When I was a mathematics major at the University of Pennsylvania, professors encouraged students to pursue advanced degrees in pure (theoretical) mathematics. They looked down on students who did not want an academic career.
As a result, many of us undertook the department’s computer mathematics major. This required us to take coursework in computing and mathematical modeling in lieu of more theoretical classes. To make me more attractive to employers, I also studied economics, statistics, and operations research.
Since internships were few and far between in the 1980s, I had no clue what I was going to do with my degree and becoming an independent educational consultant (IEC) was not even a thought. However, I knew what I did not want to do: earn a doctorate in mathematics, become a computer programmer, or teach high school math. So, I became an actuary.
Over the past forty years, there have been countless new fields requiring mathematical expertise, from data modeling to hedge fund to machine-based learning.
If you have a student is considering a mathematics degree, how should they prepare? What will the major be like? What will they be able to do after college, other than teach or research? This article will help answer these questions and provide insight into the journey of a few professionals and students.
Getting Ready: High School
If you have a student that may want to study math in college, they should attempt BC Calculus (or its equivalent) in high school. This is the course that best preps students for the rigors of college-level calculus.
As challenging as BC Calculus is, there are a few topics not covered in this course that your student must master to excel in Calculus III. As your student considers studying math, make sure they inquire about gaps in knowledge from Calculus II and how universities handle this issue. Some schools will offer special freshman sections of Calculus II and III for those students with AB or BC Calculus credit.
While AP Statistics is a useful course for aspiring business majors, it lacks the theory and advanced mathematical techniques that a statistics course for math majors requires. However, it provides useful background knowledge.
Encourage your female students that show promise in mathematics to explore the major. According to a 2016 article in The Atlantic, women hold fewer than fifteen percent of all tenure-track mathematics professorships, the lowest among any hard or soft science.
A typical major in mathematics consists of eight to twelve courses. Your student will be expected to master single variable Calculus (Calculus I and II) and multivariable Calculus (Calculus III, in some schools Calculus IV). They will also study Linear and Abstract Algebra, Differential Equations and Analysis (an introduction to mathematical thought and proof).
With the rise in new technologies and emerging professions, the major in mathematics has become increasingly flexible. A degree in pure mathematics will prepare your student for graduate study in the field. Majors such as applied mathematics and financial mathematics will be useful for students wishing to work in data modeling, computer applications, banking, financial services, and consulting.
When your student is considering a math major, they should look at non-math courses that can be used as math electives. I’ve looked on several university websites and the breadth of coursework was as diverse as the colleges represented. Some examples include a philosophy course (usually logic) as an elective, or even computational biology.
Many math majors double-major in a math-related field, such as physics or computer science. However, it is possible to include a major that has no intersection with math. I’ve known students who have studied psychology, dance, and international relations as a dual major with math.
Just because a student is ineligible to take AP Calculus does not mean that they should write off taking the course altogether. Investigate online high school programs that offer AP Calculus AB or BC or have them enroll in Calculus I and II at a local community college.
Where Can a Math Major Take Your Student?
No two math majors are the same, and no two journeys through the major are the same. A few professionals and students provided me with insight.
Shang Xu is an actuarial student. The highest-level math his rural high school offered was College Algebra. So, he took it upon himself to self-study BC Calculus, scoring a 5 on the AP exam. Xu always knew that he wanted to study math. At the University of Missouri (Mizzou), he started as a pure mathematics major and did research for one summer.
He knew the term “actuary” from a student from his high school who was several years older than he. Xu swapped analysis and proofs for a financial mathematics degree, where he studied interest theory, insurance mathematics (life contingencies), and financial derivatives. Mizzou was very encouraging to its aspiring actuaries, paying for exam materials and the first attempt at any actuarial exam.
Xu completed college in 2.5 years. Since graduating from Mizzou in 2020, he has been on the fast track at Reinsurance Group of America in suburban St. Louis, Missouri.
Unlike Xu, Griffin Rolander had extensive math coursework at his high school. He ably completed three semesters of calculus in high school. He graduated from Tufts University in 2017 with degrees in quantitative economics and mathematics. Because of the extensive overlap between the two majors, Rolander only needed to add four math courses to complete his majors on time.
While Rolander found that the rigor and structure of math to be invaluable, the course that was especially applicable was Probability and Statistics.
Presently, Rolander is head of quantitative analytics and business development at Monashee Investment Management. When Rolander seeks analysts for his team, he is particularly impressed with math majors because he feels that they challenged themselves more, academically. To him, the study of math is the study of a rigorous thinking process. It is also a far less common major than economics or business, which most applicants who aspire to work at his company pursue.
Like Rolander, Patrick Walsh is a professional in a tech-heavy role. As a vice president of interest rate options trading at Credit Suisse in New York, Walsh feels that studying math requires the ability to structure an argument, via formal proof. Success on Wall Street requires persuasion and Walsh feels that a mathematics education is instrumental in learning how to structure arguments and proof.
Walsh took an AP Economics course in high school, as well as AB Calculus. He liked economics and planned to major in it at Holy Cross. He retook Calculus I in college, so that his foundational skills in math were rock solid. However, as he studied math in more depth, he found that he enjoyed the math courses as much as the economics courses.
Holy Cross’s alumni network was extremely strong, Walsh mentioned, and those he networked with were impressed with the fact that he majored in math.
V.T. is about to embark on his mathematical journey at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, arriving to Hanover by way of London. He was always a strong math student, culminating in A* (the highest possible grade) in his A-level courses in Maths and Further Maths.
V.T.’s teachers at his Sixth Form showed him that the topics he was learning had applicability to the real world. Additionally, he received an Advanced Extension Award in Mathematics, something only eighty students in the entire United Kingdom attained this past year.
Because V.T. has already completed several work experiences at consulting firms and banks in the UK, he is open to every way in which his degree will benefit him. From graduate studies and an ultimate professorship, to banking and consulting, V.T. wants to leverage every opportunity available to him and is open to any future path that awaits him.
A math major is not for everyone. Solving equations and being “good” in calculus is merely a prerequisite. Studying math requires rigor in thought and the ability to integrate all your prior math knowledge to new and uncharted areas. After all, fields like cloud computing and big data would never have been able to emerge were it not for the insight and brainpower of mathematicians.
When working with your students, make sure they plan. Encourage them to take calculus in eleventh or twelfth grade. If their high school does not offer calculus, have them take it at a local community college. Calculus cannot be watered down. It is intrinsically challenging and requires skill and finesse.
Although I spoke with several financial professionals, I learned of math majors whose roles as diverse as data modeling for Facebook, product analytics for Carvana, tax accountancy for Deloitte, law, medicine…and even IECs. If you work with any women that have a penchant for math, encourage them to consider the major, since it opens so many doors.
By Alan J. Sheptin, MBA, CEP, Sheptin Tutoring Group, LLC, IECA (NY)