Careers for Pure Mathematicians
May 17, 2010 10:02 AM   Subscribe

What are you, as a graduate of pure mathematics, doing?

Next year will be my final year of studying pure mathematics. I have been thinking of going into research, but I would like to consider other options. My university's mathematics department isn't particularly involved in helping people with career options, and this is even truer for pure maths students.

I studied computer science along with maths for my first two years. I did a traineeship in programming in the summer after my first year, and realised that it isn't what I want to do as a career. I am still very interested in the theory of computer science. My knowledge of statistics is not great, and I'm not interested in entering a field which requires it.

I don't really know what pure mathematicians do in the universe of jobs in the real world. That is, outside of research. I am hoping that I can have a few suggestions and anecdotes of companies looking for pure mathematicians, what they have used pure mathematicians for, and what skills learnt in studying pure mathematics were used in the job. Thanks in advance.
posted by jpcooper to Work & Money (28 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This may not be a helpful answer, but it is a true, literal answer: I have an undergraduate math degree. I am a tax lawyer.

Anyway, there's tons of stuff you can do, depending somewhat on the content of your math education, and you just have to see what you're interested in. Your department should have some resources, like notices from potential employers and lists of where past graduates are employed.
posted by grobstein at 10:08 AM on May 17, 2010

Finance is one possibility.
posted by dfriedman at 10:10 AM on May 17, 2010

Yeah, I focused on algebraic geom.-based stuff (curves on a surface). Now I'm in law school, this summer working for a prof on civil procedure. So count me in with grobstein as true but probably not helpful.

I would disagree with dfriedman's suggestion of finance if you're sure that you don't want to involve stats. But I'm not really sure what to suggest.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:19 AM on May 17, 2010

I do not have a pure math degree. I have a friend who has a PhD in the field. He's a software developer at Google.
posted by GuyZero at 10:19 AM on May 17, 2010

Best answer: My BS was in pure math (PDE theory) not so long ago. Honestly, I think basically none of the people in my year who didn't go to grad school are still doing things I would call "pure math."

I'm now an applied physicist; many of my classmates are working for Google; several leveraged their CS skills into positions with US defense contractors; some were in finance, but most of those fled or were let go during the credit crisis. A couple are in interdisciplinary projects doing modeling of biological systems. Some are in more CS-oriented positions doing AI or network/queueing/information/clustering theory type things (but again, that's usually as PhD research).

My mother was also a pure mathematician -- she was in academia, but she said her colleagues spoke highly of the NSA as an employer (basically to the tune of "Well, I can't talk about what I did, but it was the best job I ever had."). Since you say "maths" I'm guessing you're not in the US, so the NSA itself is probably not an option for you, but your government may have a similar body.
posted by dorque at 10:23 AM on May 17, 2010

Finance is a broad area. A lot of it does use statistics and probability. A lot of it uses rather elementary math.

If you're a great computer programmer and you have a math background there's a role in finance for you if you want it. You can easily find roles that don't require Phd-level statistics.
posted by dfriedman at 10:25 AM on May 17, 2010

My first "real" job out after getting my math degree was as a Trajectory software developer for NASA. I did a stint as a geophysical data processor for a few months before that. In college I worked in a research lab processing GPS data back when GPS receivers were the size of suitcases.

The common thread -- analysis of time series data. One avenue would be to look where there are large amounts of time series data that someone must make sense of.

But it would help to have some software development skills. Do you?
posted by cross_impact at 10:29 AM on May 17, 2010

I'm a research mathematician. Other friends of mine with BAs in math: one is a bigshot at DE Shaw, many others are in finance in other capacities. Some work for the NSA (the UK equivalent of which also employs lots of mathematicians.) One took the actuarial exams and is now a consultant for the insurance industry, and is very happy.
posted by escabeche at 10:44 AM on May 17, 2010

See also What did YOU do with a math education?.
posted by inigo2 at 10:47 AM on May 17, 2010

I'm now in math grad school, working on my PhD. I have known a lot of people who have gone on to work in finance. I don't think a lot of statistics knowledge is necessary for that, although I'm not completely sure. Programming knowledge is certainly helpful. Our grad student mass-email list gets a lot of recruitment emails from big finance companies.
posted by number9dream at 10:47 AM on May 17, 2010

I have two dear friends who graduated with pure math. They are both teachers.

I many more friends who graduated with math+CS they are all software developers of some stripe. They make literally 150-300% more than their teacher counterparts.

Happiness however does not seem to be correlated.
posted by French Fry at 10:48 AM on May 17, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the replies. I would consider working in finance, and I do have programming experience, but I don't want to do programming as my main job. In light of my criteria, if I worked in finance, what kinds of things could I do?
posted by jpcooper at 10:57 AM on May 17, 2010

Best answer: Regarding finance, I would start by looking here:

Now, Paul Wilmott is a quantitative finance guy, and does a lot of work with statistics, but it's not exclusively statistics. I'd read through that site, make note of the topics that interest you, and make note of the various banks/funds that are mentioned.

But understand that finance is about results; if you want to stay on the pure side of math, and not use it as a practical tool you'll likely find yourself frustrated with finance. Maybe getting a PhD in finance and staying in academia is a possibilty.
posted by dfriedman at 11:13 AM on May 17, 2010

Best answer: I know six pure maths graduates: three PhD's and three Masterses...eses. Whatever.
  • Two work for DARPA, the dreaded military-industrial complex that recruits many top math and science people. One got there via Northrop, same deal, the other right out of school.
  • One took a teaching position specifically because the only good offers he got came from that industry.
  • Another never left academia, is an adjunct professor now, and probably never will leave.
  • One works for an insurance firm as some kind of wizard actuary doing things I do not understand.
  • And the last one has the coolest job in the universe, working for a major league baseball team devising new secret statistical analysis techniques. I won't say which team because that would totally out him; it's a small club. :)
Maybe there is a helpful idea in there for you somewhere. Best of luck!
posted by rokusan at 11:26 AM on May 17, 2010

Best answer: My sister graduated with honours in pure maths in Australia in 2006 (ish?). She works at a hedge fund in Melbourne creating models of the stock market for their programmers to build. She had to do rotations through the trading areas of the firm so she knew how everything worked, and is looking at taking some graduate classes in artificial intelligence but has no programming background.

Memail me if you'd like to hear more, I probably gave a terrible interpretation of what she actually does :)
posted by jacalata at 11:36 AM on May 17, 2010

I'm sure that GCHQ, like NSA in the US, is always keen on hiring mathematicians.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 11:47 AM on May 17, 2010

My trajectory went BS Mathematics -> 3.5 years as a programmer, quit went to grad school -> MS Applied Mathematics & grad school job at computer helpdesk -> Systems Administrator.
posted by fings at 11:49 AM on May 17, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all. I have a much better idea of my options now.
posted by jpcooper at 12:09 PM on May 17, 2010

n'thing the actuary thing.

I'm not an actuary. But I will soon marry one (like you, degree in pure math, minor in CS). She finds actuarial consulting incredibly rewarding, and indeed, the profession consistently ranks at the top of job satisfaction lists. And the money is great.

She spends her days writing models (SAS, SQL, VB) to analyze massive data sets from huge insurance. (This is my rudimentary understanding.)
posted by kables at 12:38 PM on May 17, 2010

Group theory and combinatorics here.

I'm a computer programmer.
posted by ged at 1:19 PM on May 17, 2010

I just got my PhD in math. (No, literally, just now: I just got home from graduation.) I am going to be teaching college-level statistics. I'm mentioning this because it seems like it might be possible to get a job as a statistician with a degree in math, especially if you took some statistics courses.

A lot of people who left my PhD program at various points along the way work in finance now. Well, at least they did before the crash; things may have changed.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:16 PM on May 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I just graduated with my BS in math also, but I've decided to go to law school. A recent friend of mine who's also graduated with his BS in math took the LSAT sometime last year and did really well on it. He's now going to law school next fall. He described law as "math, but with words. You have axioms (the constitution [in the case of the US]) and theorems (laws). Then you make arguments based on the axioms and previously proved theorems".

So basically, I decided that as much as I love math (and believe me, I love math), I would find a much more rewarding career if I went to law school instead of continued mathing.

But I guess this is an atypical case, so YMMV.
posted by Geppp at 4:28 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might spend some time with the MAA ( and SIAM ( websites---they both have good career pages. (both US organizations, but should have some general info. )

Personally, what I do with a pure math degree is teaching and research---which is a great job if you can get it ---but it sounded like you were interested in jobs in industry
posted by leahwrenn at 4:48 PM on May 17, 2010

I'm another math-to-law person; I have a BA in pure math, and am in law school.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:53 PM on May 17, 2010

+1 math to software. I started out writing documentation for software developers. Later, I transitioned into a PM role in the software industry, which is what I do now.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:29 PM on May 17, 2010

B.S. Math, impure, with heavy emphasis on statistics
1. brief stint in grad school in statistics
2. a few boring years as an actuary / a few years as a boring actuary
3. law school (math majors are purported to do well in law school; not my case)
4. intellectual property / software patent attorney

Just beware that you will have to jump through extra hoops to sit for the U.S. patent bar, as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office requires significant science (non-math) coursework for those having a B.A. or B.S. in mathematics.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 12:31 AM on May 18, 2010

B.S. in Pure Mathematics because my school didn't offer a specialization path.

I got a job with U.S. government as a claims analyst right out-of-school. My position has nothing to do with math, but I was able to get it based on my grades (GPA had to be > 3.0) and resume ofcourse.

Another Math friend from college got a job as a Database Marketing Analyst (she did however, have a business minor).

In my experience out-of-school, employers are either REALLY impressed with the analytical skills of math majors or find math majors to be nothing to write home about.
posted by VT@MU at 4:39 PM on May 18, 2010

Based on my readings, the highest paying career for a mathematician is in actuary and insurance. Insurance companies are employing mathematicians and statisticians to come up with the probabilities and risk assessments.

However if you like pure and cutting edge mathematics research you are better advised to get employment in the academe.

So it boils down to your priorities, likes and dislikes.
posted by JohnD at 11:48 PM on May 29, 2010

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