Friday, August 15, 2014

MAA Books Beat: Teaching Isn't the Only Job for Math Majors

Written by Steve Kennedy, MAA Books Beat is a column written for MAA FOCUSTeaching Isn't the Only Job for Math Majors appears in the August/September issue.

Teaching Isn’t the Only Job for Math Majors

“What would I do with a math degree? I don’t want to teach.” That anyone would ask this question has flummoxed me for years. When I was younger I was tempted (and sometimes succumbed to the temptation) to explain that one does not study mathematics for its possible future income potential. One studies mathematics because it is mankind’s only portal to absolute truth. Science deals in, as its best, approximations to truth; the humanities in speculation; the arts obscure as much as they reveal. Mathematics, using just the power of your mid, reveals eternal, and external to us, absolute truth.

I’m older now, and hopefully wiser, and not only do I see the value in what science, humanities, and the arts illuminate, but also, I see the legitimacy of the question itself. I too can now talk about the many interesting careers my former students have taken up: Nutty Steph, who started a granola company; Kate, who became a dog-musher leading winter tours of northern Minnesota; Liz, who was Stephen Wolfram’s personal assistant. Unfortunately, as the examples illustrate, I tend to remember the unusual and offbeat options.

Details about “Best Job”

CareerCast recently listed “mathematician” as the Best Job of 2014 (university professor, statistician, and actuary round out the top four). This made a nice blurb in our department newsletter, but they didn’t provide an awful lot of detail about what kind of jobs these folks are looking at. Fortunately, we have Andy Sterrett. Andy has been tracking down mathematics graduates with interesting careers and compiling their stories in 101 Careers in Mathematics for more than a decade. The third edition is just out. I’ll give some highlights to share with your students wondering what to do with a math degree.

Alysia Appell has degrees from Grand Valley State University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is in charge of the pilot-staffing model for Northwest/Delta Airlines; that means she needs to forecast the airline’s future needs to hire pilots and plan how to cover all flights given predicted vacations and illnesses of current flight staff.

Joel Schneider has degrees from Franklin and Marshall, Washington State, and the University of Oregon. He was the content director for Square One TV, a children’s TV show that aired in the 1990s. Square One has echoes of Sesame Street but was focused on mathematics. My personal favorite bit was “Mathnet,” a Dragnet parody that featured a detective named Monday who was interested in just the facts as she solved mathematical mysteries. Schneider is still in TV, now producing a mathematical game show called Risky Numbers.

Kay Strain King has degrees from Vanderbilt, Makerere (Uganda), and Texas A&M universities. She is a senior environmental mathematician for Theta Engineering. She does mathematical consulting on environmental problems. In her article in 101 Careers, she describes a project to model gas release from a bermed storage tank under various weather conditions.

I bought a copy of 101 Careers to put in our department’s student reading nook. I’m thinking I should buy another copy for my desk. If you teach and advise undergraduates and sometimes find yourself confronting the question with which I opened this column, you should buy one as well.

(By the way, we have already started collecting material for the next edition of 101 Careers. If you are, or know, someone with an interesting mathematical career, please contact Deanna Haunsperger at

No comments:

Post a Comment