Vignette 14
What Can I Do with Math?

"What can I do with math?"  This question is frequently asked by students who enjoy math, but who are concerned that math may not be practical enough to provide them with adequate career opportunities.  If you enjoy math, you might be pleased to learn that mathematics majors are in high demand in industry, and consequently command salaries that are ahead of those in fields that are often thought of as being more lucrative.

Some Mathematical Careers

Everyone knows that math majors can become teachers.  (More on that later.)  But many people do not realize that a degree in mathematics can prepare you for a number of careers outside of the academic world.  In fact, only about one-third of the JCU mathematics majors plan to have a teaching career.  Here are some of the other things that recent JCU mathematics graduates are doing in their careers.

Actuarial work:  One of the options available to math majors is a minor in probability and statistics.  Students choosing this option frequently go into the actuarial profession, the profession in which mathematics and statistics are used to help an insurance or pension company determine how to set rates.  Opportunities for employment include large insurance companies as well as actuarial consulting firms, whose clients often are smaller insurance companies who cannot afford to hire an actuarial staff, as well as many other companies that offer a pension plan to their employees.

Statistics:  Much of corporate and industrial America has recognized the value of using statistics in a wide range of their daily operations -- from the analysis of experiments designed to test potential new products, to monitoring and controlling the quality of the product being produced, to analyzing the effects of various programs on employee well-being.  Statisticians are in high demand in business, industry, biotechnology and health care, as well as in government, especially at the federal level.

Applied mathematics:  It is difficult to describe the work being done by applied mathematicians, simply because it is so varied.  Companies involved in research and product development continually face problems that require a variety of mathematical techniques and approaches, including the use of calculus, linear algebra and differential equations.  Various branches of the federal government, including the armed forces and NASA, employ mathematicians to work along with engineers to model the design of submarines, space vehicles, and so on.  For instance, one recent JCU graduate is now working at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, RI.

Operations research:  Somewhat of a misnomer, the field of operations research does not involve research so much as it involves problem-solving.  Often using mathematical techniques that are discrete rather than continuous, OR specialists are employed to solve problems involving such things as the scheduling of air flights and flight crews, the transportation and warehousing of goods, and allocation of a total advertising budget among various media in order to obtain the greatest corporate benefit.  Operations research is the area in which mathematics and management science overlap.

Miscellaneous:  JCU math graduates are also working in a wide range of other careers, including a host of computer-related jobs.  Many of these jobs, as well as those described above, can lead to management and executive level positions in time, depending on the individuals' talents and balance of interest between technical and "people" skills.  JCU math majors have also gone to medical and law schools, where the logical thinking and problem-solving skills
fostered by the major in mathematics have been extraordinarily useful.

Teaching:  Of course, teaching is a mathematical career chosen by a number of math majors -- perhaps not so much for the financial rewards as for the thrill of helping young minds to develop.  If you have an interest in high school teaching, then mathematics is probably the best field to be in, in terms of job opportunities.  While many teaching fields are in a state of oversupply, the opposite is true of mathematics.


You (or your parents) may have some concern about whether a mathematical career has as much financial future as certain other careers.  If this is a concern for you, be sure to check out the salary survey included here, and your concerns will probably disappear!  If your goal is to have a multi-million dollar salary -- well, very few people ever attain that level.  But choosing to major in math will certainly not prevent it.  (One of the Co-Chairmen of Adobe Systems -- who, by the way, used to teach math at John Carroll -- reported his 1999 salary at $4.1 million, with $11 million in exercised stock options.)

Further Exploration

Copyright © 2000 by Carl R. Spitznagel