Need math info interviews
November 20, 2012 5:52 AM   Subscribe

I am interested in becoming a mathematician! I want to do some info interviews to figure out what that actually means for my daily life and future prospects. How do I get started?

Thanks to Ask MeFi, I've learned that information interviews are a thing. I would like to spend some time talking to a few people with a M.S/M.A. in mathematics to see where they work, what doors their education opened for them, what skills I should try to pick up if I do earn another degree, or if there are any shortcuts to getting there. (To be clear, I already have a B.S. in a related field.)

I am, however, a little uncertain of how to find people to interview. My only idea so far has been to contact the math department at a local university and ask for alumni references. Are there any better ways of reaching relevant people who would be willing to be interviewed? I'm at the beginning stages of this research, so I don't have much of a clue as far as what specific job descriptions I'm looking for; hence, my milquetoastishness. Thanks!
posted by deathpanels to Education (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Try and mathoverflow
posted by empath at 5:54 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

The NSA hires a lot of mathematicians. Not entirely sure how easy it would be to get in touch with anyone there, though.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:17 AM on November 20, 2012

The NSA hires a lot of mathematicians. Not entirely sure how easy it would be to get in touch with anyone there, though.

Yes, cold calling an NSA employee and telling him or her you'd like to speak with them about their work will raise a red flag. However, the NSA hires a lot of people, and college recruiters and hiring managers from the NSA would be more than happy to speak with you. In fact, if you have the right qualifications, you could probably get a job with them now and they would pay for you to get an M.S. in math.

Have you thought about contacting your own university and looking up alumni who graduated in math and seeing what they are up to?
posted by deanc at 6:24 AM on November 20, 2012

Husbunny has an MS in Mathematics, but found that he didn't want to do the academic/research thing. So he went back to school and got some Actuarial Science classes under his belt. Now he's an actuary and loving life.

If you like math and you like the idea of making some serious dough, check out Actuarial Science.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:37 AM on November 20, 2012

Or does your old university have a careers advice service you can still access? They might be able to help.
posted by Segundus at 6:37 AM on November 20, 2012

I might also add that "being a mathematician" covers a certain specific set of jobs-- mathematics researchers and professors. It sounds like your job goal is, "I want to get a job with a graduate degree in math!" That is a whole other set of things and covers a really wide range of jobs that you can find by googling for "what can I do with a degree in math?"
posted by deanc at 6:43 AM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

hey. I'm a Ph.D. carrying mathematician.

1) from the perspective of academic mathematicians, an MS in mathematics doesn't mean a lot. for those on the Ph.D. track it basically says you bailed on the program i.e. dropped out or were pushed. I know there seem to be masters programs for people in careers that are usually focused on special or applied topics but they are generally tied to a specific career track and people going into it tend to a specific job skills already.

2) I am totally unemployed.

3) Generally speaking, if you do statistics, you can write your own ticket. Actuarial science is a trade: it's something not so many people want to do so there are always jobs. Are you a programmer anyway: being a mathematician gives you a leg up. Focusing on applied topics makes you useful. Otherwise it's a bit like having an MFA except everyone thinks you are a genius and/or weird.

Basically, if you aren't on a specific career path there isn't a direct line from "mathematics" to some job. For just about anything technical, having a background in math is a plus but you aren't going to get a technical knowledge in a math program unless it's something like statistics or you seek out a specific applied topic.

Also, don't work for the NSA, they spy on people for the government. Would you do that to your neighbors?

(also, math colloqium tend to be fairly open affairs, pick a local university, look at their big talk schedule, go to a few talks and talk to the grad students there... it may feel weird but it won't be so bad and it's not entirely unheard of)
posted by at 6:48 AM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Well, there is a difference between "pure mathematics" which is mainly an academic route (meaning a Ph.D. is almost essential) and "applied/industrial mathematics" which can be academic but also has usefulness in industry. I would say most employed mathematicians with only a masters degree will be employed in industry doing some form of applied mathematics (some may be teaching at community colleges or prep schools, but, increasingly, those jobs are going to Ph.Ds). They may have gotten their degrees in math or applied math. I think asking the local math department for alumni references is a great idea. You can also try contacting a SIAM section nearish you to see if they have members close by to you who would be willing to chat.
posted by bluefly at 7:26 AM on November 20, 2012

Rather than asking the math department for referrals, why not talk to the professors there directly? My spouse is a math professor, and spends lots of time talking with undergraduates about just these issues -- what fields exist, what they are prepared for or would need more education for, what on-the-job skills can't be trained for, etc. If you can time your request for a non-crazed time of year (e.g., the beginning of a semester), one or more of them would probably be willing to find you an hour for some brainstorming like that -- at least, they might help you translate your vague interest into some vocabulary for further exploration, or name some fields that match...

Good luck!
posted by acm at 7:34 AM on November 20, 2012

A certain well-known MeFite (who will probably pop in here sooner or later) is not only a fine academic mathematician but a darn cool guy. He's also done some pretty fun things with his mad math skillz, including writing a column for Slate, serving as a consultant on Numb3rs and writing an upcoming book which I think should sell trillions of copies even if he is not quite so sure.

So yeah. You should talk to him.
posted by Madamina at 7:56 AM on November 20, 2012

You should MeMail me and madcaptenor. And you should learn to program. My experience has been that programming is what I actually do, but math gives me some good perspective on approaches and makes people take me more seriously. (PhD in Applied Math, almost wish I hadn't bothered and had just kept collecting masters degrees instead.)
posted by ansate at 8:06 AM on November 20, 2012

Read the FAQ section at the back of "Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction" by Timothy Gowers, which covers academic mathematics as a career.
posted by caek at 8:57 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're new to the concept of informational interviewing, I'd recommend checking out What Color is Your Parachute?. There is an associated website that might be useful too. It'll give you a lot of guidance on how to find and approach people and what to ask.

The short version: It's networking, starting with people you know, asking them about people they know, and so on until you get introductions to relevant people. These days I suppose LinkedIn et al might help.

You did a somewhat relevant degree, so your old college friends and professors might be one place to start.

For this thread you might want to expand on what you mean by "becoming a mathematician", "relevant degree", etc. It's mostly only people in academia that actually refer to themselves as mathematicans, but there are lot of professions where people use some kind of math day to day if that's what you have in mind.
posted by philipy at 9:01 AM on November 20, 2012

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