What can I do with a Master's in math?
August 9, 2009 11:59 PM   Subscribe

I have been attending graduate school in mathematics for the last 3 years, in hopes of getting a Ph.D. It hasn't exactly worked out - I'm taking my Master's and getting out of here. What can I do now?

The main reason the program hasn't worked for me is that no one here studies what I want to do - computability, information theory, computer sciencey math. I only figured out my real interest after I sent out apps, and it has come back to bite me. I was trying to tough it out but the mean time-to-Ph.D here is 7 years and I realized I would be miserable if I forced myself spend that much time slaving over something that I didn't genuinely find exciting.

I might want to go back and get the Ph.D if I can find the right school. But that's not on the table for at least one year. I need the break, and my undergrad girlfriend has a couple years left here too.

So, what jobs are looking for people with a Master's in math? I have already applied for a lecturing position at the local community college. I have also been looking through the job pages of the AMS and a couple other big math sites, and the standard job sites like Monster. I just want to know if I am missing something.
posted by Earl the Polliwog to Work & Money (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My mother-in-law's company hired mathematicians to do real estate modeling and analysis [note: the company was in commercial realestate and had nothing to do with mortgage derivatives]. So, if you're interested in economics, that sector is a possibility.

If you want to do compsci math, then I assume you're already looking at the big software companies with R&D divisions: google, Microsoft (MS labs is stellar, regardless of what you think of the rest of MS). I used to say Sun Microsystems (my dream company), but they're being purchased by Oracle. So, Oracle?
posted by Netzapper at 12:42 AM on August 10, 2009

Many of the math majors I know have become actuaries and make good money. It also seems that higher degrees boost an actuary's earning potential, so that could benefit you. It may be worth looking into.
posted by dualityofmind at 12:46 AM on August 10, 2009

a lot of the top people in GIS have masters' and doctorates in math. that might be worth a go.
posted by klanawa at 12:53 AM on August 10, 2009

With a graduate degree in math and a CS background, you may want to spend a year doing data mining, or working for a dot com known for hiring smart ABDs (Amazon springs to mind, lots of smaller places too).

But I warn you, if you take a year off from a graduate program and land in a job you like, the contrast between that and your bad grad experience may be so strong that you do not return to grad school.
posted by zippy at 1:07 AM on August 10, 2009

You're never going back to school. But yes, you can land many "good" programming jobs at the high end. Not "web developers", but hardcore algorithmaticians or statistician type work.

Everyone from Yahoo to Amazon to Major League Baseball needs such people.
posted by rokusan at 1:54 AM on August 10, 2009

Most of the people I know with a Masters in maths ended up coining in money in the financial sector.
posted by biffa at 4:26 AM on August 10, 2009

dualityofmind's suggestion that you become an actuary would be for a longterm career path, not for your proposed 'gap year'. It takes quite a while to become certified as an actuary.

That said, if you know anything about economics, you can probably land a good job at a consulting firm -- management if you're also really personable, economic or another speciality otherwise. I just finished my undergrad degree in math and I found that as long as I could demonstrate familiarity with running regressions (and even kind of understanding how they work!), those people were impressed.
posted by telegraph at 4:58 AM on August 10, 2009

The best CS people I've worked with had math backgrounds.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:16 AM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you know what you want to do (change programs to CS) but you don't want to move for a couple of years.

posted by hexatron at 5:28 AM on August 10, 2009

From what I've seen Math is one of those universal, versatile skills that can be adapted to almost any field. In my workplace we have a mathematician who provides input on almost every meeting that he attends -- he'll point out flaws in engineering results, he'll analyze sales figures, he'll optimize and make an algorithm more efficient ...

I guess this answer is anectodal more than anything, but your skills are probably a lot more useful than you can think. If you're into engineering and building things, corporate R&D is probably the way to go for you. Try MS/ Google/other tech giants.
posted by the_ancient_mariner at 5:42 AM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

What TAM said. I'm always amazed, for example, at how many professional 'programmers' have horrible math skills, and more than once I've seen a competent mathematician eviscerate and improve a simple piece of code to the order of 100x-faster/more-efficient.
posted by rokusan at 6:17 AM on August 10, 2009

Many "quants" at investment banks or hedge funds come from math or engineering phd backgrounds. Their job tasks usually consist of programming and tweaking monte-Carlo simulation models to price financial instruments. They use a LOT of high level probability and calculus, and part of the job is frequently reading industry or academic papers related to modelimg. Its a very dynamic and fast changing field.
posted by chalbe at 7:10 AM on August 10, 2009

A few thoughts from a math professor who oversees a lot of Ph.D. students at an institution similar to yours.

1. In case you haven't already, you should check whether there is teaching/grading that needs doing in your own department, or other quantitative departments at MSU. This may be harder than usual in the current economic climate, but even now we routinely find a few weeks before the semester that we need extra people to teach discussion sections for calculus. My guess is that currently enrolled grad students who are past their funding guarantee would be first in line for these spots, but it's worth looking into.

2. You're right that nobody in the math or computer science departments at Michigan State seems to be doing the kind of theoretical CS you're interested in. On the other hand, there are a lot of really interesting-sounding labs in the CS department, and my experience is that the kind of work these guys do involves tons of really interesting math at the interface of pure theory, algorithm design, and statistics. This seems close enough to the interests you describe that it might be worth looking into getting a job in one of these labs -- if you like the work, you can transfer from the math to the CS Ph.D. program, which is vastly logistically easier than re-applying and starting a Ph.D. again in a new place that is strong in theoretical CS (like Wisconsin!)

3. Finally: if you do decide to apply for new Ph.D. programs, I would lean towards CS over math. It is totally OK to like only one kind of math and no others -- but I think this is a sign that your temperament isn't well-matched with pure mathematics, where doing strong work requires a certain amount of omnivorousness.
posted by escabeche at 9:31 AM on August 10, 2009

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