Forget a PhD from Imperial College or the doctoral programme in finance at Wharton – the hottest people in quantitative finance come from the world’s most powerful particle accelerator at CERN in Switzerland. In fact, Goldman Sachs has just hired one of them.
Ryan Buckingham, a particle physicist with a PhD from Oxford University, spent three and a half years at CERN before joining Goldman Sachs in London as an associate in the credit and mortgage structuring team earlier this month. He declined to speak to us and Goldman didn’t return our request for comment, but it seems that the path from CERN to investment banking is a well trodden one.
“CERN is the place to find top PhDs in physical sciences and computing,” said Dominic Connor, head of quantitative finance recruitment firm P&D Quant Recruitment. “Working at CERN is one step up from having any old PhD. There a lot of people who have doctoral degrees, but you know that if someone has worked at CERN they will be very good indeed.”
Buckingham isn’t the only CERN alumni working in finance. Alexey Afonin, a vice president in strats and modelling at Morgan Stanley used to work there too. So did Anne Richards, the chief investment officer at Aberdeen Asset Management. So did Nikolaos Prezas, a quantitative researcher at J.P. Morgan and plenty of others. Most people seem to work at CERN early in their careers, and then move into finance.
We asked CERN whether it has a problem with losing staff to the financial services industry and we didn’t get a response. CERN’s own recruitment website, showing a relaxed man with a goatee beard riding a bicycle through bucolic Swiss countryside, makes you wonder why anyone would ever leave to work in an investment bank. However, one ex-CERN employee turned banker said working on the Large Hadron Collider isn’t as exciting as you might think.
“CERN can be a very interesting place to work with a lot of cultural diversity, but it’s also highly political and very bureaucratic,” said the ex-scientist turned bank technologist, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Basically, you’re a high level international civil servant – a fonctionnaire. And a lot of the jobs are quite boring.”
He added that the big plus about CERN is the fact that the international fonctionnaires who work there receive tax free salaries and generous allowances for schooling their children. The big minus about working for CERN is that most people are employed on short term contracts lasting no more than five years. Thereafter, CERN employees must apply for a highly sought after ‘indefinite contract’. Few succeed.
“As far as I could see, only 10-20% of people got an indefinite contract at CERN and they were almost all French,” said the ex-CERN employee turned banker whom we spoke to. “I always received excellent appraisals and was suddenly told I wasn’t good enough,” he added.
He said a lot of ex-CERN employees move into banking because they’ve done their time on the collider and need something else to do when a permanent contract isn’t available. However, there is no indication that this happened to any of the finance professionals named above, and it seems that a move to a large international financial centre can in any case provide welcome respite to years living in Geneva or the Swiss-French countryside. “CERN is a bit of a weird place,” said the ex-CERN banker we spoke to, “- it’s very insular and incredibly competitive.” Not like banking at all then.