[Soroosh] Shambayati was born in Iran, attended school in Sweden, and then won a scholarship to study chemistry and mathematics at a university in Los Angeles. As an undergraduate, he was drawn to science for its pursuit of objective truth and the opportunity for discovery. A PhD was the obvious next step, and he found a perfect fit in Schreiber's lab in the late 1980s....[snip]
...The realities of doing science, however, soon butted heads with Shambayati's idyllic view of it. He found that chemical synthesis was slow and full of setbacks — “a bit like banging your head against the wall for long periods of time”, he says — and he was put off by the political aspects of science, exemplified at the time by bickering over who discovered HIV. Still, he did not hesitate to apply for faculty jobs at several top universities while finishing his PhD, and he received more than one offer.
While in New York for a job interview at Columbia University, Shambayati met up with a friend in banking, who was shocked to learn how little an assistant professor earned. He encouraged Shambayati to move into the financial world instead. “I said 'you're nuts',” Shambayati remembers. “I know nothing about banks or banking. Why would anybody want to interview me?”
But a good salary was tempting to Shambayati, who felt a deep obligation to support his family; his parents had fled Iran after the 1979 revolution, leaving their house and savings behind. Shambayati set up an interview with his friend's bosses at Banker's Trust, which was later bought by Deutsche Bank. The investment bank was a leader in derivatives trading and was looking for quantitative, analytical thinkers such as Shambayati. He accepted a job earning many multiples of an academic salary, figuring that he could always go back to do a postdoc if things did not work out.
They did. Finance was an eye-opener for Shambayati, who worked on chaotic emerging markets, losing and making back tens of millions of dollars in a day. He found the trading floor, surrounded by his colleagues, not unlike his chemistry lab, but with “even less privacy”, he says. His career progressed quickly and he moved on to jobs at Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and then Lehman Brothers. (He was there in 2008 when the firm abruptly went into bankruptcy, catalysing the global economic crisis — an experience he compares to “being in a plane crash”.)In one sense, this is a great article because it highlights people who have been successful at science, but have chosen to work outside of science. It is nice in that it highlights professors (Schreiber, for example) who do not take personal offense at the fact that their successful students do not become tenure-track professors. I really like hearing about Dr. Shambayati's personal background as well as a glimpse of what must have been an extremely traumatic experience at Goldman.
In another sense, I am so tired of these articles. Highlighting yet another physical scientist (or physicist, or mathematician, or wildlife biologist) who decided to go into finance isn't exactly new. Comments about approving or disappointed PIs aren't new either.
What frustrates me the most about articles like this is the implied suggestion that paths like these are still easily open to scientists who wish to follow them. I'm going to guess that now, Goldman gets approximately a bajillion résumés a week from scientists who wish to earn Wall Street cash as opposed to the late 1980s. Web entrepreneurship (the subject of the second set of vignettes in the piece) is a thoroughly crowded field now. Doesn't mean that scientists shouldn't consider it as a potential source of employment (they should), but I just don't feel that these particular stories are relevant. Rant over.