Do I need the PhD to work in industry?
June 14, 2009 9:42 AM   Subscribe

I want a PhD in Mathematics, but I do not want to stay in academia. Is it worth it?

I would like to go into industry immediately after getting my PhD.

My question is: Is it worth it? Will having a PhD give me opportunities that I can never have otherwise?

My interests are in discrete mathematics: combinatorics, graph theory, algorithms, etc. I've been told by someone who works in the computer tech industry that he knows of a lot of companies that hire mathematicians for work in algorithms, optimization and other things that I wouldn't mind doing.

Would I be wasting my time going for a PhD? Could I ultimately be doing work that a PhD does with just a Masters (ideally funded by the company) and some experience? If so, would I even be able to land a position with such prospects with just a Bachelors degree and no related work experience?

I want to continue to do mathematics that I find interesting, but I don't want to go through what's necessary to become a tenured professor.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
posted by alligatorman to Education (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I had a college professor who quit the job for a cushy government gig. I don't really know much about the Math market, but I do know that lots of brainy math dudes end up in weird places- Working on finance stuff or even in computer animation. I think you'd be surprised how applicable it is. That said, try and find some Math PhDs who aren't teaching and drop them an e-mail to see how they got where they are.
posted by GilloD at 9:51 AM on June 14, 2009

A friend of mine, who works as a programmer, recently completed his PhD in mathematics, and is moving to DC to take a great job with a private company doing gov't contracting work.

(his dissertation was in the field of encryption, YMMV)
posted by mkultra at 9:52 AM on June 14, 2009

My interests are in discrete mathematics: combinatorics, graph theory, algorithms, etc.

Have you thought about doing a graduate degree in computer science? My impression is that much if not most of this sort of research is being done in CS departments, and in that field, relative to mathematics, it is also (I think) a lot more common (and supported) to go into industry.
posted by advil at 10:28 AM on June 14, 2009

Or a degree in Operations Research.

There were a ton of well-paid OR people who worked at Bell Labs in the 80s. Bell Labs is gone but all kinds of industries use OR PhDs.
posted by csw at 11:09 AM on June 14, 2009

I don't know math, but in many science fields a PhD is essential to get access to the top jobs in industry. A PhD is evidence that you can really do original research and make a contribution to the state of the art in your field. It can be hard to demonstrate that skill set without the PhD. It used to be the case that many quantitative banking outfits were eager to hire math / physics PhDs regardless of their specific skills because they were smart and knew how to deal with complex problems, however in the current economy that's probably no longer true.
posted by pombe at 11:51 AM on June 14, 2009

I recently got my PhD in mathematics, in a field that intersects nontrivially with combinatorics (geometric representation theory). I've chosen the academic route, so I can't give a direct answer to your question; however, I have some comments that might be useful.

(1) The PhD is unlike an undergrad degree or a masters degree in the following sense: It is incredibly painful and difficult to get a PhD in a field that you aren't passionately in love with. This, along with commercial viability, really should be part of your decision.

(2) It's true that there is a lot of combinatorial research done in CS departments, but there is a huge amount of combinatorics used in mathematical research as well. Indeed, one can take pretty much any active field in math and add "combinatorial" to it: Lots of people work in combinatorial group theory, combinatorial representation theory, combinatorial algebraic geometry, etc. I'd expect, though, that it's more common for CS grads to go into industry; however, it's worth seeing if the flavor of combinatorics in current mathematical research appeals to you (cf point (1) above).

(3) The CS/Math decision isn't an either/or: You might want to look into applied mathematics. Computer science is a huge component of applied math, and people with PhDs in applied math go on to industry much more frequently than do pure math PhDs. It's not my field, so I'd highly recommend getting in touch with an applied mathematician and asking what they think. Here's a link to the the UNC applied math research group, for example; they have a very good group there, and there are a list of people on that page you could email for more information.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 11:57 AM on June 14, 2009

The NSA is the single largest employer of Math PhDs in the world. This year, out of our smallish graduate program, two of our new PhDs went to NSA, and another is still going through the background test.

In particular, NSA is all over the topics you listed -- one of the new grads that we sent to NSA was in (infinite) graph theory. Right up your alley, I would think. Also, I know that the PhD gives you a biggish pay bump up from just having a Master's.
posted by gleuschk at 12:07 PM on June 14, 2009

Also, I know that the PhD gives you a biggish pay bump up from just having a Master's.

That may be true, but will that biggish pay bump make up for the ~4 years or so that you'd be getting paid a graduate student salary rather than an industry salary at the Master's level? If money matters to you, you might look into that.
posted by pizzazz at 12:19 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: The primary purpose of getting a Ph.D. is so that one can become a professor -- that's what it trains you for. So if you're not interested in academia, in a way, getting a Ph.D. is pointless (unless the process itself or the letters after your name are appealing to you). Having said that, a Ph.D. in math can serve as a launching pad for a career in a couple of nonacademic fields, namely finance and government. If you want to be a quant or work as a mathematician for the NSA, then getting a Ph.D. in math is a good idea. However, if this is your intention, then it would be better to do your thesis on something that would be relevant to those fields. In the case of finance that would be, say, financial math or statistics. It is possible to go into finance or government having done a Ph.D. in any field of math, but it's easier if you already have the skills they seek, particularly in the case of finance (and you'll have to learn all that statistics/finance at some point anyway).

Something else to keep in mind is that getting jobs in all those fields (academia, finance, government) is not easy these days. Academia has been very competitive for a long time, but not too long ago it was relatively easy for a math Ph.D. to get a finance job. That has been changing in recent years. So you should not think of the degree as any sort of guarantee of employment.

(Full disclosure: I got a Ph.D. in math a few years ago. I'm currently in academia, but I have many friends who work in finance and government.)
posted by epimorph at 1:55 PM on June 14, 2009

That may be true, but will that biggish pay bump make up for the ~4 years or so that you'd be getting paid a graduate student salary rather than an industry salary at the Master's level? If money matters to you, you might look into that.

Whenever my math PhD student friends talk about this, they claim the answer is no. As in, if you're trying to maximize your total lifetime salary, a PhD is a bad idea: you'll never make back the amount of money you lost while being in grad school. I've never seen numbers on this either way, so I can't say for sure whether it's true, but they claim it is.

OTOH, some of them seem headed for exactly the kinds of interesting non-academic jobs you're talking about (and yes, one of them is headed NSA-ward). It's definitely more common in computer science (my department) but it does happens in math. PhD ain't just a professor degree.
posted by captainawesome at 3:51 PM on June 14, 2009

You could go into quantitative finance. It's not a requirement, but the majority of practicians in this field do hold advanced degrees, many from physics or mathematics fields. is a good place to start researching on this topic.
posted by gushn at 6:34 AM on June 15, 2009

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