With a focus on both logic and creativity, a degree in math can lead to more than a few career paths, and if math is your favorite subject, your future is wide open.
“A math degree offers you the option to become a mathematician and also to become anything apart from a mathematician,” says Valentina Staneva, a data scientist at the University of Washington eScience Institute. “As a mathematician, you can work as a teacher/professor, researcher in a government institution, research scientist in a tech company or statistician, but you can also apply your math knowledge to other domains: biomedical research, financial industry, music engineering, entrepreneurship, whatever field you find interesting.”
A career in mathematics is about more than the numbers; “It's being able to use mathematics to solve real-life problems and make an impact in the world,” points out the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). Depending on your preference, you may want to consider combining math with another major (biology, physics, economics and so forth).
If you have a passion for math and would like to integrate it in a future career, here are five options to consider that go beyond being a mathematician or a math teacher.
If you are a fan of math as well as puzzles and mysteries, this may be the career for you. The practice of developing codes and ciphers dates back to ancient times, and the field has been especially important during war periods. At its core, the role of a cryptanalyst involves reading and decoding encrypted information. Using mathematics, languages and computer programming, cryptanalysts seek to uncover the basic principles of a code so that they can break it. They also rely on cryptographic software programs and special equipment to help them achieve success. Some cryptanalysts are employed by government agencies like the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Department of Homeland Security, and clearance may be required.
Others work in financial institutions like banks, which rely on conducting confidential business online. Cryptanalysts help protect private information (like personal financial data) transmitted through a computer. The increasing number of large-scale security breaches indicates that demand for highly skilled cryptanalysts will increase. To explore opportunities, consider joining the American Cryptogram Association (ACA) and reading its journal The Cryptogram. Experience in information security, law enforcement and the military can increase your chances of securing a position.
Additional resource: International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR).
Financial planners work with individuals to help them identify financial goals and ways to reach those goals. Since they focus on a comprehensive outlook of their clients’ finances, according to the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, financial planners need knowledge and understanding of a diverse set of topics including asset management, insurance, estate planning and retirement.
“An important skill to add to a mathematical degree is the ability to communicate with people from different backgrounds,” says Staneva, and that skill is especially vital for financial planners. Financial planning is an ongoing process and establishing long-term trusting relationships with clients allows you to grow your client base and stay successful. In addition to regularly meeting with clients, you will also interact with other advisors clients may have, including attorneys, accountants and investment bankers. The ability to listen to client needs is vital in developing customized recommendations. To explore this option, consider an internship at a financial planning firm and be sure to read the Journal of Financial Planning. I also encourage you to join relevant student clubs and competitions to gain exposure and skills.
Additional resource: Financial Planning Association (FPA).
Actuaries study risk and help others manage it. They rely on mathematics and statistics to calculate the probability of undesirable events such as death, property damage and illness. In addition, they develop models and come up with creative strategies to reduce the likelihood of negative events and to manage the impact of such events when they happen. Actuaries work in any industry where risk is a variable, including insurance companies, the government and private institutions in fields like financial services, transportation, energy and the environment.
Although most actuaries work indoors, if hired as consultants, they may find themselves on the road now and then. Strong analytical and problem-solving skills are key to success in the role. In addition to a degree in math, you will need to pass a series of actuarial exams to become an actuary. Becoming an actuary takes time and effort, but it’s worth it. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, opportunities for actuaries are expected to grow 22 percent by 2026, and the median annual wage is over $100K, making the career an attractive one for those with a solid background in mathematics and statistics.
“A data scientist usually works on solving challenging problems by extracting useful information from data,” says Staneva. They use algorithms and machine learning to interpret large sets of data, find the meaning behind the numbers and tell the story data reveals. Depending on their employer, “a data scientist may be working on analyzing data sets, building software tools for data management/processing, creating visualizations, guiding data collection and talking to policy makers,” adds Staneva.
Data scientists spend a lot of their time in front of a computer but they are also required to collaborate with others in the field. “As a data scientist in a university, I get the opportunity to collaborate with researchers from different departments across campus,” says Staneva. “For example, this week I talked to an ethologist, oceanographic acoustician, a plant scientist, a computer scientist, a fishing company employee and a digital media researcher.” The diversity of projects and problems she encounters is what Staneva likes most about her job. If you are interested in pursuing this career, keep in mind that it typically requires an advanced degree, often a PhD. To explore the opportunity, I encourage you to consider joining relevant competitions and keeping informed through the International Journal of Data Science.
Additional resource: Data Science Association (DSA).
Economists collect data to study and research the distribution of goods, resources and services. They develop surveys, collect data and interpret trends to advise governments and businesses on a variety of economic topics. While strong analytical skills and a background in mathematics are essential for success in the role, economists also need well-honed writing skills. They are expected to communicate their findings and conclusions with the broader community, and their work may be published in a variety of journals.
Economists can be found teaching at universities or conducting research for government agencies, but some are also working in for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. As an economist, you'll likely specialize to become a financial, international, labor, behavior, industrial organization, environmental or agricultural economist. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects opportunities in the field to grow, please note that these will be more favorable to candidates with advanced graduate degrees. To learn more about the field, consider reading publications such as Business Economics, Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy and The American Economic Review.
Additional resource: American Economic Association (AEA).