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Quantitative financial trading is one of the highest paying parts of the world’s highest paying industry. 25 to 30 year olds with outstanding maths skills can earn millions a year in an obscure set of ‘quant trading’ firms, where they program computers with predefined algorithms to trade very quickly and effectively.

This makes it an attractive workplace for people who want to ‘earn to give’, and we know several people who are able to donate over a million dollars a year to effective charities by working in quant trading. Who are these people? What is the job like? And is there a risk that their trading work directly harms the world?

To learn about all this I spoke at length with Alexander Gordon-Brown, who has worked as a quant trader in London for the last three and a half years and donated hundreds of thousands of pounds. We covered:

  • What quant traders do and how much they earn;
  • Whether their work is beneficial or harmful for the world;
  • How to figure out if you’re a good fit for quant trading, and if so how to break into the industry;
  • Whether Alex enjoys the work and finds it motivating, as well as what alternatives careers he considered;
  • What variety of positions are on offer in quant trading, and what the culture is like in the various firms;
  • How he decides where to donate, and whether he has persuaded his colleagues to join him in becoming major philanthropists.

Key points

Quant trading pays very well, plateauing at between $300,000 and $10m a year after five to ten years, depending on performance. This of course allows for very large annual donations.

The job is highly intellectually challenging, and most staff are very satisfied with their work. Turnover in the firms is very low. The culture is quite geeky – nothing like the aggressive and showy stereotype of some parts of finance. The work is highly collaborative and good teamwork skills are vital.

There are arguments both that quant trading is socially useful, and that it is socially harmful. Having investigated these, Alex thinks that it is highly likely to be beneficial for the world. Rob is less confident, but still leans towards thinking it is net positive. Both explain their perspectives and consider some potential downsides.

The most common majors to study to get into the industry are maths, computer science and physics, but people with the necessary abilities can apply from many other fields too. The key trait they look for is “evidence of general problem solving, or puzzle solving, or analytical thinking”. Coding isn’t necessary as it is taught to you.

While very competitive, the application process is quite straightforward, so it’s worth a shot for many people.

About the podcast

The 80,000 Hours podcast presents in-depth interviews with people who are working on the world's most pressing problems. We invite people who are pursuing a range of career paths - including academics, activists, policy makers and entrepreneurs - to share their knowledge and experience to help you have a greater impact with your career.

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