Never been near a university, never took a paper or a learned degree.
January 22, 2011 6:00 PM   Subscribe

Why should I study math?

I have a BA in cognitive science and work for a research center at a university. For reasons that feel silly now, I never took more than the required minimum of math and stats in undergrad.

To correct this oversight, I've been taking courses in these subjects in my spare time. I discovered, to my surprise, that I enjoy (undergraduate) math and can do well in it. I started with sophomore-level introductory courses in linear algebra, multivariate calculus, and differential equations, and have, over the course of several semesters, worked my way up to proof-based, upper-division undergrad courses.

I've also been taking classes in applied stats at the university's graduate school of education. They are much less rigorous, but more practical.

Between math, stats, and various odds and ends, I've accumulated 36 credits in post-bac coursework, so far getting straight A's.

The question is, what now? I don't really want to join the applied stats program here. If I keep taking courses in math, I can finish the undergraduate requirements for the major in another 2-3 semesters. Would I make a credible applicant to a master's program in mathematical stats or applied math?

My original plan was to join a PhD program in one of the cognitive sciences, but I'm rather disgusted by the proportion of researchers in these disciplines whose quantitative preparation is scant or nonexistent. I don't want to waste my BA preparation, but at the same time I am intrigued by my developing interests and abilities. Maybe I can combine the two somehow?

Bonus question: I may sooner or later lose tuition remission benefits. I can't really afford to pay for part-time undergraduate tuition out of pocket. Would I have any way to complete the undergrad math curriculum? (No, community college does not offer fourth-year math.)
posted by Nomyte to Education (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
What is your long term plan? Why get a math MA?

Fwiw, there are probably more quant-heavy programs out there.
posted by k8t at 6:19 PM on January 22, 2011

Best answer: Cognitive science is all over the place, and it gets very mathy indeed. Have a look at my friend Josh Tenenbaum's lab at MIT. Now not everybody's going to get into MIT's PhD program. But if you look up Josh's former grad students and collaborators, and see where they are now, you'll have a nice list of potential advisors who could guide you through a very math-oriented PhD in cognitive science.

On the other hand, if you're intereted in moving away from brains and doing graduate work in applied math, but related to what you've already studied, you might want to look into people who research "machine learning." This happens in applied math, CS, statistics, and electrical engineering departments. For instance, here's a good guide to what's going on in machine learning here at UW-Madison.
posted by escabeche at 6:54 PM on January 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: escabeche: So that's the question. I would imagine that people come to machine learning, formal language theory, and other math-heavy areas of cognitive science and linguistics from backgrounds in… computer science and math. Heck, a lot of the graduate students at my alma mater came from physics. I imagine that my approach — taking a patchwork quilt of classes as a post-bac student — is untraditional to say the least. Do I have a shot at programs like the ones you mention?
posted by Nomyte at 7:04 PM on January 22, 2011

He that gives a portion of his time and talent to the investigation of mathematical truth will come to all other questions with a decided advantage.
      - Charles Caleb Colton
posted by neuron at 7:39 PM on January 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm definitely seconding escabeche. I work in the area he points out, and it's extremely mathy and quantitative. It sounds to me like your background would set you up well for this work. Most people who go into it come in from other directions, often taking very circuitous routes. Some from physics, some from math, some from computer science... but there are also some who came from cognitive science or linguistics, and (like you) got a lot of additional math/CS "on the side" before entering the area. That works just as well, and the extra breadth and depth of cogsci-specific knowledge can sometimes be a real advantage.

I really love this area; it's the perfect balance of something that is highly quantitative and rigorous, but focuses on applied, interesting problems. Sounds to me like you might be a great fit.

Memail me if you want to talk further. I know a lot of the specific people in the field and can give you pointers more specific for your situation, but I don't want to sacrifice my anonymity (such as it is) or be saying a lot about known individuals on a public board like this.
posted by forza at 7:45 PM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would imagine that people come to machine learning, formal language theory, and other math-heavy areas of cognitive science and linguistics from backgrounds in… computer science and math.

The cognitive science department that I'm in is very math-oriented, and the backgrounds of our students vary widely. I would in fact say most of them don't come from a math or computer science background. You can memail me if you want to know more.
posted by advil at 8:13 PM on January 22, 2011

I would recommend against any post-grad degrees unless you have a clear career path in mind. This is a huge expense. Get your financial plan for retirement in order, then go back for the love it.
posted by Flood at 8:47 PM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

People have already made this point, but I'll chime in to reiterate. I have a few friends who work in cognitive neuroscience. They do fascinating research that requires a team who knows psychology, neurobiology, computer science, mathematics/statistics, and computer engineering. They're doing amazing stuff like making devices that will allow people with locked-in syndrome to communicate, so their work takes them into all of those different topics. Of course, none of them know ALL of this stuff, but it's vital to their success that they have people to cover each subject. Best to know two or three of them!

As you might imagine, people who have combinations of skills like that are neither easy to find, nor do they come from especially traditional paths. It sounds like you might have been looking for the wrong sort of program, because rest assured people with the math and stats skills you're learning are really needed in cutting edge cognitive neuroscience.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:31 PM on January 22, 2011

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