Me + Math Major = Success?
April 14, 2012 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Do you have to be "inherently" good at math to successfully major in math as an undergrad?

So, I've recently decided that I'd like to pursue an Economics major.

I've heard from various professors at my school, however, that it's absolutely "in my best interest" to supplement this with a math double major (basically a prof. told me that any Econ/Finance related job or grad program would require a stronger math set than anything else).

I'm really not opposed to this idea at all; in fact, reading some of the other math related threads on here has very much encouraged me, as I see that the major can lead to an endless number of interesting careers/opportunities…

I just don't know whether or not I can handle it. I would say my aptitude for math/numbers is definitely above average—I aced my AP Calculus class in high school and I’m currently doing great in an intro stats class—but I realize that this offers no indication to how well I will do in advanced, more logic/proof based classes.

My “worst fear” here would be to get half way through the major, take some 300-level Vector Analysis class or something, hit a wall and then spend the rest of the semester wondering what the fuck I’ve gotten myself into. For scheduling/time reasons, I have zero interest in a minor in math; my approach here is all—the major—or nothing.

So metafilter: help me out here! Is a math major doable for someone who isn’t naturally gifted in math? Can I fight through, or do upper-level, proof based classes require some sort of skill-set or conceptual understanding that I just don’t have/will never have?

Thank you so much.
posted by lobbyist to Education (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Well if you did well in both Calculus and Stats I'd say you are pretty dang good at Math. I know a lot of people who are "inherently good at math" who cannot wrap their heads around statistics at ALL. So congrats on that at least.

My vote is definitely go for it. I think as long as you are willing to put in the effort (go to class every day, do ALL the homework, go to discussion sections, go to office hours, meet with the TAs, have study groups) you should be able to break through a lot of the walls you encounter.
posted by magnetsphere at 10:00 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can handle it. Period, you can. You might have to work 20 times harder than someone who is "naturally" gifted, but the other math majors aren't all geniuses and most are busting their butts, too. So what you should ask is: Do I want to put in the time? And will I enjoy it? (If you hate it, you aren't going to want to put in the time.)

And, sure, the upper-level classes probably do require skill sets/conceptual understanding: but you can gain those skill sets and concepts through lower-level classes/tutoring/whatever. No one's born knowing those concepts. And yeah, you might hit some wall in a 300-level vector analysis class and for whatever reason get a crappy grade. If that happens, take the class again, or accept and move on.

But, most importantly: you ARE capable of being a math major.
posted by namemeansgazelle at 10:04 AM on April 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

And also, graduate level econ is very math intensive so on the one hand, if the math major goes well you have a bit of confidence and on the other if you really hate math, econ probably is not for you.
posted by shothotbot at 10:07 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does your college or university have an Applied Math department? Because your self-description sounds to me more like the self-descriptions of my friends who excelled in Applied Math than my friends who excelled in Math.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:07 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

And my set of friends who excelled in Applied Math includes a couple of very well-regarded economists (at least, I hear them being interviewed on the radio constantly).
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:08 AM on April 14, 2012

Plenty of people have trouble with the "transition" course - whatever course your department has that introduces you to proof-based math. It's a big shift in thinking for nearly everyone. The way to get through it is to actually do the work, go to extra help sessions or office hours or study groups etc. A few people find that even with doing those things they still can't get it. How likely is it you'll be one of those? Unlikely I would say but there's no way to know without trying. If worse comes to worst you can usually withdraw from a class partway through the semester, or can re-take it to get a higher grade (check your school's policies).

Is there a math prof you could talk to in person about this?

Remember companies hire you based on your ability to solve problems for them, so the more practice you have in problem solving and the more tools you have, the better off you are.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:10 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

You'll be fine. At lower levels math typically means "apply appropriate tool to arrange equation in desired state." There's a strong concordance with "scan through proof toolbox to rearrange assumptions in desired state," which is mostly what upper undergrad level math is. Undergrad math will not require you to come up with a novel proof or other mysterious activities.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:11 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was basically you during undergrad. Right down to being afraid I'd get close to the end and be unable to go any farther.

If you did well in calculus and can handle that kind of thing, then you should be fine for the vaaaast majority of the remainder of undergrad math. You might have to bust your ass a bit, but quite a lot of the rest of undergrad math is like calculus, only more so.

Proofs are a totally different beast and require different skills. I had what I feel was a very rigorous set of proofs classes -- they were basically the last two classes required for my math degree and they were extremely difficult. I laughed, I cried, I went to office hours more often than I had ever been during the whole of my previous undergrad experience. But in the end, I made it through and did pretty well. I think you should be fine. Some people who struggled much more than I did emerge with a very respectable B in both of the proofs classes, and I was about average as far as skill goes for proofs.

The gist is that you might struggle with the proofs but if you're a decent problem solver they shouldn't outright prevent you from nailing down a math degree.
posted by Arethusa at 10:18 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't really have anything to worry about.

You seem to have the notion that to be good at math, you must be some kind of savant. Nope. You just have to learn the stuff. That's what the classes are for. If you find something especially difficult, drop into your instructor's office and get some extra help.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:26 AM on April 14, 2012

Sidhedevil: unforutnately, no. I go to a liberal arts school; while the department is well respected, we only have a BA program in "Math" -- not "applied" or "pure" or "math with a concentration in X." There's a shit ton of electives, however, so I'm sure I can pick and choose classes that are more "applied." Thanks for that piece of advice, though.
posted by lobbyist at 10:31 AM on April 14, 2012

The real gift is being able to answer the same question over and over again, with a smile. And sometimes they add a twist. And often that twist is actually just a typo. Good luck to you, good sir or madame. You'll need it.
posted by Yowser at 10:58 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's my two cents. (1) You do not have to be inherently talented to be a math major (although it helps). (2) You do have to be willing to put in the work. By which I mean, do all the problems, and be willing to show your steps, and actually review your notes after class and read the textbook. And start your homework early, so you can get help if necessary.

To see if a math major might be right for you, take whatever your school's Introduction to Proofs class is as soon as possible (i.e., don't wait until after you've done the entire calc sequence, and differential equations, and...). If you like it, then great! maybe you should consider a math major! The advanced math classes will be very proofy.

I would say my aptitude for math/numbers is definitely above average—I aced my AP Calculus class in high school and I’m currently doing great in an intro stats class—but I realize that this offers no indication to how well I will do in advanced, more logic/proof based classes.

So...realistically, this may or may not say anything about your math aptitude. High school AP calculus classes vary in quality (although if you got a 5 on the AP test, then that says something), and intro stats courses are often very straightforward (e.g., they're the math core requirement available to folks who can't/don't want to take calculus).

On the other hand: did you like your AP class? Did you like figuring out why things work, as opposed to just applying an algorithm? Then you might like the upper-level math courses.

You might have to bust your ass a bit, but quite a lot of the rest of undergrad math is like calculus, only more so.

This is not true, typically. After differential equations and linear algebra, much of the upper-division math courses require significant proof-writing. (e.g., real analysis, algebra, number theory, topology, combinatorics, possibly complex analysis; less so for probability and statistics and numerical analysis.)

(I Am A Math Professor.)
posted by leahwrenn at 11:02 AM on April 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

I graduated with a BS in Math despite not being "inherently" good at it, so here's my take:

If you want to do pure, theoretical math, then it really helps to be "inherently" good at math. Everyone I went to school with who succeeded with pure math seemed to have an affinity to the subject that I lacked. The skills needed to "conceptualize" the really theoretical stuff can be taught, but don't come terribly naturally to most people. I should add that the higher level pure math courses look nothing like the sort of math classes you may be familiar with. You should take the lowest level introduction to proof class to see if you enjoy this type of thing or not; many people have no idea what "pure" math consists of and the intro to proof classes will let you know if you want to do this kind of stuff or not.

On the other hand, if you want to do more "applied" math, which looks like what you're looking at, then the ability to conceptualize the higher order theoretical stuff isn't all that necessary or important (though not completely moot). This kind of stuff will feel more like an extension of the calc and stats classes you have and are currently taking. At my school, many of these classes mirrored the theoretical versions (e.g. computational linear algebra v. theoretical linear algebra, computational real analysis v. pure real analysis, etc). The skills needed to succeed in applied math compared to theoretical, pure, math are related, but I think very distinct, and I think the former are more readily taught.

I'll also add that, at least for me, how well I did in AP Calc and some of the more computational classes was not a great predictor of how well I did in the theoretical maths. I did very well on the AP Calc exam and very well in the other calculus classes, but struggled when I made the jump to pure maths. But, the jump from differential equations to number theory is a HUGE one and can be a real shocker if you're not ready for it.

That being said, my biggest regret in college is not dual majoring in economics and math. YMMV
posted by Geppp at 11:15 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Math major. Are you a native English speaker? How are your writing skills, can you write a logical argument in a paper? If you are, this will help you enormously.

Also, do you like the idea of doing formal logic in a philosophy course? This is a good natural language based supplement to training in mathematics.

I can't emphasize enough the benefits of study groups and office hours. If you are disciplined, start your homework early, and visit your prof if you run into trouble before the assignment is due, you're golden.

Go for it.
posted by crazycanuck at 11:43 AM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you aren't interested in Econ grad school and you aren't interested in true Quant Finance (which it sounds like you aren't) then really being a Math major is going to be overkill for a finance job (if that's what you are aiming towards) - taking real Econ - i.e. Calc based is probably a plus - tho given what your prof said it sounds like thats the default program at your school. If you are really thinking about this from a job perspective its far better to be an Econ grad with a 3.8 then a Math/Econ double major with a 3.4. Also you might find that you are 3/4 of the way to at least a math minor if you take all the pre-reqs for the cool math classes.

That said if you think math is cool, do it. I think making decisions about college majors predicated on some future job search is bad idea.
posted by JPD at 12:19 PM on April 14, 2012

cool math econ classes
posted by JPD at 12:20 PM on April 14, 2012

Also, do you like the idea of doing formal logic in a philosophy course? This is a good natural language based supplement to training in mathematics.

Took the words right out of my mouth. I was lucky to get a really good introduction to logic course from the philosophy department at my school before it even dawned on me to major in math, and when I got into the upper level courses, it served as an absolutely perfect framework for re-stating problems requiring proofs, and working through them.

An introduction to computer programming course would also serve you well.

This is the book we used in my Introduction to Mathematical Reasoning course. I recommend it highly, if you're looking to get a feel for the type of stuff you'd be into once things transition from computations and applications to proofs.

I vote for doing the major. I had doubts, too.

Also: taking multiple math courses at once produced a synergistic effect for me.
posted by alphanerd at 12:23 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree that a lot of undergrad majors aren't make-or-break things for your future career prospects, but a math major is pretty universally respected as a badge of someone who is hardcore.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:27 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you aced AP Calculus in high school, then you'll probably be able to handle most of the calculus/linear algebra/stats/differential equations courses -- that's all following rules, keeping track of fiddly bits, and interpreting data. The proof based courses, however, are a very different thing altogether. I'd suggest working your way up to the first proof writing course and see how that works out for you, assuming it won't take too long to get there.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 12:54 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was always a good but not exceptional math student before I started my undergrad work as a pure math major. I would say I was consistently in the top half of the class, and classmates of mine who got worse marks than I did are in PhD programs now, but the curve for math majors has extremely high standard deviation. I found it very humbling to be a math major. Yeah, there were definitely lots of people who got even less of it than I did, but there were always a few people who'd ace every exam. See e.g. this course website for UCSD's modern algebra series, where the professor posts all the scores people got on exams. Yes, you are reading that correctly: two students in the same course took the same 150-point final. One of them got 148 points, and one got 9. That was life as a math major.

I would say that if you aren't freaking amazing at math, it's a great second major to have, alongside something you are good at. I'd come out of writing a compiler from scratch feeling good, and go to my math classes to be reminded that I wasn't so smart after all.
posted by troublesome at 3:36 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Math professor here. Your question is something that we always feel bad to hear. Because from our point of view, the problem is that too many people wrongly think they have to be a savant, or have some kind of inherent gift, to major in math! Maybe that's true if what you want to be in life is a research math professor (though even here I have my doubts.) But we don't want only the future professors to major in math! We want there to be hedge fund managers and economists and lawyers and doctors and Senators who majored in math because we think that would make the world better. And that means that the math major is not intended only for the "naturally gifted."

What you need to major in math is interest in math and motivation to do math. You plainly have both.
posted by escabeche at 5:44 PM on April 14, 2012

Thank you all so very much -- this has helped me enormously. I've been pretty sure for a while now that a math double major is absolutely what I want; I just needed a few outside opinions for an extra sense of "security."

I have registered for both Calculus II and Elementary Linear Algebra next semester, and I'll be able to take "Intro to the Mathematical Proof" next Spring. Thanks again -- really. I feel that I can stop worrying about this decision now, and start to really get excited for my new major.
posted by lobbyist at 6:44 PM on April 14, 2012

I did a Math undergrad. While my natural gifts aren't particularly mean, I didn't ace my high school calculus class and didn't *really* get calculus until most of the way through my freshman year (thanks to two really great honors calc courses/teachers). My experience with my math coursework was that the material generally came to me when I was willing to do the work, and when I didn't, while I could sometimes muddle through, it was easy to end up over my head rather quickly. This was also what I observed in most of my classmates -- though there were a few who had some advantage that seemed to make things easier for them.

I'd originally planned to be an engineer, but noted that a math minor was practically free as an engineer if I just took an extra course or two. One of those ended up being the more mathematically rigorous linear algebra courses, and it opened my eyes to mathematics as the study of generalized pattern and structure rather than just number/equation/modeling. It's a great field that prepares you to think about a wide variety of problems in a studied and powerful way.

Econ+math sounds like a lovely combo (econ is one of the majors I didn't know I was looking for as an undergrad). You'd learn some good applied math in any analytically rigorous econ program, and adding an education at the higher level of abstraction that a good math program is likely to give you will give you an appreciation for when/why you're likely to get good results out of the applied tools. It'll help prepare you for econ grad work if you do that. It will probably stretch your mind a bit, but that's probably what you're going to school for in the first place. And like troublesome said, it can also be a bit humbling, which more economists could probably use. :)

I'd recommend starting with the route that I took: do a math minor first -- I'm envisioning something that will give you an introduction to proofs/logic, linear algebra, abstract algebra, vector calc, and maybe an introductory discrete math class. If when you've done most of that you're still interested (or better yet, fascinated), that's a good sign. You'll still probably run into a wall at some point and wonder what you've gotten yourself into, but that won't make you a whole lot different from most of us. :)
posted by weston at 6:46 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had two roommates in college who WERE naturally good at math and signed up as math majors freshman year. Both flunked out of the math major. I'm not sure "natural" talent always pays off. If you like what you're doing and keep plugging away at it, that may be better than natural ability.

Since you don't really want to be doing it per se, I'd say to try out a few classes (is it offered as a minor?) and see if you can stand it or not first, though.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:20 PM on April 14, 2012

A math major is doable; a graduate degree, from my experience, requires extraordinary talent or a tremendous interest in all mathematics and willingness to sacrifice most other things in your life for several years. Best wishes to you.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 10:40 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I like Terence Tao's post Does one have to be a genius to do maths? (Answer: no.)
posted by katrielalex at 5:33 AM on April 15, 2012

I'm currently a grad student in math and was a math major. AP Calculus and stats are probably poor indicators of future success in a math major. I waltzed through AP Caclulus, got a 5 and basically had no clue what the fuck any of it was about, but was good at manipulating equations. I was appalling at all problem-solving competitions in school. (This is not quite true--I was pretty good at the oral competition for math team, but it was more like 'real' math and less outright problem-solving tricks.)

For the most part, the sort of people who are good at problem-solving competitions are good at math. For those of us who aren't, some are and some aren't good at math. Keep in mind that the typical Putnam score is 0. The people you're thinking of as 'naturally gifted at math' are the the ones who get scores other than 0. But the 70+% of us who get zero (keeping in mind this is among a group of self-selecting (mostly) math majors) manage perfectly fine as math majors.

For whatever reason, a good number of the people I did homework with as an undergrad were econ people. They uniformly would have made good math majors. Odds are, if your professors are pushing you towards higher level math, they see you as a good econ person. People who are serious about and good at economics maybe wouldn't be destined to be brilliant mathematicians (not all of them anyway), but they'd make perfectly decent math majors. (Econ grad students turn up in first year graduate real analysis classes all the time and do perfectly fine.)

All this is not to say that you won't run into people who make you feel completely stupid. I knew a guy as an undergrad who we all wanted to be able to hate because he was so much better than us, but he was the nicest guy ever. And sometimes they're maybe not better than you, but make you feel that way anyway. I have a friend that I work really well with, probably because we're good at different things, but I still can feel like an idiot when I fall for whatever little trick problem he's dreamed up or found on the internet.
posted by hoyland at 11:41 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

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