Career advice for math major (also competent programmer)?
November 25, 2013 2:23 AM   Subscribe

I like math. Programming is OK, but I don't want to make it my thing. What careers should I be looking at? (Special snowflake details inside.)

I'm in my second year of college, majoring in Computer Science and Mathematics (and maybe Statistics). For the last year or so, I've been focusing on computer science and done a couple of software engineering internships. I've found that it isn't really for me. On the other hand, I've taken a couple of upper division courses in both (pure) math and statistics, and they were significantly enjoyable than my (non-theory) CS classes.

This puts me in a bit of a dilemma, though. Say I get out of school with a degree in CS and math -- for kicks, let's say I can do really well in my math classes and end up getting a PhD in math. (Replace math with statistics, maybe.) What's next for the young mathematician/statistician? I can't see myself not doing math or statistics in some form, and I want to do something good for the world (or at least do something neutral yet enjoyable -- it's probably not realistic to expect that I'll make much of an impact). I've looked into a few options, but I'd like more suggestions.

* Technology (software engineering/IT/QA/etc.): I don't particularly enjoy working with computers, though I'm not averse to it, either. The "data science" jobs that involve more statistics-like work tend to have descriptions that suggest that the job is to help the company sell more ads, which isn't very fulfilling. (Plus, I wouldn't be surprised if the "big data" craze is over by the time I graduate.) The best option in this area would be to work in R&D a la Google/Microsoft Research, but I get the feeling that the odds are not promising if I end up being a decent mathematician/statistician as opposed to a really good one.
* Other science/engineering fields: Out of the other engineering fields, the couple of things that have caught my interest are signal processing and bioinformatics. I'm not sure what kinds of careers there are in those fields, especially for someone with a background in math/stats rather than EE or biology, and I'd like to know.
* Actuarial science: It sounds about as dull as programming.
* Finance: Not interested, both because it doesn't sound too interesting and because I'm not a fan of what the financial industry is doing.
* NSA: Not interested. See recent events.
* Academia (mainly research): This sounds good, but again, the odds seem to be not so good if I end up being decent but not great at what I do. (The pay's not so great either, but that's less of a concern.)
* Government labs (e.g. LANL, LBNL): See previous entry.

The problem is that the jobs that I think are most likely to be interesting and/or fulfilling to me are also statistically the least attainable ones. Even if I should believe that I'll end up being good enough for those jobs, it's a bad idea not to have some backup plans in mind. Could you guys help me come up with other careers/fields I should look into?

(Of course, it's possible that I'm just acting entitled and should be lucky that I have the privilege of being able to but deciding not to work in fields in which the average person tends to make a decent amount of money. It's also possible that I'm just outright rejecting options I don't have experience with just because they don't sound interesting. That being said, I would rather do fulfilling work that I enjoy than not, because it seems like a safe assumption that I'll spend at least 40 hours of my week on my job. Or do I just need to change my perspective so that instead of trying to find enjoyable and fulfilling work, I should try to make myself feel better about my work?)
posted by sqrtofpi to Work & Money (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I want to do something good

Study to become a high school math teacher.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:50 AM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a friend with a BS in math who has done statistical analysis for a state Department of Natural Resources for 15 years. She loves doing math, she likes doing in an applied fashion, and she likes the people she works with. The job market has of course crashed down on our heads since she got hired, but I think that there are still many government agencies that need statistical analysts.

Also, if you are drawn to bioinformatics or another related science field that uses a lot of math, there is no reason you couldn't get a master's in that field with a BS in math.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:32 AM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I want to do something good

Radiation Oncology is one of the few (only?) fields of medicine that uses math regularly.

The odds of having a successful career at a government lab are much higher than in academia, by the way, so I wouldn't discount that as an option.
posted by deanc at 4:34 AM on November 25, 2013

You sound a lot like me, I did a physics degree and didn't want to go down any of the career paths you've listed above, because they sounded boring and/or immoral to me. The two careers that I didn't find off-putting have both been mentioned above: Teaching and Medical Physics.

I've just started training in medical physics, and there's a girl doing it with me who comes from a pure maths background. She did a masters in medical physics after her undergrad, so you could probably do the same if you're interested.

If you want any details feel free to me-mail, though I'm in the UK so I don't know how applicable any advice will be.
posted by Ned G at 5:09 AM on November 25, 2013

Husbunny is an actuary. He was an RN for 10 years and burned out on it. Now he sits in a cube all day and does really high level math. He's in heaven.

The work is low stress (expecially compared with nursing) and he loves the part where 1/4 of his career time is spent studying.

I'd recommend interning. Start looking for a placement now. See if it's an environment you can dig. It may surprise you. Depending on what your interests are, you can do casualty, health, life, pensions, etc. There are also esoteric fields, like waranties.

This is WHY you do internships, to discover the paths you might like to take and to see if these directions are interesting to you.

Another thing is to merge health, math and stats, and go for a federal government job. Here's an internship in Dallas that looks interesting. It's more law related, but there are LOTS of internships with the government, and once you get your foot in that door....HOO!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:23 AM on November 25, 2013

I've just started training in medical physics, and there's a girl doing it with me who comes from a pure maths background. She did a masters in medical physics after her undergrad, so you could probably do the same if you're interested.

It's not too late to take a first year intro mechanics or E&M physics major course and figure out if you have a taste for the discipline. (Try to not do intro physics for engineers/premed/liberal arts - there's a different feel to it - a big room packed full of people who don't really care about it.)

the couple of things that have caught my interest are signal processing and bioinformatics. I'm not sure what kinds of careers there are in those fields, especially for someone with a background in math/stats rather than EE or biology, and I'd like to know.

Talk to profs!!! As long as it's not right before term starts or right before exams they'll love to talk to you about this stuff.

You're in your second year, it's probably not too late to violently veer into another major - math/physics, math/biosomething, etc. It will mean a bit of fuss and drama with administrative gatekeepers, but that's a lot better that sleepwalking through a compsci program you're lukewarm about.
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:42 AM on November 25, 2013

Have you considered the ever nebulous big data? Machine Learning, Vector Machines, a wide assortment of language processing and qualifying data has started to make the intersection of Graph Theory and Statistics a pretty hot spot in the land of marketing and segmentation. Think of all the smart phone data, the linkedin data, facebook data, the sites you visit, the friends you have and maintain... all of these things are helping companies figure out how best to reach you by reaching people similar to you.

Throw a little macro and micro econ on the back of an advanced Math/CS degree and pretty much companies will be looking to you to write the way they collect data.

I dig your moral arguments about the NSA. Understand though, there are very few jobs where one can be self aware and not compromise some aspect of their morals. The point is to sometimes make the most out of something. Personally, I think about helping companies target specific folks as "I'm not wasting other people's time". Well, that's how I rationalize macroeconomic market research. More importantly, my company pays the bills and gives me a degree of freedom such that I can give back to the community. Carbon offsetting : companies :: specific moral offsetting : individuals.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:01 AM on November 25, 2013

How would you feel about an applying math/statistics to epidemiology or operations research in public policy?
posted by tinymegalo at 7:03 AM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Look into Biostatistics. This is statistics applied to medicine and public health problems, and is a methodological discipline in its own right. It's a discipline that's been around for a long time and departments are usually housed in a university's School of Public Health. There are interesting problems, interesting work, and you could find a home in gov't, academia, or industry.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 7:47 AM on November 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

The problem is that the jobs that I think are most likely to be interesting and/or fulfilling to me are also statistically the least attainable ones.

Um, which jobs are those? You come across as, at best, mildly interested in anything you mention.

That aside, a few thoughts:

First DO NOT go to grad school until you have a damn good idea of why you are going to grad school. Putting off life decisions is not a good reason to go to grad school.

Yeah, the big data craze may be over by the time you graduate, but even if it is, so what? The days where you can get a job merely by knowing how to pronounce "Hadoop" are probably all ready behind us, but work that requires being competent at programming, math, and stats is still going to be in demand going.

You mention a bunch of things that sound interesting, but that you don't know much about. You are at or near a university? Go find people doing some of those things and talk to them about it. Part of what I do to make a living is talk to people about what they do so I can help figure out what could help them do their jobs better. You can learn a lot with a few one hour conversations.

On that note, see if you can take a human centered design class as part of your studies, make sure it is a project-based class. It'll help you develop skills that are useful in "making a difference."
posted by Good Brain at 9:13 AM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Given what you've mentioned, you may want to still consider an academic career, but one that's more focused on teaching than on research. There are lots of good small-to-medium sized private liberal arts colleges where your career would involve mostly teaching and less research. This would require getting a Ph.D. in math (or a related field) but you wouldn't have to worry about having a world-class research record after that.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 9:15 AM on November 25, 2013

Have you considered summer REUs? These are NSF-funded summer programs for undergrads, designed to give students a short, focused research experience in a variety of different math/science fields. They're paid (usually pretty well, compared to most available summer jobs) and are also a great way to meet other students with similar interests who are going to have a lot of the same job/grad school/future-related questions as you. You've got at least two more summers you could participate, and they are a fantastic way to try out some upper-level research and get a better idea of whether it's something you could see yourself doing longer-term (and get paid to do so!). There are a huge variety of math and CS options, and many of the science or social science locations might have programs focused on data analysis. I know it's tempting at this point in your college career to start getting all your post-graduation options mapped out, but you are at the BEST point right now to just explore with few-to-no consequences for investing a summer or semester in a topic if you find out you don't really like it.

As far as grad school's concerned, one of my undergrad professors gave me some useful advice as I was considering whether to go to grad school in math myself (I did, and pure math research ultimately wasn't for me, but I still learned a ton and am now taking a more applied path). If you do choose grad school in math, you WILL be funded as a TA at the very least (don't attend a program that isn't funding you) - with that as a given, grad school is basically a super low-paying job that you can try out for a few years - if it's really not for you, you can leave with a Master's degree and try out something else. In addition, the academic job market is tough, but I know quite a few math Ph.Ds who have found tenure-track jobs in the last few years, in a variety of subfields. It's not impossible, just a TON of work. This isn't to say "eh, just go to grad school if you don't know what else to do!" but it was immensely helpful for me as an undergrad to learn that grad school wasn't only an option for the super-brilliant - that it was something I could achieve as a bright, hard-working student who just wanted to keep learning about math. Honestly, once you're in grad school, it's about 3% "being great at math" and about 97% "putting the damn time into your work" - we have this narrative about mathematicians just sitting around being geniuses waiting for inspiration, but being a working mathematician is almost completely about just spending tons of time doing math, teaching math, and reading math. There's very little chance you aren't "good enough" to be an academic, and please don't let that feeling stop you from trying grad school out if it's what you find you really want to do.

Overall though, there's no need for you to be stressing about career options yet - enjoy where you are and use the next couple years to really explore your options - through REUs, internships, or whatever other great opportunities you can dig up. This is an exciting time for you - use it to the fullest!
posted by augustimagination at 10:27 AM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

It is possible to find work as a data scientist at organizations that actively try to do good. The Human Rights Data Analysis group just hired a mathematician/programmer, for example. Cathy O'Neil over at MathBabe often posts about such projects; her blog is a good source for entertaining and opinionated advice on math jobs and job-hunting generally.
posted by yarntheory at 2:31 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Study to become a high school math teacher.

of the things you need to be a good math teacher, being good at the level of math you're interested in is not one of them.

i'd suggest going into any of the applied statistics fields you were somewhat interested in and continue to think about what, if any, phd you might want to study for. you may find that the money allows you to do things you don't yet know you like (e.g., world travel, raise a family).
posted by cupcake1337 at 7:00 PM on November 25, 2013

Do you like category theory? Have you seen much of the mathy parts of CS? Here's a scattershot list (feel free to contact me if any of this interests you and/or you'd like more directed suggestions):

Category Theory for Computer Science
2013 International Summer School on
Trends in Computing

The HoTT book promises to be important: HoTT Book
Tossing Algebraic Flowers Down the Great Divide, Joseph Goguen
Haskell is an interesting language
posted by at at 9:57 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

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