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Career Path: From 'God Particle' to 'God's Work'

CERN worker looks at screens in the Large Hadron Collider control room in Switzerland.
Harold Cunningham | Getty Images
CERN worker looks at screens in the Large Hadron Collider control room in Switzerland.

Goldman Sachs has become the latest investment bank to recruit a CERN researcher, highlighting a trend of career moves from physics to finance.

Ryan Buckingham, who worked as research physicist at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) after completing a PhD at Oxford, joined the investment bank as a credit structuring strategist last month.

But the move is not an unusual one, according to Anne Richards, chief investment officer at Aberdeen Asset Management. Richards, a CERN-alumna herself, was studying for an MBA at INSEAD business school in France when she fell in love with financial markets.

"When we are hiring … we are big believers in scientific people," she told CNBC. "The rigor of engineering is a help through the career."

She made the distinction between "two buckets" of scientists in finance: those who become quantitative analysts, or quants, and those who are numerate, but more of a generalist, with good problem-solving skills.

The Institute of Physics (IoP) has run a survey tracking the career development of British physicists over the first four years following graduation.

"Of those who went into employment, 16 percent went into finance," Stephanie Richardson, head of membership development at the IoP, told CNBC. "We also run a career event for physicists – and the Bank of England is one of the most recurrent employers recruiting physicist graduates."

CERN, based in Switzerland, employs thousands of scientists in the world's most expensive laboratory. Its physicists hope to prove the existence of the Higgs Boson, which – because of its importance to fundamental physics – is often referred to as "the God particle".


Investment banking also has a vital function, according to Goldman's CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who infamously said bankers were: "doing God's work."

Blankfein acknowledged that people with experience outside of finance could work well in the sector.

"A lot of different people do well in this business. Lawyers don't do so badly, engineers don't do so badly, and accountants don't do so badly. All of those groups have a real respect for facts," he said at the Investment Company Institute's General Membership Meeting in May.

(Read More: Highest-Paying Bachelor's Degrees)

A visit at the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator used by physicists to study the smallest known particles, at CERN
AFP | Getty Images
A visit at the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator used by physicists to study the smallest known particles, at CERN

Former physicist Alex Seeley, who worked at Goldman and then Ernst & Young, highlighted two skills that physics equips future financiers with.

"One is order-of-magnitude estimation, which makes faulty data and miscalculations stick out like sore thumb," he said. "The other is an intuitive sense of how a system is affected by its input variables."

For the fans of English novelist Robert Harris, a career move from CERN to finance is not unfamiliar. In his thriller "The Fear Index", an ex-physicist hedge fund founder hires six quants from the lab in Switzerland and "would not even consider hiring anyone without a PhD in maths or the physical sciences."

(Read More: More Wall Street Hopefuls Heading for Boot Camp )