5 Ways to Pursue a Math Career

math majorsIf you’ve been keeping up with the blog (and a few of you are now – you’re amazing, thank you thank you thank you!), you’ve seen the series on career options in STEM, types of engineering majors, and approaches in science.

Today, we’ll talk about math and math careers. To be honest, I saved it for last because it’s harder for me to write about. It is less familiar for me, and on the surface, there are fewer options that are ‘pure math’. Math is one of the pillars of science and engineering careers, so if you love math, you should check out how it can be applied in engineering and science. In fact, if you pursue an engineering or science degree, chances are you will only be 1-2 classes shy of a minor in math, if not a dual major.

The range of majors you can pursue with the math department are pretty small, but there are a number of additional programs you can pursue that are math intensive. Here’s a list:

  1. General Math – as I understand it, if you pursue an undergraduate degree in math, it is typically in generalized math and covers a wide range of topics, including algebra, geometry, calculus, statistics, and several elective courses. Many of the people with this type of degree either become math teachers (the world always needs more good math teachers), or they continue on to graduate school to study one sub-area of math in a lot of detail (see #5).
  2. Statistics/epidemiology – Probability and statistics use data from a small data set representative of a larger population to make predictions about what will happen in the larger population. You’re probably familiar with some simple statistics like the average and standard deviation, but there are also complex statistics that are used to compare multiple factors over a large number of groups, and can be used to identify trends and predict outcomes based on many factors. Statistics can be used across a wide range of industries. It can be used to monitor the rate of bad parts manufactured in a factory to predict when a machine on the assembly line is going bad, to look at the average demographics of a person who would vote republican or democrat, or even to pick which player to play on your Fantasy Football team based on their past record. Epidemiology is a hybrid between statistics and medicine that studies statistical factors related to disease spread and other factors. This is the field that determines who is ‘at risk’ for developing cancer, HIV, or diabetes, and also the group that selects what goes into each year’s flu shot based on which strain of the flu is mostly likely to spread in the upcoming cold and flu season.
  3. Actuarial science – Actuarial science is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 professions for the combination of pay, benefits, and job security. Actuaries are the people who determine how much insurance costs. If you’ve ever wondered why it costs three times more to insure you than insure your parents even when you’re driving the same exact car, it’s because of actuaries. They determined that you, as a young person are more likely to get into an accident than your older, more experienced parent – based on the record of previous drivers. This is a really specialized area of statistics where they develop really complex models to determine who is at greatest risk, and how big the risk is. Each company uses their own model system, which is why different insurers have different rates for the same driver. The models that are used to set rates are based on dozens of different factors and use complex computer science and analytic techniques to develop risk models. The models used are often closely-guarded, and there is always a continuous need to evaluate and refine the model as new analysis techniques are developed and more and more data becomes available.
  4. Accounting and finance – MONEY!!! Someone needs to figure out how we spend it, when we spend it, and more importantly how we make it and when we make it. That’s the accounting and finance industry. Math in this field can be as simple as balancing income with expenditures through basic addition and subtraction, to using actuarial models (see above) to determine which set of stocks a mutual fund will invest in. The bottom line here is balancing the bottom line.

    An investment in knowledge pays the best interest – Benjamin Franklin

  5. Graduate-level math – At the graduate school level, there are lots of really fascinating things you can study in depth. Some options are:
    1. game theory – how incentive structures affect different systems – not just in games
    2. information theory – this includes all parts of how data is processed and interpreted, and includes the super-cool field of cryptography {secret codes!}
    3. operations research – modelling real-life systems to improve them –can be very similar to industrial engineering
    4. applied mathematics – this applies complex mathematical concepts to other fields, including science, engineering, economics, psychology, medicine, etc. Someone has to help develop the complex theories and formulas used in those other fields!
    5. logic, computer science and computer theory – wait, didn’t we talk about this in engineering? Yup – we did. Computers are based in logic theory, a complex system of yes’s and no’s. So, the theory underlying the entire basis of computers lies in math. – Logic, of course, can be much more complex than binary systems of yes’s and no’s. In fact, now it can be so complex that computer systems built on logic theory are required to solve new problems in logic. Figure that one out…
    6. Number theory, algebra, geometry, computational math – all the traditional ways that we study math through high school and college can be studied in much more detail at the graduate level, to further advance our understanding of these fields.



That wasn’t nearly as hard to write about as I expected – I said WAY more than I expected too. I’m actually feeling a little math envy now, since you can do as many cool things in math as you can in science and engineering. I hope you all feel a little inspired now, too. Have a great week, my friends in STEM!

–the STEMinista

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