. Thank goodness I graduated in December and had time to blow in Chicago before the fall semester. I ended up joining a grain options trading firm in March 2008 because I knew nothing about business/finance/derivatives and the CBOT floor looked cool. So yes, the most significant decision I've ever made for my career happened to be based on a topic I didn't know anything about and because a couple youtube videos caught my attention. By pure chance it just happened to be one of the wildest markets in history and the opportunity was far too much to walk away from. Right place, right time. And if I'm being honest with myself, my career has evolved far more because of 'right place, right time' more than any efforts or intentions I've put into it.

All in, you're at an exciting point in your life and I wish you all the best with all the decisions you have ahead of you in the coming years. I hope my post is useful (though it likely isn't far from simple ramblings), and should you have any other questions feel free to email me : djfostner at gmail dot com.


Total Posts: 17
Joined: Aug 2009
Posted: 2018-10-03 04:37
I'll make 2 points.

Yes, there are quants from Caltech. I think I know about a dozen of dudes around the 2002~2006 period who ended up in finance. Some made MDs at banks and then moved on, some are starting funds now, and some like me have gone in and out (and lately in). I can't say that there is anything about the school that would select for a better quant that would not also select for a better researcher/developer. Yes, the network is small but if you have the desire, you can get the job. If you can graduate from Caltech, you'll figure out how to apply to the right places.

If you really want to study physics at the *Caltech* level, don't start out thinking that later on you'll switch to finance; give it everything you have. Caltech is at heart a research institution, and if you happen to be in the top 5% of Caltech undergrads, than the place will open up for you in amazing ways and you will have an intellectually rewarding experience that few things can compare too. The unsolved problems are always more interesting.


Total Posts: 6
Joined: Jul 2018
Posted: 2018-10-03 07:01
Thanks for this, this was very helpful. And you're a scurve?? Ricketts is my #1 house.

What was your major?

just here for phun


Total Posts: 6
Joined: Jul 2018
Posted: 2018-10-03 07:17
"Not sure if you've been accepted yet,"
Nope, I am currently a Freshman in high school haha, that seems to surprise people often.

I appreciate the comments greatly, thank you. And it echoes things I have heard from others I have talked to about this: that while Caltech is a great place, 1) there are tons of other good places to go, and 2) undergrad does not really matter that much. My dad did his PhD @ Caltech in computational neuroscience, so that is definitely part of my aspiration (~1999-2002 if there are any Dabney folks here--he was your resident advisor!)

I'm in the Berkeley CA area, and my mom works for the university. I have been told by a bunch of people (many of whom went to Caltech / MIT / Princeton, you name it) that doing community college for 2 years is the smartest thing you can do. Given, 1) your first 2 years are not even that focused on your major, and 2) it saves a ton of Dollar Bill

So doing BCC (Berkeley City College) and then transferring to U.C. Berkeley / Caltech / whatever is beneficial in many senses.
Interesting you mention CMU: I play viola at a competitive youth orchestra in the Bay Area, and just recently a recruiter from CMU talked about how they love taking kids from this orchestra, and sometimes they go for music but often they play in the orchestra (getting a scholarship) and end up doing something like CS or math instead, so that would be very interesting as well!

just here for phun


Total Posts: 17
Joined: Aug 2009
Posted: 2018-10-03 13:05
Yes, a scurve. I'd imagine that Ricketts has change considerably.

Ask your parents if they remember a child prodigy who studied physics in their house; he came back to be a prof at tech a couple of years later.

I was one of the few remaining people who graduate with E&AS with a comp sci concentration instead of the, then new, CS major; I wanted to take applied physics labs instead of networking. I know that I didn't have the drive to do pure physics, because I enjoyed computation, both theoretical and practical.


Total Posts: 6
Joined: Jul 2018
Posted: 2018-10-03 20:27
The one my dad recalls most prominently is Christopher (Chris) Hirata. He was about 14, doing physics @ Caltech and left the other prodigies in the dust according to my dad. He also won the International Physics Olympiad when he was 13. Thirteen!

And yeah, looks like he was at Caltech for a bit and now he is a professor at Ohio State.

just here for phun


Total Posts: 391
Joined: Nov 2006
Posted: 2018-10-27 12:15
I spent a few months at Caltech as a visiting undergrad. Some comments:

□ When I last visited Caltech, a decade ago or so, I was introduced to several graduate students in EE and ACM. A few years later, all of the ones who left academia were quants at Goldman Sachs.

□ Also during my last visit, I remember seeing several undergrads wearing D. E. Shaw t-shirts.

□ In grad school, one of my best friends had gone to college at Caltech. All his Caltech friends who had chosen not to go to grad school had become quants.

□ Also in grad school, I met another guy who had gone to college at Caltech. All his Caltech friends who had chosen not to go to grad school had gone to hedge funds.

□ Back in 2006 or so, a hedge fund offered jobs to 2% of Caltech's (undergraduate) graduating class.

□ Community college to Caltech? I doubt it, though I have heard of people who pulled it off. With some exaggeration, 4 years of college at Caltech can be 2 years of college + 2 years of grad school.

□ In this century, several star students coming from Caltech's mathematics and physics departments have become economists. Think of online auctions and Uber's dynamic pricing.

□ I find your obsession with Caltech unhealthy. I say this as someone who sounded like you at some point in my youth — which I now find cringeworthy and embarrassing.

□ I find your obsession with quant finance also unhealthy. These days Physics PhD's become data scientists. By the time you graduate college, something else may be hot. Learn mathematics, physics and computer science, but do not choose a career path anytime soon.


Total Posts: 265
Joined: Mar 2018
Posted: 2018-10-27 13:10
> □ In this century, several star students coming from Caltech's mathematics and physics departments have become economists. Think of online auctions and Uber's dynamic pricing.

Do you know the papers these guys have written?

> □ I find your obsession with quant finance also unhealthy. These days Physics PhD's become data scientists. By the time you graduate college, something else may be hot. Learn mathematics, physics and computer science, but do not choose a career path anytime soon.

Why do Physics PhD's become data scientists these days?.


Total Posts: 391
Joined: Nov 2006
Posted: 2018-10-27 14:37
> Do you know the papers these guys have written?

Google "Benjamin Golub" and "Erik Madsen". They are professors at Harvard and NYU, respectively. They came from Caltech's mathematics and physics undergrad programs, respectively. I won't comment on their papers, for I read none.

There was a brilliant Caltech undergrad who solved a problem in number theory that had been open for decades, and he did it in the Summer between high school and college. Unfortunately, I do not recall his name, but he also became an economist, working on auction design at some big Silicon Valley company — if I remember correctly.


Total Posts: 1
Joined: Oct 2018
Posted: 2018-10-29 04:36
Dudes are spitting wisdom in this thread and you'd do well to listen.

The community college idea is a bad one. Even if you don't have money for tuition, top schools like MIT or Caltech have generous aid packages, and even taking loans for a world-class STEM program is likely to pay off quickly. The first couple years of courses at these schools go broader and deeper than community college. You'll also miss out connecting with people in your class socially. Imagine feeling isolated and alone, in a very competitive program, treading water trying to keep up.

Your signature also indicates an attitude you should reflect on. First of all, with diversity in tech being fashionable, har har butt sex jokes aren't a good look on a professional forum. Second, people with aggressive, flippant opinions on technologies usually have no idea what they're talking about. Java isn't my first or even fifth choice, but some of the fastest exchanges in the world run on the JVM. The right answer is almost always "well, maybe" or "it depends", not X sucks.

Forget about one particular career, school or firm. Attend the best that accepts you and try to learn as much as you can from people with similar interests. Make life-long friendships while you're young and carefree.

Why quant finance? Money? There are so many ways for a smart person to make a lot of money. Solving hard math and science problems? Lots of ways to do that too.


Total Posts: 45
Joined: Jul 2018
Posted: 2018-10-29 05:38
1. 4 years (presumably till your graduation) is a lot of time in our space, I would put more weight on exploration rather than exploitation at this stage of your life, and worry much less about how your college choices affect your resume appeal in your desired career path. I feel there's a lot more critical decisions to be made at this stage.

2. Recruiters at all the top firms in our space are very familiar with Caltech. You may see fewer firms visiting Pasadena for onsite events merely because there's a smaller target student population and it's time consuming to travel all the way out there, however most firms proceed with the assumption that you've had rigorous coursework at Caltech.

3. I echo @pauliewalnuts. While the community college idea makes sense on prima facie examination of the tangible costs, you're giving up a lot of intangible opportunities - the general quality of friends you'll make and keep through adulthood, networking opportunities after you've graduated, availability of top tier advisers, availability of scholarships, accessibility to extracurricular opportunities (exchange programs, recruitment and industry networking events, visiting seminars, team competitions to name a few).

Another way to put this is that these intangible opportunities have negligible marginal benefit to someone who's unconditionally expected to make $50k per year out of college and struggle paying off student loans. Skimping on your cost of education makes sense when you're at the center of the distribution. But conditioned on you making it into Caltech, you're expected to compete for jobs at the $110k total comp level right out of college, where the marginal benefit of these opportunities really kicks in.

And I've never actually met a single person in our space that went to community college. Not a causative statement, but an observation.
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