A Data Scientist Walks Into a Bank

April 10, 2018

Tiffany Perkins-Munn (Ph.D. '03, Psychology), the new global head of decision sciences at BlackRock, explains her role and how she got there.


How do banks get to know their customers?
Tiffany Perkins-Munn (Ph.D. ’03, Psychology) has been formulating solutions to this question for the past 15 years.
This month, she joined BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, as global head of decision sciences to build the firm’s new decision sciences team — a groundbreaking initiative that fuses analytics with artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and machine learning. Taken together, these disparate sources of data can present a powerful, holistic view of client behavior.
Although financial firms have traditionally employed “bandaids” as a quick fix for their old systems’ outdated technology, they can no longer handle truly cutting-edge analytics. “Firms tend to see marketing as brochures and booklets, not as a data-driven tool,” Perkins-Munn says. “At BlackRock, we’re trying to combine data with technology, tied to business strategy and marketing, to create new touch points for client relationships.” It’s no small feat to revolutionize the financial industry’s decades-old mechanisms, but Perkins-Munn has extensive research experience from The Graduate Center to back her up.
“People often say to me, ‘How did you end up in financial services? You’re a psychologist.’ But they don’t recognize the rigor of a GC degree in psychology.” That degree, she found, was surprisingly universal and  — with opportunities to specialize in statistics and data science  — opened up a world of career options.

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After graduating from The Graduate Center in 2003, with a handful of published papers and books under her belt, Perkins-Munn was at a crossroads. She could remain on a scholarly track, having already cultivated a strong CV, or make the leap outside the academy. “One of my professors told me, ‘If you really want to try something else, you can do that, but I think you’re going to be bored elsewhere. And if you come back, we’ll be happy to have you.’”
Perkins-Munn was grateful for the flexibility, but realized her passion for statistical research would be most satisfying when applied hands-on. “CUNY gave me the opportunity to look at both the behaviors of people through social personality, but also the measurement of those behaviors, and I wanted to use that strategically,” she says.
Her first post-graduation job was at the market research firm Marketing Metrics. Tasked with creating a global client feedback program for Morgan Stanley, Perkins-Munn partnered with traders, managers, and analysts across industries who quickly came to appreciate her unique insights. “A trader who does hundreds of millions of dollars in trade per year may not understand the basic psychological concepts that inform how clients react the way they do,” she explains. “That’s what I could bring to the table.”
Perkins-Munn jumped from Marketing Metrics to Morgan Stanley in 2004, and then to Merrill Lynch and Citadel Securities, working mostly in market research and client analytics.

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Eventually, life threw a wrench into her plans. When her husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February 2010 and passed away in September of the same year, she knew she had to be present for their 5-year-old daughter.  
In 2011, Perkins-Munn left Wall Street and connected with a franchise consultant, who helped steer her toward an investment opportunity that matched her needs and goals. She bought into Title Boxing Club in Princeton and ended up running the show for two years, handling everything from sales to marketing, personnel, and operations. “I can’t imagine having the success I’ve had now without that experience of being totally responsible for a business, soup to nuts,” she says.
But when a colleague came calling with the chance to consult at JP Morgan, Perkins-Munn couldn’t resist putting her talents to use on “the street” once again. She took a part-time consulting gig, then came on board as the global head of client analytics, where she stayed until April 2018.
While the big data landscape has evolved rapidly over the past decade, Perkins-Munn has had no trouble keeping up-to-date. “The technical skills aren’t hard to pick up once you have the right foundation,” she notes, citing rigorous GC coursework in statistical analysis. “And spinning what you’ve learned into a broader offering that you can apply to a variety of different scenarios — that was probably the greatest gift I was given from my time at the GC.”

Photo by Alex Irklievski