Are Mathematics Students Expected to Forgo Pure Mathematics?

If a student is asked “What do you study?” and she answers “Mathematics,” it is likely that the next question is “Ah! What do you do with that?”. And if she does not find an immediate answer because this question has never been posed to her before or if she chooses not to answer because she does not feel she should justify her interest in mathematics, the pause that follows and the sense of expectation from her interlocutor that there should be an answer may suggest that she probably is wasting her time.

From my readings, discussions with students, and occasional chats with members of different professions (including mathematics), I feel like there is this unsaid rule: “Don’t waste your time on something that may not get you a job when you graduate!” Probably, it’s why many mathematics students either choose applied mathematics or a branch of mathematics that, albeit pure, may easily be applied to “real-world” problems; another trend that I’ve seen is for them to supplement their math training with some non-math, “practical” classes in case they cannot find a math-related jobs. Let me make it clear that my intent is not to disparage students who choose either applied math or pure math (epithets like “applied” and “pure” tend to be fuzzy terms, anyway), but it seems this utilitarian attitude towards mathematics may discourage students from pursuing mathematics for its sake. I wouldn’t blame them when they are constantly confronted with these sorts of questions, realize that research funding goes mostly to applied math projects, and observe that their applied math colleagues are the stars in their departments because their work supposedly is justified. Also, it seems many, if not most, mathematics departments actually tend to hire less pure mathematicians; a math professor told me the chance to get hired with a degree in pure math is almost none.

With report of constant budget cuts, it seems academics, not just mathematicians, will be expected, or forced, to justify their research by either explicitly explain how it is “useful” or by amalgamating their area of study with some other branches in the sciences sprinkled with some statistics to at least show some promise of “useful” outcomes in the future.

What do you think? Please, share your comments.

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