What did YOU do with a math education?
November 3, 2008 4:42 AM   Subscribe

So, what did YOU do with a math education?

We are deep into the whole college visit/choice dance with our daughter. She's a senior in HS and is still struggling with determining what she might want to study in college, thus leading to the choice of school.

She's been a straight-A student and is currently taking college-credit calculus and physics classes. She's a scary whiz at math and related subjects, and seems to enjoy it.

So far, though, the idea of studying "math" in college hasn't exactly elicited much excitement. Underlying that is the question of, other than teaching, what the heck would one do with a math education? And, all the schools we've looked at separate "math education" from "math".

Her guidance counselor has been more worthless than can be imagined. Her only help in guiding my daughter has been to express dismay that our daughter hasn't chosen a school and subject yet, then point her to a stack of college pamphlets. We, of course, are very frustrated because we simply haven't the experience or ability to expose our daughter to what possibilities might be out there.

So...math majors...what fields, other than teaching, offer opportunities for you?
(As a caveat, I should add that she definitely isn't interested in computer sciences or anything that would lead her to software development.)
posted by Thorzdad to Education (45 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Math is a great degree to have as proof you can think analytically and there are a huge number of professions which value that.

Math major friends of mine from college have become:
lawyers (an MIT math major I know became a public defender)
doctors (medical schools love anything math/science)
engineers (obvious, I suppose)
and bankers (many of my fellow math majors were heavily recruited to work on Wall St.)

As well as pursuing academic careers in physics and mathematics itself, of course.
posted by vacapinta at 4:57 AM on November 3, 2008

Most math problems that come up in the business world require the use of computers, and often software development, to be solved. Questions are typically of statistical nature and thus large amounts of data need to be processed, which is done with the help of a computer. If she doesn't have any interest in computers, math might not be the right thing.

I also would like to note that upper-level college math differs significantly from the math done in high school (or lower level courses like calculus). High school mathematics is more procedural, where you learn how to solve certain problems, whereas upper-level mathematics depends more on logic. I was a very bad math student in high school but excelled in college, switching my major from Computer Science to Math. Conversely, a lot of people who liked math in high school did not enjoy the upper level courses.

If I had to do it again though, I would major in physics and take as many upper-level math classes as possible. Part of the value of a math degree comes in the application of the theory to practical problems. Physics is the perfect platform to learn this and the job options for physics majors are similarly broad to the ones for math majors.
posted by Brennus at 5:11 AM on November 3, 2008

So far, though, the idea of studying "math" in college hasn't exactly elicited much excitement --from you or from her?

Anyway just because she's good at "math" doesn't mean she should be a "math major." There's a world of options out there that require applying "math" to "stuff." There's a broad spectrum of mathliness where her skills are needed. You have things like engineering (Mechanical Engineering can be like mechanics (physics) and calculus combined - on crack!), finance, statistics, economics, accounting, political science, and more. Frankly, anything she is interested in can probably be studied with a statistical or computational bent that will draw on those skills if that's what she wants to do.

If she's really far from deciding, or doesn't want to give up the music major to only study math, for example, consider finding a place that will allow her to pursue both options, like a flagship state school (UIUC? U of Mn|i?).

The last thing to consider is that the math that math majors study is really different from calculus, and (generally) reaches farther and farther into theory. She might want to talk to some students or sit in on some classes to see if she is into it. I loved calculus, but the college algebra hurts my head, for example.

(I was good at math in high school, studied engineering as an undergrad and grad student, and am now an engineer. It was a definite career path for me, even though I am also a language nerd.)
posted by whatzit at 5:13 AM on November 3, 2008

The Mathematical Association of America has lots of career information. See here, for example, for profiles of actual people working and using math.
posted by leahwrenn at 5:22 AM on November 3, 2008

I have a friend who was a math major and is now an actuary for an insurance company. There's good money in it, although it requires quite a time commitment when studying for the exams (which you do, I guess, as part of the job, not before the job). She's been in high demand and has had little problem getting salary/benefits/perqs that she wants (such as working from home one day a week now that she has a baby).
posted by MsElaineous at 5:26 AM on November 3, 2008

just because she's good at "math" doesn't mean she should be a "math major."

seconding whatzit there. i had a roommate in college who had been a "math whiz" in high school but totally bombed at math in college. yet she stubbornly clung to her identity as math whiz and math major, and eventually dropped out of school as she couldn't pass the required math courses for math majors.

agreeing with the OP that the guidance counselor is worthless. your daughter doesn't have to decide on a major right now, and she can always switch majors once in school. it does sound like you should be looking at schools that offer a wide range of majors, as well as allowing students to be undeclared or general studies majors for the first 2 years of college.

personally the math majors i knew ended up in finance (wall st. quants), working at NASA, going to grad school and becoming math professors, etc.
posted by needled at 5:28 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Underlying that is the question of, other than teaching, what the heck would one do with a math education? And, all the schools we've looked at separate "math education" from "math"

Just in case (it wasn't clear from what you wrote): "math education" refers to learning both about mathematics and also about education; people with this major would typically be interested in either teaching at the secondary school level, or teaching other people to do so, and their research would be about how students learn math, rather than actually figuring out new math. From your above description, it sounds like your daughter probably would not be interested in math ed.

Her best bet is to not worry about careers right now, but simply to continue to take math in college---try to take an introduction to proofs course (these are named various things, but every math major has one) as soon as possible, to see if she likes "real math", which can be quite different from the math students are exposed to in high school (e.g., calculus).

I teach math at a small liberal arts college; feel free to drop me a line.

posted by leahwrenn at 5:29 AM on November 3, 2008

I have to second MsElaineous. My sister got her undergraduate math degree with a focus on statistics and is now an actuary. She's getting great pay and got her first call from a recruiter the other day. And she's only 23 (!). Her office is very flexible about paying for her to study for her exams during work hours and rewards the passing of exams with bonuses. Really makes me wish I was good at math, too : )
posted by Mouse Army at 5:37 AM on November 3, 2008

What kinds of colleges are you looking at? I mean is MIT or CalTech on the short list?
Is a graduate degree likely? Would she say she's definitely interested in the pure or applied sciences?

It's been a while for me, but from what I remember, the people who had a college and major all picked out by the summer between their junior and senior year in college didn't do that much better in life than those who didn't pick a major until midway through their freshman year of college (or even later).
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:37 AM on November 3, 2008

I was a math major in college (actually, a double major in astrophysics and math). Now I have a Ph.D. in physics. My classmates have gone on to diverse careers as engineers, financial analysts, actuaries, foreign service officers, computer scientists, teachers, lawyers, doctors, musicians -- one is even a professional triathlete. The point being that math has the great advantage of being highly adaptable. With a degree in math you can pretty much do whatever you want later on.

But I also want to say that maybe it's a little premature to be overly concerned about choice of major and career. In high school I was an above-average, but not exceptional, math student, but I had basically no interest in being a math major. Fortunately for me, I went to a liberal arts school that forced you to wait until the end of sophomore year to declare a major, so I had plenty of time to think about what I wanted to do before I made the decision. My college had an absolutely outstanding math department, and the classes were so much fun and so interesting, that I just had to keep taking them. It definitely worked out for me.

If your daughter likes math but is unsure of what she really wants to do, I highly highly recommend finding a liberal arts school with a good math department. She'll get more personal attention from her professors than in a huge department at a big school, and she'll be able to take as much math as she wants while getting lots of exposure to other subjects. If she loves it, she can major in math. If not, there are lots of other options. If she chooses a big university, it is much harder to make this switch if she decides she wants something else.

And, if she's interested in that angle (and personal bias aside here) my undergraduate math program (linked above), in terms of educational value, really is one of the best in the country at any school. Worth a serious look for anybody interested in maybe majoring in math.
posted by dseaton at 5:55 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Many of my friends with math degrees went into banking, I'm a management consultant with a degree in physics and a number of my colleagues also have math degrees,
posted by atrazine at 5:58 AM on November 3, 2008

With a math degree you can damn near do anything. Science, engineering, computers, accounting, etc. Any science or engineering degree will require plenty of math courses so by the time she is a sophomore she can easily change over if math doesn't appeal any more. Regardless of her career plans she should keep it going to grad school.
posted by JJ86 at 6:04 AM on November 3, 2008

'Recent' (4 years ago) college grad, who is currently not doing what he studied in college, but is gainfully employed:

She should go to the college that has a respectable (perhaps not the best) academic record, but also one where she can have a productive and enjoyable time. For instance, I looked at Stevens Tech, which is a top notch engineering school. The student life there is .. well .. not exactly a bastion of culture and excitement. It wasn't right for me. I ended up at a well-regarded state university, and I never looked back. It might not have the name of an MIT or Harvard, but unless she demands a 'brand-name' education, it's unimportant.

For 95% of undergraduate work, the name or academic reputation of the school is not as important as the amount and quality of experiences your daughter will be able to take in. 75% of the 'stuff' I studied in college I don't plan to use again, but the experience of attaining that knowledge, and the skills that come out of that are priceless.

What I'm trying to say is just because she's a math whiz doesn't mean she needs to spend the rest of her life doing arithmetic. I don't know if you're pushing her into a math field, but just be sure she can pursue art history if that's what floats her boat. Maybe she'll find a niche in biology, and go on to get an MD. I viewed my undergraduate career as a time to explore different fields, and just learn as much about learning as I could. I had enough time to switch my 'major' 4 times, and still graduated after 4 years with a very good GPA.

Just make sure wherever she goes, she has room to intellectually 'grow', vertically and laterally.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 6:10 AM on November 3, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies. I'll try to clarify...

So far, though, the idea of studying "math" in college hasn't exactly elicited much excitement --from you or from her?
From her. I'm all for her studying whatever interests her. When I say "hasn't elicited much excitement", I mean that she hasn't voiced a strong opinion about it. Or anything. She simply isn't sure about anything. She enjoys math quite a bit. But, nothing she's encountered in school has really grabbed her in any meaningful way (other than softball, but that's of secondary consideration)

just because she's good at "math" doesn't mean she should be a "math major."
True. However, as I said, she actually enjoys math. It's her favorite class. It's her strongest class. She really enjoys cracking the problems. So, we default to her strengths. I suppose we all are defaulting to math when it comes to college choices, too, because she is under the gun to find a direction and school. I know, I know...she shouldn't be. But, financially, she/we can't afford the "take 6-7 years to find yourself" approach.

What kinds of colleges are you looking at? I mean is MIT or CalTech on the short list?
That's another issue, really. She's intimidated by large schools, so we've been looking mainly at smaller lib-arts schools here in-state (Indiana) But, of course, those are also quite expensive and, unless she manages to get and keep some major scholarship money, they will be out-of-the question financially. Schools like MIT are most definitely not under consideration.

The only moderately large state school we've looked at is Ball State. Nice school. We had a sit-down with a professor in the math education department and came away with a positive feeling, though not sold. Though, the discussion of actuarial work seemed to definitely turn her off. Another minus is that specific scholarship awards from that department have to be applied for by mid-January, and you have to have signed to attend by then. That's sort of forcing our hand now.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:18 AM on November 3, 2008

I have a B.Arts/ B.Science Double degree in Philosphy / Pure Maths, I was good at Maths at High School. I now work in a Financial Consulting sort of role, in a similar role to a bunch of Actuaries. its pretty dull work but pays well.

Some of my old Maths friends from uni are now: Academics, Computer Programmer Nerds (although they mostly did Comp Sci Degrees), Bankers (they were the sweet talkers more than the nerds), or work in weird technical roles in different technology fields.

For prospective employers Maths Graduates are usually a pretty safe bet. They are generally very good problem solvers, logical, technically minded, independent and just damn smart.
posted by mary8nne at 6:32 AM on November 3, 2008

But, of course, [liberal arts schools] are also quite expensive and, unless she manages to get and keep some major scholarship money, they will be out-of-the question financially.

Many of the best liberal arts schools in the country have really extensive financial aid programs that lower the cost of attendance enormously. Some of this is merit-based aid, but most of it is need-based. Some of these schools have gone so far as to eliminate student loans, covering 100% of demonstrated student need with grant money.

The point being that she should apply to the schools she wants to go to without regard to cost. Of course, there are no guarantees she'll get in to any particular school, but if she does, there's a good chance they'll probably try very hard to make it affordable to her/you. Too many students rule out a school they really like on the basis of price when, in fact, they probably could afford to go there with financial aid. If it's too expensive after you see the aid package, fine, but she should rule anything out before you know the real cost.

(I have firsthand experience: my parents could not have afforded the sticker price of my college education, but the college made sure I could attend nonetheless.)
posted by dseaton at 6:39 AM on November 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

If she's good and Maths and Physics, she should study engineering. If she finds she enjoys pure maths, she can still easily go on to do an MS or PhD in Maths with an engineering undergrad, but there are far more job options available for people with Engineering backgrounds than math backgrounds. Plus she will benefit from all the money available to engineering students in general and female engineering students in particular. It's also more prestigious - this might not matter to her, but it will matter to people looking to hire her.
posted by sid at 7:05 AM on November 3, 2008

Response by poster: The point being that she should apply to the schools she wants to go to without regard to cost.
Well, I would argue that you need to consider cost, too. But that's a whole other discussion...

She doesn't really have a list of schools she wants to attend for any reason beyond it's comfortable size. Frankly, it's always baffled us how a high school kid would know enough about any school to want to attend a specific school. It would seem to me to require that the student have a strong direction of study or career that would lead them to the appropriate schools.

For instance, the daughter of a good friend specifically wanted to study music therapy! So, they found a school that actually had a degree program for that. Yet, it boggles our minds that a kid would even know about music therapy, let alone know they wanted to make it their career. Maybe it's a fault in my wife and I, but we've never been able to expose our kids to such possibilities. We just aren't aware, I guess.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:06 AM on November 3, 2008

Thorzdad, I'd never thought I'd make this recommendation, but from the description of your situation she should definitely take a look at my alma mater, the Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago, Illinois. I don't think they have a woman's softball team at the moment, but they have a solid engineering program and a good dedicated applied mathematics department. It's a small school with both an active dorm and Greek life. I whimsically refer to it as the MIT of the Midwest, since it's very much structured academically as a focused engineering school, though it's also very much laid-back (and second-tier competitive, not first-tier). Excellent merit- and need-based financial support, professors that are willing to talk to undergrads, and plenty of summer jobs in the city. Athletic girls who like math pretty much rule the school, since it has such a heavy male-female ratio.

I did an undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering at IIT and made it to an Ivy League school to study Applied Mathematics for a PhD. Right now I'm considering careers in finance, IBM, and Saudi Arabia.

I've done summer internships in Hawaii and Europe (though both of those involved writing a bit of software + math). One of my buddies who was a math major did an exchange to Australia as an undergrad to do research.

Don't hesitate to send a MefiMail or email if you have any questions about the school or this post.
posted by onalark at 7:20 AM on November 3, 2008

There are other things she could major in, like statistics, physics as has been mentioned, engineering, comp sci etc. I was good at math, but majored in English after I fell in love with it. My husband studied a lot of physics before settling on a degree in math, with lots of stats as well. He now works for a very very very big company doing statistical programming and analysis related to pharmaceutical studies. Some of the people he works with had undergraduate degrees in math, with phds in stats or pharmacy or pharmacokentitics (sp?). Prior to that job, he worked at a think tank in DC, before that he spent a summer working at NASA. So that's what one person did with a math major. But, for the first couple years the school she picks will bombard her with information about different kinds of majors and she'll fall in love with some class in a subject that might have nothing to do with math (or everything to do with it), and change her mind ten times, and that would be fine. For me, that was the advantage of a large school that had a good reputation in almost every area.
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:24 AM on November 3, 2008

Math & physics are the "I'm smart & numerate" degrees that don't pigeon hole you like engineering, making them ideal "smart but undecided" majors.

Way too many undergrads see their math courses as a painful aside, even the engineers & other science majors, while the math majors can't make that excuse. So math & physics can easily change into other fields, even fields that aren't easily switched between. You should however acquire proof that you enjoy & understand another subject, like programming, economics, finance, biology, etc.

Actuaries are famous for their job satisfaction, high salary, etc. Statisticians have enormous employment opportunities. Many fields need people good at mathematical modeling, notably finance, engineering, other sciences, marketing, etc. Math is among the best pre-law degree. Physics is perhaps the best management degree for engineering companies. Both are reasonable pre-med degrees.

An immediate consideration is that degree tracks are stratified by the difficulty of the required core classes. A math, physics, or engineering major can easily change into another major without retaking any core classes, while a lower tiered major like music, literature, business, etc. must retake basic math & science classes to change up. I also reiterate that self identifying as a math major means she & her friends will focus more on those core classes.

So yes, if she currently likes math & not much else, then she should be a math major, and not agonize over the decision for now. But she should understand that she must eventually choose a career, and switching majors is an option.

Imho, a good large state school offers educational & social development opportunities that small liberal arts collages simply can't match. For example, Ball State apparently offers numerous mathematical subdisciplines. Some large schools like UGA offer honors programs that also match the faculty face time of liberal arts collages. She can also ask about her chances of joining the women's softball team.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:31 AM on November 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Speaking as an alleged high school "math whiz":

- Getting a pure math degree in college is a whole different kettle of fish from being good at calculus in high school.
- I started majoring in applied math, then switched to physics. I got a Ph.D. in astronomy and do research at an institute funded by NASA and NSF grants.
- It's too soon for your daughter to be worrying much about what she'll major in, much less what she'll do with her education. I strongly agree with dseaton's comments.
- When you said she's intimidated by 'large' schools, did you mean places with a 'large' reputation? Ball State has 10 times more students than Caltech.
posted by lukemeister at 7:39 AM on November 3, 2008

Well, I would argue that you need to consider cost, too.

You should of course consider actual cost when deciding which school to attend.

You should not pay much attention to cost when deciding which schools to apply to. Applications are pretty cheap, and you never know which school is going to really want you to attend and give you an excellent aid package. It's quite common for a boringly middle-class family to spend less to send their kid to Expensive Private School than to Local Public School, because Expensive Private School has vastly larger aid funds available.

If she's doing well, she should consider applying to honors programs in Big State U as well, which can sometimes combine the good aspects of small and large schools.

In an ideal world, I'd say that you should have worked on putting together a list of schools last spring and taken a road trip with her this summer to check out schools, but it's too late for that. Limiting yourself to only schools in Indiana seems unwise, though.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:41 AM on November 3, 2008

Are Indiana's universities free for in-state students? If so, she should almost surely stay in-state. Georgia Tech wouldn't have been too expensive even for out-of-state, but Georgia's whole free in-state deal was amazing.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:45 AM on November 3, 2008

Well, I would argue that you need to consider cost, too. But that's a whole other discussion...

Not to totally derail, but my parents talked me out of applying to first class schools for my math undergrad degree because of monetary issues, and I still sort of resent them for it. If your daughter can do the work, thinking about loans wouldn't be a terrible idea. Also, big schools are not necessarily a big degree factory. It depends on the interaction with the student. This can also be terrible at tiny schools.

I suppose we all are defaulting to math when it comes to college choices, too, because she is under the gun to find a direction and school. I know, I know...she shouldn't be. But, financially, she/we can't afford the "take 6-7 years to find yourself" approach.

Man, this reminds me so much of when I was applying for undergrad stuff, it's scary.

Look: consider that the standard degree is 4 years, and it's trending upwards to 5. If your daughter has no major for the first 2 years of her education, she's actually still pretty average. I know that the financial issues here are highly scary, but college is where you prepare for/figure out what you're going to do for (in some cases) the rest of your life. You shouldn't shoehorn your daughter into something suboptimal. You can make it work at most any location.

Anyways, as other posters have said, math is great if you can do it. Some people are great at calculus and differential equations, but cannot wrap their heads around the concept of a proper proof, and these people cannot be math majors. You may want to inquire whether or not your daughter has seen/enjoyed proofs. I know that when I was a senior in high school, I was reading through some very basic higher math and loving it.

If she's good and Maths and Physics, she should study engineering. If she finds she enjoys pure maths, she can still easily go on to do an MS or PhD in Maths with an engineering undergrad

I have to emphatically disagree. Engineering undergrads do not learn what pure math is, in general, and the things you study in engineering in your junior and senior years do not prepare you for a math graduate degree. Engineering is good if you like it, or if you want to cash out, but it's not for people who are interested in doing math.
posted by TypographicalError at 7:47 AM on November 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have to emphatically disagree. Engineering undergrads do not learn what pure math is, in general, and the things you study in engineering in your junior and senior years do not prepare you for a math graduate degree. Engineering is good if you like it, or if you want to cash out, but it's not for people who are interested in doing math.

I suppose I should have qualified my recommendation - she should study engineering at a program that emphasizes maths and science over pure engineering. In my undergrad degree i took several maths courses that were more difficult conceptually than the courses my peers in maths degrees were taking. Many of my classmates went on to PhDs and MSs in pure and applied maths. These programs will typically be called Engineering Science, Engineering Physics, or Engineering Mathematics.
posted by sid at 7:59 AM on November 3, 2008

Response by poster: Are Indiana's universities free for in-state students?
No. With room-and-board and other fees, Ball State, for instance, would come to just over $15k/year, before any financial aid. If they were free, we wouldn't be having this conversation, of course.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:04 AM on November 3, 2008


It might be worth trying a website like this to find some colleges that match your daughter's interests. There may be better sites of this type - I just googled this one.
posted by lukemeister at 8:09 AM on November 3, 2008

I've seen undergrad engineers get PhDs in mathematics, but all have had an amazingly difficult time, and haven't doe great. I'd suspect the same applies to physics as well. I mean, sure if you got good grades in engineering at MIT or CalTech, then you'll handle a math or physics PhD one tier down, but those school wouldn't accept their own engineers for math PhDs.

If you want a PhD in pure math or physics, you should go to the best "big" school possible & affordable, and massively accelerate the program by taking classes early & eventually taking graduate classes. A math GRE & top 10 math grad schools all assume that you've had a semester or year of graduate course work; plus an MS is a terminal degree in math.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:29 AM on November 3, 2008

I did a math minor at Smith, they had a page about careers.
posted by ejaned8 at 8:33 AM on November 3, 2008

I just want to throw in another word for small liberal arts schools- I'm actually a frosh at the college dseaton mentioned above (Go Ephs!) and the math program here is really great. I'm not a huge math person, but the reviews are extremely positive. The majors mostly seem to be prepping for Wall Street (albeit not quite so much recently...) or sciencey careers. You don't declare your major until the end of sophomore year here, which gives you plenty of time explore and figure out what you like. They actually force you to do so- you can't take more than one class in a department per semester for at least your first year.

As for the cost: my family is boringly middle class and I'm attending this 50K school for less than the price of community college. As in, my after-aid cost was about two thousand dollars. I can't say how things might work out for your family, but it does happen. I don't want to be all yay Williams! but seriously, insanely well-funded small schools can make things happen. I'd say not to worry so much about major, but to find schools strong in her general area of interest that have the environment she wants- urban, Greek, athletic, nerdy, middle-of-nowhere, party school, whatever. Don't worry about funding until the aid offers come in.
posted by MadamM at 8:36 AM on November 3, 2008

and the american mathematical society, has a page with profiles of students with a bachelor's in math.
posted by ejaned8 at 8:37 AM on November 3, 2008

If she's doing well, she should consider applying to honors programs in Big State U as well, which can sometimes combine the good aspects of small and large schools.

This is a great suggestion. Also, you should consider state schools with solid liberals arts programs outside of Indiana, as many are fairly cheap, even for out-of-state students.

If she's not sure that she wants to do math, and it sounds like she's not, I would definitely, definitely recommend that she attend a school that will let her not immediately declare a major and allow her to take a wide range of courses in a broad range of subjects. In high school, it's highly unlikely that she's had any exposure to, say, the social sciences and the humanities, and any exposure that she's had was likely to be cursory. You're right that very few high school students know what they want to do--and the truth is, by thirty, many of those kids who picked their majors at 17 won't be working in that field, anyway.

I'd also like to meekly recommend a gap year or semester, although I know it's grossly unpopular in the US. I applied to art schools during my senior year of college, and got in to some good ones, but the debt was going to be crushing and the application process had, likewise, crushed me. So I pulled out last minute, took some community college courses (and did incredibly well, which bolstered my later applications), and worked as a video store manager full time. By the end of one semester, I had a much better idea what I wanted to do (write), and was much more driven about pursuing it--plus, I had enough money saved that I didn't have to work or rely on my mother for money for my first year and a half of college. I consider myself lucky; many parents won't let their kids take time off to make a decision like that, but I really feel like having the opportunity and time to decide wisely helped me in a myriad of ways.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:14 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

You might also check out various numbers on princetonreview.com if you're looking out-of-state, here's mine for example.

I doubt you're getting sound information about small liberal arts vs. big state schools because the liberal arts schools maintain a massive publicity campaign which the state schools basically ignore. I'd certainly feel that you should check out UIUC, UIC, U. Chicago, etc., but it's certainly true that this depends upon the individual. Also, if she plans to stay around Indiana after school, that will mitigate one of the big disadvantages of liberal arts schools, which is poor name recognition in others states.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:58 AM on November 3, 2008

I started off as a math major, because I was good at it and I didn't know what else to major in. I stuck with it for 2 years and earned B's and C's in three Calculus course and a linear algebra course. But when faced with Differential Equations and Mathematical Statistics in my Junior year, I completely fell apart and questioned what I was going to do with this major anyhow. I originally thought I'd become an actuary, or maybe go on to an advanced degree, following in my father's footsteps.

Instead, I changed majors a couple times -- physics, computer science (but this program was geared towards mainframe programmers for a nearby insurance company), eventually settling into industrial technology (which I always explained to friends as physics without the math). I took graphic design, computer aided drafting, electronics, and computer courses.

Somewhere in there I figured out what I wanted to do -- to work with computers as a network or system administrator. There is some basis for mathematical skill here, but not that much. In the end, I came away from college with a degree, which opened doors for me, albeit not in my major course of study.

I think college is a time to experiment with what excites you, to learn how to learn, and to get an idea of what you might like to do with your life.
posted by indigo4963 at 10:00 AM on November 3, 2008

oh, also, here's a link to why I should be a math major from Duke University.
posted by indigo4963 at 10:01 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

If she doesn't know what she wants to study, why go to college now? I was a math major right after high school, largely because I got 800 on the math SAT and aced AP Calc BC and was offered a full scholarship at a good college — but I had no passion for it and bailed on the major as my grades declined, and eventually got kicked out of school for being an aimless miscreant. I could have spent those four years far better working, and I could have spent four years in school to much better effect later in my 20s.
posted by nicwolff at 12:10 PM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was a math major, and I ended up in the public policy field in DC, which surprised some of my non-math-major friends. The ironic thing is that I know a lot of people who I graduated with who were very passionate about the whole idea of working for a nonprofit in this field, and so did a Political Science or Policy or Sociology major--and by and large, they had a *much* harder time actually landing jobs than people who had math or economics degrees. I wholeheartedly agree with the person above who said that a math degree is a signal to an employer that says you're a numerate and smart person who can pick up things quickly. If she has an aptitude for it, I'd encourage her to stick with the math thing, even if she's not sure she'll major in it; it has undoubtedly opened many more doors for me than I realized when I was in college.

Also, I'll n-th everyone above who is urging you to at least look at some out-of-state liberal arts schools with higher sticker costs--my college had quite a generous financial aid program. I think the proportion of the student body who actually paid sticker price was well south of 50%, which they were able to accomplish by virtue of their extremely large endowment. Plus, if you are worried that

financially, she/we can't afford the "take 6-7 years to find yourself" approach.

I think that's an even stronger reason to look at small liberal arts schools. My take on this--as someone who attended a college with less than 2,000 students, but with siblings and friends who all went to the large state school--is that state school works really well for smart kids who are very driven and largely know what they are there for. It's very easy at a state school to take 5 or 6 years to graduate, because larger schools like that don't take as much of an in loco parentis sort of role; no one is checking over your registration form your sophomore year to make sure you're choosing classes that will allow you to graduate on time. Smaller colleges, on the other hand, tend to pay a lot of attention to this. At my college, you actually needed special permission to stay for a 9th semester; past that was impossible--it was very clear that they did not want *anybody* to take longer than 4 years to graduate, and it was the responsibility of the advisor to make sure that nobody ended up in their senior year with 30 credits left to go.
posted by iminurmefi at 12:59 PM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I graduated this June from MIT with a degree in Math (and another in Econ). I took a job in the finance industry (exciting times, heh) and passed up an offer at a consulting firm. I also looked into being an actuary and could have done it with my math degree but decided I didn't want to commit to the 5 years of tests required to be one.

That said, I really want to emphasize that a math major is emphatically not the same as doing harder high school math. If all she's had exposure to is calculus, say, then she hasn't really seen what college level math is all about. She may very well like it, but it's so different that it's not guaranteed. Has she done many proofs or been inundated with arrows and greek letters and punctuation? High school math is predominantly calculating things -- solving systems of equations, taking derivatives, etc. At least in my high school I didn't have to actually prove very much.

If she really enjoys calculus, say, then she'll see a lot more of it in physics or some engineering field, I would think, than studying math. But if she really does enjoy her math classes -- and not just because she enjoys crunching numbers but really relishes thinking about what equations mean and WHY derivates and integrals are "opposite" each other -- then studying math in college can be incredibly rewarding and mind expanding. You haven't lived until you've thought of the elements of the group SU(2) as the points of a 3-sphere in 4 dimensional space. :-)

Best of luck to your daughter. Math aptitude, no matter what she ultimately ends up doing, is a wonderful thing to have and always useful.
posted by losvedir at 2:06 PM on November 3, 2008

What everybody is saying here about how math prepares you to do lots of things -- possibly most things -- is by and large true, but as a somewhat bitter former math undergrad, I have to raise one caveat I've observed: I believe the degree only opens career doors in circles where people understand what the discipline is and recognize the strengths it builds.

So, while it might win you respect in investment banking circles, it will do little for you if you're deciding to apply for a position at the local credit union. It may help you in an environment where your manager was a Stanford operations research grad, but it doesn't help you much in an environment, say, where your boss is a former communications major that rode a success at a nutraceutical MLM to middle management.

In short, you have to stay on the smarter/eliter side on the professional world, or you find that you will encounter mostly people who connect the degree with basic general educational requirements they simply struggled through and forgot, and they won't respect it.

This won't take away from the inherent value in studying the discipline, which I believe can be quite personally enriching (and hope to continue myself someday), but if vocational issues are a factor at all, this is something I think anybody considering math should think about.
posted by weston at 2:17 PM on November 3, 2008

I went to a college that had incoming freshman declare a major, and at the time I declared chemical engineering. Looking back I am not sure that I had any idea what a chemical engineer did, but I was good at math and science in high school and thought it sounded good. During my freshman year I found that I didn't like the engineering courses but I really enjoyed the math classes, so I switched to be a math major. After college I worked for a consulting company as a programmer (I took a few programming electives) and have stayed in the field of software.

So, I have a couple points.

First, it seems normal that she doesn't know what she wants to do. And, even if she thought she knew she might still change her mind. If she has to declare a major then choosing math sounds like a natural choice at this point but she shouldn't feel like it is written in stone.

Second, if she declares math as a major as a freshman she may feel differently after taking some college level math classes and want to go a different direction. But, since you said math is her strong point it seems likely that she might choose a related field. The math courses she takes as a freshman/sophomore are typically the same math classes that the engineering majors, physics majors, computer science majors, etc are taking. So, if she does change her mind and switch to a related field the credits she earned will very likely not be sunk (thus less likely that she would need to stay an extra semester or two). I changed majors after freshman year and made it out in 4 years without any problem.

The nice thing about a math major as other have alluded to above, is that it seems to get a lot of respect without pigeon-holing a person into a specific career. In the workplace I think math majors are assumed to be very logical thinkers (fair assumption I think) which is a good foundation for so many careers.
posted by kcoshea at 2:22 PM on November 3, 2008

What I don't see here is any discussion of whether she likes playing with/programming computers. Has she had any exposure to this at school? Has she considered a degree in computer science?
Like your daughter I (a female) was good at math in high school but not crazy about a career in pure math (actuarial work is the second most boring profession in the world IMHO ... but what do I know?). I signed up for a degree in Accounting (my Dad's idea), hated it and switched to Electrical Engineering because I had friends in the department. Boy, am I glad that I did. My career has ranged from Engineering R&D, to computer programming, to Information Systems management (a business orientation). Now I work in a very challenging, numeracy-intensive career with a highly analytical focus - and I am jazzed by it.
My point with all this detail is to say that any applied-numerate degree will prepare her for a whole variety of careers. Computer science is a good choice for someone who is numerate and also wants to explore a new area of knowledge. She could end up in anything from management consultancy, to system design, to data mining (hey - a really big growth area). If she wants to know what she can do with this type of degree (or, hey, a math degree) check out The Numerati.
posted by Susurration at 7:47 PM on November 3, 2008

Susseration, the OP noted as a caveat that programming/computer science is out. This is actually less of an option (any decent undergrad math curriculum WILL require at least one introduction to programming course) than it used to be.
posted by onalark at 8:33 PM on November 3, 2008

Response by poster: What I don't see here is any discussion of whether she likes playing with/programming computers.

Sorry. That would be an emphatic "NO." She has male friends who are true geeks and into computers, but she is in no way attracted to comp.sci. or programming.

Thanks for all the great replies, everyone. I will be digesting everything and responding shortly.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:48 AM on November 4, 2008

I was not a math major, but I´m prepping for the first actuary exam. I´ve had a few math classes, far less than actual math majors.

Liking and doing well in calculus has little to do with liking and doing well in the whole of a college math curricula. She won´t know what she thinks about higher math until she gets into it in college. A physics/math double major is very doable, physics requires so much math that there probably won´t be more than a couple of additional classes.

Your daughter might not have a clear idea of what she wants to study until she gets into college, so pick a school with a number of choices for majors, preferably one that offers some introductory overview classes of various subjects -- she may find that she enjoys cracking problems in engineering. If she is leaning toward science and math, and has a lot of geeky friends, she might be happy at a small science/engineering school. You can find one out of state for a lot less than $15K a year, which might take some of the pressure off to find the right major right now.

For math or physics to be a possibility, she needs to be taking the classes for these degrees even if she´s undecided. Paul Graham´s advice to stay upwind is very relevant here. Have your daughter read that essay.

I would have found the prospect of actuarial science to be unspeakably dull when I was in high school too. My interests and priorities have changed, and it looks much more interesting now -- but I can only make this choice because I stayed upwind, if I had decided anthropology was kind of interesting, and why don´t I devote four years to that, I wouldn´t have the option.

The thing is, fields that call for a lot of applied math and physics have a lot of areas that don´t sound very exciting unless you have gotten far enough into the field to know what you like. It´s like trying to decide if you would like an unusual food you´ve never tried.

I get the impression that your daughter isn´t interested in working with computers at all -- this will be something she needs to compromise on if she´s going far in math. Simulations, large datasets -- computers are very, very useful for these things. In fact, computers have turned out to be sufficiently useful that she will probably be have to use them in any field she studies. Using a computer as a tool may be more appealing when she has specific problems it can solve.

Her guidance counselor has been more worthless than can be imagined.
Oh, I´ve seen worse.

posted by yohko at 12:45 PM on November 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

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