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I am currently a math/CS undergraduate. I enjoy applied math a lot and want to go to graduate school for it. I've been thinking that I will do a PhD, but I also know I don't want to stay in academia, so recently I've been reevaluating my options and thinking about whether to just pursue a Master's instead.

To put it bluntly, my goal is to make a lot of money. Not to be a billionaire, but I'd like to get to a $500K salary down the road. I realize this is neither at all easy nor at all likely, because otherwise anyone would do it. I just want to know how to maximize my chances of attaining this goal.

Some careers for highly educated math people with high earnings potential:



-Data Science



However, I've realized that out of these, only data science, finance, and consulting would even care about a PhD in applied math vs. a master's, and even in those it's possible for just a MS to get a job. Should I forget about the PhD? I don't want to spend more than 4-5 years on it, and though I love applied math, I know a career in academia is not what I want.

Next, are there other fields for applied mathematics/CS people with a high earnings potential?

Finally, which field should I pick to maximize my likelihood of attaining an eventual $500k salary relatively quickly? (Again, I realize that this likelihood is still very small.)

Things that I believe mean that my plan has at least a nonzero chance of success:

-Strong coding skills, lots of CS experience including internships

-Top undergraduate univ, top graduate univ [if I don't get into top PhD programs I will just do a master's at a top school, as master's programs are easier to get into and I have basically a guarantee of getting into the master's program at my current school if nothing else]

-Strong communication skills

-Drive and willingness to adapt (sounds stupid, but is still true)

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closed as off-topic by Chris Janjigian, Claude Leibovici, Brian Fitzpatrick, Semsem, Daryl Mar 18 at 7:45

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Hate to say it but people who pull down 500k a year usually have no college degree at all. Think Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, LeBron James... –  Vladhagen Mar 18 at 3:36
But those guys are billionaires (or 100-millionaires). I'm not looking to become one, because realistically the probability of that is basically zero. I'm not the entrepreneurial type and I don't want to essentially 'play the lottery' by joining a random startup. There are a non-insignificant number of people in the fields I listed that do make that kind of money, and I want to know how to become one of those people. –  antawn Mar 18 at 3:38
It is not a recipe. –  copper.hat Mar 18 at 3:50
This isn't really the point of my question. Obviously there is no set recipe, otherwise - as I said - everyone would do it. However, as with anything, there are things you can do to increase your chances. Were I to do a PhD in a completely abstract area, never seek an internship, and get poor grades, I would be reducing my chances, I think. Conversely, there must be some things that increase it. –  antawn Mar 18 at 4:20
I'm passionate about applied mathematics and certain types of programming. I don't have a real preference within that subfield. Why shouldn't I pursue a good life for myself as well? Also, you might like to think that, but that's certainly not true for everyone - believe me, I know more counterexamples than people who validate your hypothesis. Also, I'm hardly wasting my time. It took about 5 minutes to write this question and all these comments. It's not like anybody does what they're passionate about every waking moment of every day. –  antawn Mar 18 at 5:11
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3 Answers 3

First, Junichi is correct. If your goal is money and not academia, I do not recommend you get a PhD. The opportunity cost of spending those several extra years in school is way too high -- and without love of research, you'll be miserable as a starving grad student, besides.

If you do get the PhD, the reason will be to get a job in finance. $200k starting salary, plus bonuses, is par for the course.

The other option is the startup route, where your goal is to get bought out after a few years. Founding a startup carries a lot more risk than joining a hedge fund, but will probably be more fun, you don't have to invest years getting a PhD that is otherwise useless to you, and you get to keep your soul. Here you will be leaning more on your CS skills than math skills. In terms of specific fields to look at, machine learning (/big data) is super hot right now, if crowded. In my personal opinion, if I had to give you the 2014 versions of "plastics," it would be "3D printing."

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Okay. Are you sure though? I read that D.E. Shaw only hires PhD's as quants. I doubt I could get into D.E. Shaw itself, but are they an exception to the rule? (E.g. quantstart.com/articles/…) –  antawn Mar 18 at 4:53
@antawn You're right, if you want a quant job, you do need a PhD, for better or worse. I've amended my answer. –  user7530 Mar 18 at 4:59
OK. And just to clarify, I do like research. I just don't want to spend my whole life in academia. –  antawn Mar 18 at 5:09
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From another math/cs undergrad: Don't go for a PhD if your ultimate goal is to earn money. Just my 2 cents.

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What path would you suggest instead? A masters and then what? Or not even a masters? –  antawn Mar 18 at 3:41
That I have no idea(I'm just an undergrad student like you). I'm assuming that it'd depend on the field you plan on entering. –  Junichi Koganemaru Mar 18 at 3:43
Honestly, I don't care as long as it involves math - whichever one maximizes my earning potential. –  antawn Mar 18 at 3:44
I disagree with this answer: a PhD can significantly increase pay. –  qwr Mar 18 at 4:10
^What types of companies like math PhDs? –  antawn Mar 18 at 4:21
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I believe it's extremely unlikely you'll get \$500k doing any type of math job. In fact, almost no job will get you \$500k (almost greedy), even if you're an anesthesiologist or heart surgeon, unless you're at the very top of your field.

In my opinion, you won't be able to the top salaries in finance without some business or managing degree. Being a statistician or an aerospace engineer for a Fortune 500 company can earn quite a bit of money. I think the closer you are to actual number crunching, the less you'll make because people can replace you with software. A PhD, versus masters, does go a quite far for more salary.

Disclaimer: This is just based on people I know.

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I think usually the numbers have PhD's making less, on average, than those with master's. –  Charles Mar 18 at 4:55
Being a statistician would interest me. What types of jobs are there for statisticians at "Fortune 500s"? I don't think your $500k outlook for general jobs is totally accurate, because I know (well) a few established surgeons that exceed that number, but they aren't at the top of their field or anything. –  antawn Mar 18 at 4:57
@antawn Working in biostats or industry data analysis can get a well paying job in a fortune 100 company. –  qwr Mar 18 at 23:48
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