Should I Major in Math?

Lots of students are preparing to begin (or continue) their college education, and one critical question with which many of them will wrestle is this: what major should I choose?

On the way home from the beach this past weekend, David and I were talking about different sorts of things, and I mentioned that, even if I could go back in time to when I was 18 – knowing what I know now – I still don’t know what major I would choose.  I remember feeling such intense pressure to “find and follow God’s will.”  In fact, I think there’s another blog post brewing in my mind about that sort of thing.  To quote Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “I don’t think it means what you think it means.”  But for today, let’s talk about majoring in math, which is what I eventually chose.

Majoring in math carries with it a certain degree of pride.  It is quite frequently met with responses like “Wow!  I could never do that.  I hate math.”  It looks good on paper, but what does it really involve, and what can you do with a math degree?

Obviously, it involves taking lots of math classes.  Once you pass the usual Calculus, Differential Equations, and Linear Algebra courses that the engineering students are also taking, you enter courses like Abstract Algebra (which takes ordinary number systems and suddenly makes them complicated), Topology (which takes ordinary shapes and suddenly makes them strange – and often single-sided even in 3-dimensions), and Real Analysis (which works like this: here’s a theorem, now write the proof).  As an undergraduate, these courses will still involve some numbers.  Once you get to graduate school, that all changes.  I’m not sure I used a single number in my two years at Georgia Tech.  It was pretty much all Theorem – Proof, Theorem – Proof, Theorem – Proof.

So if you survive all of that, what can you do with it?  Well, if you only have a BS degree in math, not much.  Employers will know that you must be pretty smart, but they won’t know what you can actually do in their company.  And likely, you won’t know, either.  One option at this point is to take a few more classes and take the exam to become an actuary and work in the insurance industry.  Another option is to take a bunch of education classes to become a middle or high school teacher.

If neither of those paths appeals to you, you’ll need a graduate degree.  Even then, don’t expect companies to come knocking at your door.  With a rather unspecialized master’s degree in math, you do have one option – teaching college freshman- and sophomore-level math courses.  To work at a community college or smaller 4-year school, you will need either a master’s in math, or a master’s in education with a certain number of hours of graduate math courses.  Getting hired at a larger university will almost always require a Ph.D.

If you don’t want to teach, you will need to specialize.  One way to do this is to focus on a topic with more practical applications such as statistics.  Another way to do this is to double-major in a field that applies the general math concepts that you have learned.  For example, double-majoring in engineering/math or computer science/math would make you highly marketable.  Another great possibility would be economics (or finance or accounting)/math.

The point is this: a math degree sounds really good, and it can be a good option depending on your final goal, but you will need to be prepared to demonstrate how that knowledge will translate into employable skills.  My grandfather worked as a mathematician at Redstone Arsenal back in the 1950s, but I’m quite sure that the work he did then is now being done by a computer.  You have to show how you are more valuable to a company than a well-programmed computer, and you’re competing with those who know how to program those computers.

So, should you major in math?  Yes, if you are going to also major in something else.  Yes, if you want to teach.  No, if you just like Calculus.