Hack College Presents: How To Become A Mathematician


If you are at all interested in numbers, problem solving and mathematical concepts, then you should consider getting a degree in mathematics. It’s great preparation for some of the world’s most cutting-edge professions. Central to technological advancement and  innovation, a solid foundation in math will make you an excellent candidate in a number of careers.

This guide will introduce you to both career and education options in the field of math, and provide you with some practical advice to land you in the profession of your dreams.

Part I. The Mathematics Industry

Math itself is a big, broad term that encompasses many different concepts, methods and terms. Just about any industry, government and service uses math in some capacity, but there are some specific ways you can structure your education depending on how you want to apply math in the career of your choice.

An Overview of the Field

There are two basic types of mathematicians, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

  • Applied mathematicians use theories and techniques to solve practical, real-world problems. An applied mathematician may use mathematical modeling, for example, to help a pharmaceutical company analyze the effectiveness of a new drug, or help an automobile manufacturing determine the aerodynamic characteristics of a new vehicle model.
  • Theoretical mathematicians are often based in the scientific and engineering fields. These mathematicians stretch the limit of our current knowledge, and are the brains behind many notable scientific and engineering achievements.

Mathematicians often work with formulas and existing mathematical principles to expand the mathematical concepts we use today. Computer codes and computational methods are commonly required, as is experience with observations, experiments and making inferences from available data.

Job opportunities for mathematicians are wide ranging. Many go into scientific research, scientific management, technical consulting services and engineering. Some find work in government positions, particularly in the Department of Defense, which employs 81 percent of mathematicians at the federal level, according to the (BLS).

Teaching is also an option, at all levels of the education system. The BLS warns that math majors who continue up the ladder in search of a position as a professor in higher education face some pretty stiff competition — the number of Ph.D. degrees awarded in mathematics continues to exceed the number of available university positions. There is, however, a teaching shortage for math teachers in the K-12 system. There are many state and national initiatives aimed at reforming science and math education in the public system in order to engage more students, and increase the number of graduates who can work in the field and go onto pursue higher education.

Career and Salary Outlook

Regardless of what you choose as a long-term career, an undergraduate degree in mathematics is a solid foundation for any one of the STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — career fields. Over the past 10 years, growth in STEM jobs was three times as fast as growth in non-STEM jobs. STEM workers are often on the cutting edge of technology and competitiveness on both the national and international scale — these professions generate innovation, new ideas, new companies and new industries.

The BLS also estimates that job opportunities for statisticians will increase by about 16 percent from 2010 to 2020, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. Technological advancements are continuing to allow for improved data collection and processing, which is expanding the need for mathematicians to analyze that data for a range of purposes.

A nice, big paycheck is a benefit of the hard work mathematicians put into their education. The median annual wage of mathematicians was $99,380 in May 2010, according to the BLS. A 2009 National Association of Colleges and Employers survey found that math skills and training were among the ranks of the top 15 highest earning college degrees. Actuaries, mathematicians and statisticians rank near the top of the country’s 200 best jobs when it comes to job environment, income, outlook, physical demands and stress, according to a 2012 survey by CareerCast.

Job prospects are best in industry or government, and better yet for those who have a strong background of math and a related discipline—such as engineering, computer science, physics, or operations research.

Part II: Top U.S. Math Programs

To become a mathematician you are going to need a lot of schooling. The minimum requirement is typically a graduate degree, but that all depends on the position. About 42 percent of mathematicians have a doctoral degree, 38 percent have a master’s degree and 21 percent have a bachelor’s degree, according to O*Net.

University of Illinois

“The instructor was highly committed to engaging the students. I found her openness to “learning alongside the students” to be refreshing and encouraging – and the real life examples she brought to the discussion were helpful and enlightening.” — U of I Online student, 2012

  • Accreditation: North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Specialized degrees: The Bachelor of Arts in Mathematical Sciences prepares students for careers in mathematics in a variety of capacities including research, statistics, teaching, industry, insurance, and management.
  • Industry perception: The University of Illinois Online is a university-wide initiative aimed at increasing the number of high-quality online education programs available to all prospective students in Illinois, the U.S. and around the world.
  • Tuition: Illinois residents pay tuition of $271.25 per credit hour and non-residents pay $564.00 for a total of 60 semester hours to complete the bachelors program. The Guaranteed tuition program guarantees that students will have an unchanged tuition schedule for four years — comforting in an era where tuition hikes are common.
  • Financial aid: Eligible students can apply for federal, state and institutional programs including grants, loans, scholarships, tuition waivers and work-study financial aid options.

University of Washington

  • Specialized degrees: The UW offers students an online and a brick-and-mortar graduate degree through the Master of Science in Applied Mathematics program. The applied mathematics curriculum is customizable to different professional settings, including engineering, manufacturing and research.
  • Industry perception: The UW program is one of the nation’s highest-ranked online master’s degree programs in applied mathematics, and the online curriculum is taught by the same full-time UW faculty as the on-campus program. Students have the flexibility to enroll on a full- or part-time basis, and complete the required coursework in one to three years.
  • Tuition: At a minimum, the current tuition cost of the program is around $32,220 for the entire program, not including fees.
  • Financial aid: Students are eligible for financial aid, and are directed to send their questions to the UW Financial Aid office webpage.

Western Governors University

“I had a lot of life and work experience that WGU let me capitalize on, and I didn’t have to sit through a traditional classroom.” — Janine Suppes, Graduate, Teachers College

  • Accreditation: National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education —  WGU is the first exclusively online university to earn such accreditation.
  • Specialized degrees: WGU offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics, which prepares students for teacher licensure for middle school or high school mathematics. The online courses are supplemented with Demonstration Teaching (DT), a full-time, supervised, in-classroom experience between 12 and 20 weeks in length.
  • Industry perception: As a fully-online university WGU is earning critical acclaim from some of the biggest names in education, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said, “While such programs [like Western Governors University] are now the exception, I want them to be the norm.”  Reporter Tom Costello of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams also featured WGU on this video clip because of the cost-effective, quality programs and innovative model for online higher education.
  • Tuition: The total estimated tuition for the program is $23,120, based on an estimate of four-year completion. Students will need to dedicate approximately 15 hours a week to their studies.
  • Financial aid: Founded by 19 governors across the U.S. the university is structured with the mindset that all citizens should have access to education regardless of the socio-economic background, geographic location or income. WGU charges tuition at a flat rate every six months, so you pay for the time, not the credit hours. Federal financial aid can help supplement tuition costs, more information is available here.

Southern New Hampshire University

“[SNHU online] taught me to be self-motivated and plan ahead and how to stay organized. It was good practice on managing my time efficiently.” — Christopher Perry, 2011 online student

  • Accreditation: New England Association of Schools and Colleges and the New Hampshire Postsecondary Education Commission.
  • Specialized degrees: The online Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics focuses on mathematical methods, reasoning, and problem solving in three main areas of math: analysis, algebra and statistics. Students also become proficient in communicating about math through verbal and written training.
  • Industry perception: The private, not-for-profit SNHU was featured on Fast Company’s “World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies” for its smart uses of online technologies to grow opportunity while providing quality education. Online students can be ensured they will receive a quality education. Course sizes are limited and professors are required to provide quick response time and individual attention so that students don’t fall behind.
  • Tuition: Tuition for the 120 credit undergraduate program is $38,000 or $960 per credit.
  • Financial aid: SNHU makes every effort to provide students with excellent financial aid options. Students with high school GPAs of 2.5 and higher will now be eligible to receive up to $18,000 in grants and scholarships — in addition to federal financial aid. The financial aid handbook can give you all the specifics.

Part III: Launching a Mathematics Career

Selecting a path for education is just a portion of the work you need to do in order to land a position in your projected career. Especially with a field as broad as math, it is important to get real-world experience to help narrow doing your job options. Here are a few suggestions to help you do so.

Explore Careers in Math

Professional societies such as the American Mathematical Society are a great way to get engaged and involved with your educational community. The AMS has programs for high-school, undergraduate and graduate students, which provide networking opportunities and the ability to get direct experience in the field.

Internships are another great way to get experience and there are opportunities to do so in just about every sector, from government to private industry and laboratories. This AMS list features internship options from Boeing, AT&T and the U.S. Department of Energy. Working in an industry will help you decide if that is where you can see yourself long-term.

Acquaint Yourself with Academia

Consider adding a summer research program to your curriculum. There are a number of research experiences at universities across the country — especially if you take an online route, this would be a great way to get in the classroom and do some networking. This is a great way to see how far you want to go in your education. If research isn’t quite what you imagined, then the PhD route might not be for you.

As a student you also have the ability to get engaged in academia early with different math clubs, societies and research journals. Getting involved with these extra-curricular activities not only demonstrate initiative and effort on your resume, but they can also help you get more references, experiences and networking opportunities — who you know can matter just as much as WHAT you know.

A Career by the Numbers

The world of mathematics can take you just about anywhere you can go. The STEM fields are in need of the best and brightest as global competition, innovation and technology continue to drive economies into the future.

If you’ve got a passion for math then you are bound to have an exciting career (and a nice paycheck!) awaiting you at the end of your hard work, education and training. That is when the real fun can begin.