Florence Nightingale. J.P. Morgan. Alan Turing. Lewis Carroll. They’re all famous names noted for their many accomplishments. But that’s not all they have in common: they’re all students of math, too. Do you have what it takes to join their ranks?
Math majors face one of the most difficult of all intellectual pursuits. But there’s a huge payoff for those brave enough to rise to the challenge: higher salaries, better job satisfaction, and the opportunity to apply math skills to nearly any career.
A Worthy Challenge
Students who major in math certainly don’t have it easy. Math requires you to think in abstract terms, then apply what you’ve learned practically, which is difficult to do. And top math students may spend 12 to 15 hours per class in addition to lectures and sections. For a student taking 12 hours, that’s 60 hours of work each week at the minimum. Perhaps that’s why math majors rank among the lowest GPAs at 2.90, below economics, but above chemistry.
Yet where math majors may struggle to keep up with the rigorous demands of this often difficult area of study, they enjoy the reward of meeting the challenge. For math majors, a future of infinite possibilities and an above average job outlook awaits.
If you’re planning to pursue a career in business, law, or medicine, math may not be the first major you think of, but maybe it should be. According to data from the Chronicle of Higher Education, math majors score substantially higher on admission tests for graduate and professional schools. In fact, math majors score 12.8% higher on the LSAT, and 13.3% higher on the GMAT. Professional graduate schools view math as a highly desirable major because it develops analytical and problem solving skills.
But even if your interests aren’t leading you to grad school, your future as a math major is bright: math majors enjoy salaries 14.9% higher than chemistry majors, and 37.7% higher than English majors. Math majors enjoy better job satisfaction as well. In a ranking of the most satisfying jobs based on factors like environment, stress, and outlook, math careers swept the top three, with mathematicians topping the list, followed by actuaries and statisticians.
Is Math a Good Fit for You?
The study of math satisfies a variety of interests. Ben Levitt, the Chief of Education at the Museum of Math explains that those who enjoy engineering, art, economics, music, biology, puzzles, astronomy, or games are also likely to find an interest in math.
“I studied math and now work in a museum,” so there’s really no telling where math can take you, says Levitt, encouraging students to pursue a mathematics degree. He highlights math careers that students may not have considered, like work on video games, medical research, public policy, and filmHis best advice for students considering math? “Do it!”
Math professionals come from a variety of backgrounds and interests. Levitt studied literature as an undergrad before getting his PhD in math. And what led him to math was the same thing that made him want to study poetry: “I wanted to better understand the world and find the answers to interesting questions,” Levitt says.
Mark Herschberg, CTO at Madison Logic got into math because he enjoyed secret codes as a kid. So a quantitative undergraduate study was a natural fit for him, and he found cryptography to be a fun pursuit.
Competitive Salaries for Mathematicians
Compared to other majors, math grads are doing well financially. How well? Well enough to keep your home office stacked with all the graphing calculators and vintage abacuses your heart desires.
In PayScale’s 2012-2013 College Salary Report, math majors took three of the top 10 majors by salary potential: actuarial mathematics, applied mathematics, and statistics. Math was bested only by engineering and computer science, which rounded out the remaining seven. But math is an essential skill for any engineer or computer scientist, so all of the top majors were math related.
Actuarial mathematics, PayScale’s No. 3 major by salary potential, boasts a mid-career median pay of $112,000. And even statistics, which is the 10th ranked major, will bring in a nearly six-figure salary of $99,500 by mid-career. Compare that with 54th ranked accounting, which is generally considered to be a stable career, but offers a much lower mid-career salary of $74,500. And there’s no contest between math and art majors, who are ranked 100th with a mid-career salary of $56,700.
Jobs for Math Majors
Just what are these six-figure jobs for math majors? Most of the math professionals we spoke with have high profile positions as presidents, CEOs, or CTOs. But math majors can really do anything. Math teacher Benjamin John Coleman jokes, “Is there a job that isn’t math related?” And it seems there really isn’t. We Use Math highlights all of the careers that find value in mathematics, ranging from Major League Baseball to fighting terrorism and practicing law.
With skills in logic, analytical and abstract thinking, and problem solving, all of which are among the skills most sought after by employers, math majors are likely to have their pick of potential careers. And “knowing your numbers” has been identified as one of the three most important skills to land a job.
According to the Mathematical Association of America, popular career choices for math majors include:
- Teaching, a high-demand field with even higher demand for qualified math teachers. (Average high school teacher salary: $54,390.
- Actuarial science, which applies math and statistics to finance and insurance. (Average actuarial salary $87,650)
- Computer science, a field that shows a huge potential for further growth. (Average computer programmer salary: $71,380)
- Operations research, using mathematics for optimal decision making in business, health care, and beyond. (Average operations research analyst salary: $70,960)
- Biomathematics, bringing together natural and biological processes with mathematical techniques and tools for applications in population genetics, epidemic modeling, and more. (Average statistician salary: $72,830)
- Cryptography, the practice and study of hiding information that’s not just for spies anymore. (Average cryptographer salary: $121,000)
- Finance, which includes financial advising, risk management, market research, analysis, and controlling. (Average financial analyst salary: $74,350)
Mathematicians in the Real World
Nathan Popkins is the founder and CEO of Cumulus Funding, a consumer finance company. He earned his degree in Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences from Northwestern in 2001. In addition to managing the company as an executive, Popkins uses math to work with data sets for predictive risk models, profitably underwriting new customers. He pursued a math degree because he felt like data analysis was a powerful tool to see how the world works, and with the proliferation of Big Data, he’s seen that skill become more valuable and relevant. His undergraduate work focused on the practical applications for math, and he’s found that it was the perfect preparation for the work he does today. He even keeps a number of “dog eared textbooks” in his office that he originally acquired as an undergrad. And he really enjoys using his math background to help his customers with financial services products that are unique and well-tailored to their needs.
“As you work your way through your math degree, constantly be asking your instructors what the practical applications are for what you’re learning,” he says. Doing so will allow you to better understand how math works in applications like finance. And even for students who aren’t pursuing math degrees, Popkins urges they take at least a one or two math classes in college, preferably statistics, as “even a modicum of quantitative ability can set you apart from your peers.”
Bjorn Roche is the president of XO Audio, a provider of digital audio software for the pro audio industry. Roche graduated from Swathmore College in 2001 with a BA in Mathematics with a concentration in computer science. His math degree prepared him for the highly interdisciplinary field of audio technology, allowing him to work on interesting projects like a web-based audio editor and a new text-message based system for firefighter emergency dispatch. “I never thought I would use my technical — or music — skills to help fight fires,” says Roche, adding that his math degree as essential to building discipline and the ability to understand complex problems, skills he uses in music and recording.
“Mathematics is a great degree if you are not sure what to study because it prepares you for getting jobs in a variety of fields,” says Roche. “Math is an amazingly powerful tool that can be applied to literally every other discipline. If you are not sure what you want to do career-wise, mathematics is a nice way of not closing too many doors as you go through college.”
Mark Herschberg is CTO at Madison Logic, provider of data powered lead solutions, overseeing software development, QA, the IT system, and the data science team. He earned a BS in Physics and BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, as well as an MS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, with heavy class time doing mathematical proofs. In his masters work, Herschberg created the world’s first fully secure software based voting system, designed to provide anonymous voting while preventing ballot box stuffing. Today, he uses his analytical reasoning skills in data and beyond, and enjoys being able to work with in an environment surrounded by other smart people.
“The world will continue to change as will which jobs are in demand, but having a math degree will give you skills for multiple careers that will absolutely be in demand for decades to come,” explains Herschberg. Nearly every industry has a quantitative problem that needs solving, and grads who can demonstrate the ability to find solutions will find that ability to be a powerful selling point. Herschberg encourages math majors to consider regression modeling and basic programming, as they offer employability in a number of fields.
“Today’s Don Draper doesn’t win business with charm and clever slogans from a team of writers,” says Herschberg. “He does so by showing statistically meaningful improved results from trial and error marketing campaigns created by his team of quants.”
Benjamin John Coleman is a middle school math teacher, as well as an origami artist. He earned a BS in Mathematics with a minor in Economics from Worcester State University in 2003. As a math teacher, Coleman says he has the “greatest job in the world,” teaching multisensory math to middle schoolers in Massachusetts. His understanding of math has also influenced his work in origami, as the practice of artful paper folding is fundamentally a hands-on approach to geometry. Coleman relishes being able to make a difference with his work as a teacher and having an impact on his students as they become excited about math. “Working with young people is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” says Coleman. And he especially enjoys the “fundamental truth” that can be found in math, as he relates that nearly anything can be argued, but 1+1=2 is an indisputable fact.
Coleman, who returned to college at the age of 38, admittedly unprepared and terrified, was able to pass each course on the first attempt. “If I can do it, anyone can do it,” assures Coleman, who researched YouTube for informational videos when he was stuck on a problem.
Is math a good choice for you? If you’re willing to invest a few years of rigorous work for a lifetime of possibilities, it just might be. Math is everywhere, and it’s everywhere today’s grads want to be.