"Some of the most frustrating people I've worked with have PhDs"

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Do you really need a PhD to take a data science role in finance? Mark Ainsworth, head of data insights at U.K. investment management firm Schroders, suggests you probably don't. While having a PhD might help, Ainsworth says it can also be a significant barrier to success. 

"Some of the most frustrating colleagues I've worked with have been people who've come out of a PhD [course]," said Ainsworth, speaking at this week's AI and Data Science in Trading Conference in London.

Former PhD students often have precisely the wrong traits, Ainsworth added: "They've come from an environment where seeming to know things and doing things very slowly are what matters...No one choses to do a PhD unless they love doing something in great detail and often on their own."

These can all be "total contraindications" for working in a team and getting things done quickly, said Ainsworth.

Ainsworth manages a team of 40 data scientists and engineers at Schroders, but he prefers not to use the term 'data scientist' due to its allure for people who've simply jumped upon the data science and machine learning bandwagon. "We had a data science role, but when changed the title to 'data consultant' immediately all the people who just thought they wanted to work in data science and machine learning disappeared," said Ainsworth. "Really good people see through to the role, past the title." 

Ainsworth mostly encountered frustrating PhDs in his previous roles as data scientist at Telefonica and as a consultant at U.K. supermarket Tesco. However, he doesn't employ many PhDs at Schroders either: only 10% of his team have a PhD, most had no finance knowledge prior to joining, and several "were studying a PhD and decided to quit because they found it too frustrating."

If Ainsworth isn't entirely keen on hiring PhDs, he's agnostic about hiring people with unusual hairstyles. While Schroders is predominantly populated by quite conservative discretionary portfolio managers, Ainsworth said his team is a bit different: "We hired a technical guy a few years ago who had long hair. He was really anxious that we would tell him he had to cut his hair before he came into the office [They didn't]. 

"There’s another guy who dyed his hair blue," said Ainsworth. "We’ve manged to create a little bubble of safety but nonetheless we do have to wear suits and we’re aware that the rest of equiites look at us and say, 'those guys with the beards."

Schroders' data team are also compensated differently to the average finance professional. Ainsworth said he's intentionally skewed compensation towards teamwork and away from individual performance, which only accounts for 5% of the total as a result. "I have deliberately dialled-down the jeopardy of money...If people want to be rewarded for their personal contribution they remove themselves from the team and go and work somewhere else, which is exactly what I am happy about."  

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: sbutcher@efinancialcareers.com in the first instance. Whatsapp/Signal/Telegram also available.

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