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Why Major in Mathematics?

(Thanks to Dartmouth College and Duke University, from whom we have pilfered liberally.)

  • You like it and/or you're good at it. Do you really need another reason? If you need a little more convincing, read on.

  • Professional graduate schools (business, law, medicine) think it's a great major because they realize that studying mathematics develops analytical skills and the ability to work in a problem solving environment; these are skills and experience which rank high on their list of assets. Their entrance tests support this bias. A study of college students' scores on admission tests for graduate and professional schools showed that students majoring in mathematics received scores substantially higher than the average on each of the tests studied. The study, by the National Institute of Education, compared the scores of 550,000 college students who took the LSAT and GMAT with data collected over the previous eighteen years. The table below excerpts some of these data from The Chronicle of Higher Education. The entries show the percentage by which the mean score of test takers from specific undergraduate majors differs from the mean score of all test takers.

    Major LSAT GMAT
    Mathematics +12.8% +13.3%
    Arts and Music -0.05% -1.2%
    Biology +4.0% +3.3%
    Business -4.5% -0.8%
    Chemistry +7.6% +7.5%
    Economics +9.6% +7.3%
    Education -8.7% -4.2%
    English +5.6% +4.1%
    Foreign Languages +5.7% +3.3%
    History +2.9% +4.6%
    Philosophy +8.7% +11.0%
    Political Science -1.6% +0.06%
    Psychology +0.9% +0.8%
    Sociology -7.0% -5.0%


  • Salaries. For those of you who wish to take your undergraduate degree directly to the job market after graduation, the chart below, extracted from the National Association of Colleges and Employers 2005 salary survey, provides a comparison of average starting salaries for students by undergraduate major.

    Major Salary Differential (compared to English major)
    Mathematics +37.7%
    Biology +0.8%
    Chemistry +22.8%
    Economics +33.5%
    English 0%
    Foreign Languages +5.1%
    History +0.9%
    Political Science +4.9%
    Psychology -4.4%
    Sociology -0.3%
  • Job Satisfaction. In addition to higher pay, a math major's employment promises higher levels of job satisfaction. In The Jobs Rated Almanac (1999 edition), Les Krantz ranks 250 jobs according to six criteria: income, stress, physical demands, potential growth, job security and work environment. Mathematician ranks 5th out of 250. Moreover, the jobs rated higher than mathematician, such as Actuary, also involve significant mathematical reasoning and knowledge and therefore are likely filled by math majors also.

    Job Satisfaction Rating
    Actuary 2
    Mathematician 5
    Biologist 23
    Physicist 42
    Mechanical Engineer 45
    Economist 50
    Electrical Engineer 54
    Attorney 60
    Chemist 64
    Computer Consultant 81
    General Practice Physician 82
    Dentist 86
    Senior Corporate Executive 95
    Stockbroker 124
    Surgeon 135


  • Employers also value skills and abilities developed as a result of the training to be a mathematics major. For example, as part of the Georgia University System Board of Regents survey, "Business Conditions and Higher Education in Georgia, 1998 Survey Report," business leaders were asked what three qualities they most valued in their employees. Oral communications (77%) and critical thinking skills (74%) were considered most important. The ability to work in teams (49%) and written communication (41%) were frequently cited. Computer skills (34%) and quantitative skills (23%) were less likely to be named.

  • Jobs in the private sector abound: Whether you're interested in developing models and interpreting their results, or are interested in developing efficient algorithms to expedite known processes, mathematics and computer science are the tools of choice.
    • Modeling: Models are needed to investigate air flow across the surface of aircraft wings, chemical and biological processes, astronomical trajectories and urban development. These models need to be designed, created, the data from them collected and analyzed, conclusions drawn and predictions made from them.
    • Finance: Wall Street has become a major employer of math majors. Trying to match the outstanding success of multibillionaire Differential Geometer, James Simons (founder of the Renaissance Technologies Corporation and the top hedge fund, the Medallion Fund), many investment and financial firms consider mathematicians prized hires.
    • Cryptography and Security: One area that is particularly "hot" these days is cryptography - the making and breaking of secret codes. Not only the CIA, NSA, and other spy agencies are devotees. Numerous businesses also require cryptography. For example, the cable TV companies encode their signals, forcing the viewer to rent their decoding devices in order to turn the signals back into a television picture. Banks also employ cryptography in order to protect the privacy and integrity of their transactions. Number theory is the  branch of pure mathematics which provides the theoretical underpinnings for much of the recent progress in cryptography. 
    • Biotech: Recent breakthroughs in the study of  DNA and proteins have generated a great deal of interest in mathematical biology. Many biotech companies hire mathematics majors because of the high (and growing) mathematical content of the field.
    • Where Mathematics Meets Computer Science: The computer industry provides many lucrative jobs for math majors. Beyond mere proficiency in computer programming, math majors are trained to address the more fundamental issues involved in the creation of new algorithms. Furthermore, many sophisticated applications of computers such as creation of computer graphics and the compression of video and audio signals (to name a few examples) involve a great deal of deep mathematics, and, as a result, many computer companies specifically hire math majors.

  • An academic career, whether in grades K-12 or at the college level, can be an exciting and interactive environment. The opportunity to pursue your own research projects is often not available in the private sector, and is a very important consideration in your choice of career.

For more information about nonacademic careers in mathematics please visit our Careers with a Mathematics Major page, or the American Math Society's Mathematical Sciences Career Website.


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