April 16, 2010
Are you interested in wine? Maybe you should study mathematics.
Want to work in sports, but not as an athlete? Math would be a good thing to excel at.
Or, maybe you're fascinated by submarines. Well then, a math degree could get you a job tracking them.
While the connection between these fields and mathematics may not be immediately obvious, applied mathematicians are working in all three. In fact, there are countless occupations that require the skills of math majors and advanced degree holders.
"Mathematicians are good at problem solving and abstract thinking. And, there are hundreds of professions that need these skills," says Linda Keen, Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at City University of New York Lehman College and Graduate Center.
While we tend to think that most mathematicians work in academia, the truth is that more and more are employed outside the classroom. Applied mathematicians - as well as other people not formally trained in math - use mathematical theories and techniques to solve real-world problems. Keen says, "When you talk about applying mathematics in industrial settings, much of what people are doing is far removed from math. But, they're using the good skills that mathematicians have." And, it's these skills that are desirable across the workplace.
Math major and computer (or other) science minor - a versatile degree
William Yslas Velez, University of Arizona Distinguished Professor of Mathematics, offers advice for college students pursuing math, suggesting that they minor in computer science or biology. "An undergraduate math major with a knowledge of science and strong computing skills is the general purpose worker of the future."
"The study of math helps students develop strong analytical abilities because mathematicians learn how to look at problems, break them down into simpler questions and then solve each one. When you combine that skill with the ability to harness computers, you come up with strong problem-solving capabilities."
Velez goes on to explain that mathematicians create models, or systems of equations, which simulate what is being studied. By running the models on a computer, certain patterns emerge, suggesting long-term responses and/or solutions to problems.
"Math majors are often hired by engineering firms because they have the skills to be able to learn what's needed for their specific industry. They can be trained in quality control or as systems engineers, for instance." Other fields that use math majors include business, law, economics, and actuarial science.
Mathematicians with PhDs become interdisciplinary specialists
"Math provides a very general type of training, but its skill set has many applications," says William Browning, President of Applied Mathematics, Inc., a 30-year-old consulting firm based in Connecticut. He echoes Velez in saying that work for applied mathematicians is interdisciplinary, and that math students should minor in one or more other specialties. After all, Browning quips, "Problems don't care that you have a degree in math."
His company mostly employs mathematicians with graduate degrees, specialists in their fields, and they work for a variety of government agencies and large companies.
"That's where the money is," he says, listing clients ranging from the U.S. Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to private defense contractors, engineering corporations, physicists, building companies, pharmaceutical corporations, and wineries.
The nature of a math education
According to Browning, the essence of mathematical training consists of developing strong skills in three main areas: questioning assumptions, arguing logically, and explaining things - communicating - clearly. While the second two are important in any field, the first is especially useful for modeling, which mathematicians do a lot of. "Essentially, modeling utilizes the mathematician's ability to think abstractly, "to use an intellectual construct to explain a concept within reality," Browning says.
Linda Keen concurs, and adds that many mathematicians with PhDs have gone into finance and done very well. She says, "Their math training has put them in good stead because they can think in abstract and make models that work. In addition, the high tech industry is interested in hiring mathematicians because they're smart and they're good problem solvers."
Being a math geek
"Math is not static," says Keen. It's a field for people who like to be challenged. "Half of the fun is finding problems to solve. And often, solving one problem opens up a world of even more interesting problems to be solved." That's the exciting aspect of the field, but there are down sides, too. Keen says, "Being a mathematician can be frustrating because it's often difficult to talk with non-mathematicians about what you do. The learning curve is high. So, it's a field that's not easily appreciated by people outside it."
Velez feels that the importance of math isn't well understood. "We need to do a great deal of work to communicate the changing relevance of math for a variety of careers," he says. "We need scientists who write well." And, not only to promote an understanding of the field, but also to further the advances of mathematics in traditional liberal arts fields. After all, many mathematicians also work in social sciences, history, psychology and the humanities.
Mathematics career tops the rankings
Annual job rankings such as those provided by CareerCast.com, a website which catalogs jobs by industry, function and location, may help sway more students towards the study of math. In 2009. CareerCast rated mathematician as THE top job in the United States. And, in 2010, it was still among the top ten. Of course, the devil is in the details.
As any good mathematician would tell you, it's important to understand the assumptions of the study. In this case, the ranking, which examines a multitude of careers across industries, skill levels and salary ranges, looks at five criteria: stress, working environment, physical demands, income and hiring outlook. The final criterion comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics report, which says that employment for mathematicians, especially those with advanced degrees, is expected to increase by 22% between 2008 and 2018, "much faster than average for all occupations."
A promising prediction, though a good mathematician would want to examine the algorithms and the model used to come up with that number.
Written by Abigail Rome