What Are You Going to Do with That?

That feeling when you just can’t decide what mathematical career is right for you. Image: “A Rose” by Thomas Anshutz. Public domain, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For people in graduate school for math, the question, “What are you going to do with that?” often seems to have a clear, easy answer: “I’m going to be a math professor.” In grad school, our role models are the professors in our departments and others we meet at research conferences, who all went through graduate school, probably did a postdoc or two, and found a tenure-track job at a university. We’ve heard whispered stories of the students who left “for industry,” but industry can seem like kind of a mysterious black hole or a career of last resort.

It’s fine to have a goal of becoming a math professor. But many of us find during graduate school that our desires for our lives don’t fit well with the academic model. Beyond that, the job market is tough. Not everyone who wants a postdoc or tenure-track job can have one. Thinking of a tenured job in a math department as the only true mathematical success story is a corrosive myth. I know it took me a long time to throw myself fully into my career as a math and science writer even though a university position wasn’t making the most of my creativity and skills because part of me was holding on to the idea that if I did something other than get a tenure-track job at a university, I would be throwing away my PhD.

I believe and hope that the idea that success must take the form of university jobs is dying. I know many math professors who want to make sure their students understand the careers available to mathematicians and how to get and thrive in those jobs. I am on the record in favor of encouraging people to go to graduate school in spite of the tough academic job prospects, and I believe that another side of that coin is that we need to see non-academic jobs as success stories, not failures, and know how to prepare students for those as well.

Fortunately, there are a lot of resources out there for mathematicians and students who are interested in non-academic employment. One I found recently is the BIG Math Network, which helps connect academic mathematicians with business, industry, and government (hence BIG). The BIG Math Network blog has information about internships and other opportunities for people who want to know more about what goes on outside of the ivory tower as well as guest posts from mathematicians who work in business, industry, and government, like this one from my grad school buddy Peter Horn about his career switch from a tenure-track job in academia to being a data scientist at a research and development nonprofit.

I’ve seen a few other posts around the blogosphere about leaving math academia for other jobs. Jesse Johnson has written a few posts (1, 2, 3) for the Low Dimensional Topology blog about his move from Oklahoma State to Google. Yen Duong of Baking and Math has written about how she decided to leave academia and how she’s started her job search. Sarah Rich recently wrote about moving from math to data science on Jordan Ellenberg’s blog Quomodocumque. And earlier this month Cathy O’Neil had a guest post on her blog Mathbabe from Phil Goff called Justice Needs Nerds about doing data science to analyze biases and brutality in policing and hopefully work to mitigate them.

If you’ve got a math degree but aren’t quite sure what you want to do with it, or if you’re a professor who wants to help your students know what’s out there and how they can prepare, I hope you’ll find some useful information about the many different mathematical careers that exist. Let me know about other related resources in the comments!

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5 Responses to What Are You Going to Do with That?

  1. Glen Shahji says:

    I agree with your point that we need to see non-academic jobs as success stories, not failures. Its really a nice post thanks for sharing it with us

  2. Donald Hackker says:

    I found a very exiting niche in high performance computing, where advanced mathematics plays a challenging role. The engineers and programmers with whom I worked generally lacked the skills to analyze the problems and formulate a viable solution. As a professional bonus, there was all this fun data analysis. Incidentally, my training was in set theoretic topology, and I never saw a computer until I started working in the industry. Not a barrier, because my professors emphasized learning how to learn and independent thinking.

  3. Shecky R says:

    So many surveys the last few years have shown a degree in mathematics to be among the very best for future job prospects! Still of course depends on your specific skills & desires, but in general, mathematical thinkers have a great future in or outside academia.

  4. Carl Kruse says:

    What to do with your math degree? I suspect you can do whatever you want with it.

    Carl Kruse

  5. Nate says:

    I absolutely loved this post.
    I am a math teacher and I love what a I do, but it is very frustrating that we cannot motivate students to do math, to learn math, to live math.
    Outside is full of parks.

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