What does a math major do?

I encouraged one of my favorite undergraduate students (several years back) to major in mathematics.  She sent me an email asking if there were really job opportunities in mathematics, outside of teaching. Here is (slightly revised) copy of my answer.


    My first reaction is to say, "Wow!"  Mathematicians are sought after in almost every area of industry!  The US government has been trying to fix the "crisis" in math and science for some time.  (The "crisis" is that there are NOT enough people being trained in mathematics in the US!  See my comments on the "Gathering Storm", below.)   But then this concern ("what can I do with a math major?") must be common enough -- the MAA has some web pages devoted to the question.  So look at http://www.maa.org/careers/profiles.html.  Note, in particular, the profile of workers in the military and defense industry.

    Since I spent a year at the NSA, I know some things about the defense department.  The National Security Agency has literally thousands of mathematicians working there (probably over ten thousand -- but the exact number is classified.)  Outside the NSA there are more thousands of mathematicians working for the various defense contractors such as Westinghouse.  (There are also defense contractors in other parts of the country, including Texas.)

    Our cell phone technology would not exist without the mathematicians who design the codes to carry the digital signals.  

    Our internet commerce would not exist were it not for the mathematicians who designed the public key encryption schemes that allow us to securely exchange information through computer servers.

    Someone in statistics or interested in financial mathematics might choose to become an actuary -- check out Janet denBleyker's career at http://www.maa.org/careers/denbleyker.html .

Other sample careers off of the MAA web page:

  1. http://www.maa.org/careers/sford.html 

  2. http://www.maa.org/careers/monticino.html

  3. http://www.maa.org/careers/murray.html (Math major whose interests led him into computer science)

  4. http://www.maa.org/careers/lentz.html  (Biostatician whose interests led her on to a Ph.D. in animal science)

  5. http://www.maa.org/careers/stabbe.html (Math major whose mathematical training eventually lead him to law school.)

The Gathering Storm

More on the "crisis" I mentioned above --  around 2005 Congress had a committee look into the decline in American capabilities in science and technology.  The result was a report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America For A Brighter Economic Future."  That report suggested some significant changes in the way the US prepares people for industry.  The top suggestion, coming from that investigation, addressing the country's greatest need, was:  "Action A-1: Annually recruit 10,000 science and mathematics teachers by awarding 4-year scholarships and thereby educating 10 million minds."

The reason for making this the first priority was simply that we don't have enough people trained in science and math for the country's needs.  And to get good mathematicians, we need more math teachers!  Now, a lot of people have focused on the "teaching" part of this statement, but the reason the report mentions teachers is because the country desperately needs their students!  There are NOT enough math majors in this country for the jobs we have!



PS.  Here is one more webpage on math careers -- http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123119236117055127.html