Why should you consider declaring mathematics as your major? There are many different reasons to consider this option, just as there are many ways in which mathematics can be used. The road to mathematics is by no means unique, and the motivations to choose one’s own path to mathematics are varied.
Mathematics has the reputation of being extremely hard and elitist. This has contributed to scaring people away from the start. As a mathematician and the Chair of the Mathematics Department, I can say in full honesty that learning mathematics requires work and dedication. The rewards are not immediate; until you have spent the time and effort to learn its rules and language, those rewards will keep escaping you. When students tell me that they do not enjoy learning the rules of integration and differentiation, I tell them that neither did I. The beauty of a language is rarely found in its grammar, but is usually expressed in its literature and poetry. The basic tools of mathematics, which for the most part comprise the mathematics courses that students study in high school or at the beginning of college, rarely get anybody excited. They should be viewed as the foundations from which to move to a higher level of understanding. Then, at that point, the usage of the discipline and the range of possibilities mathematics offers become more apparent.
I think of mathematics as a language; studying the grammar can be tedious, boring and frustrating, but it is necessary to use it in whichever way we may decide. Understanding and appreciating the different genres of literature requires a good knowledge of the basic rules of the language in which they are expressed. When we enjoy a poem or a short story we never think about the grammar behind it—if we did it would spoil our enjoyment; instead we marvel at the finished product. Mathematics can be viewed in a similar way: the long hours spent working calculus problems are the way to make the basic rules become so natural and instinctive that we do not need to think about them. We can concentrate on other, more exciting and challenging problems. As all children can learn their mother tongue, albeit at different speeds and with varying degrees of difficulty, everybody has the ability to learn mathematics. Personality, background, exposure and previous experiences might determine how easy or difficult the process will be, but the determination to succeed and the motivation to persevere will enable you to meet subsequent challenges. I cannot promise that the calculus sequence will be fun for everyone and I will not deny that good performance in math classes requires time and effort. What I can say, however, is that the fun starts once you speak the language and decide how you are going to express yourself by choosing to concentrate more on the theoretical aspect of mathematics or on its applications to other fields.
One question which often comes to mind when considering whether to become a math major is what one can do with it after graduation. There has probably not been a better time than the present to have a degree in mathematics. Graduate school for further study in mathematics might be the natural next step for those who want to deepen their understanding of the discipline and explore its applications. The number of degree options continues to increase. These include concentrations specifically designed for people who do not intend to remain in academia, in response to industry’s request for a more mathematically educated workforce. Law and medical schools look favorably on math major applicants, particularly if they have had a broad exposure to other subjects. Graduates with bachelors degrees in mathematics are hired by many types of firms, high tech and communications among them, although the job description might not explicitly mention mathematics. Firms actively recruiting mathematicians include engineering and computer companies, banking, science and financial consulting firms, as well as biomedical and imaging enterprises. Whether you decide to pursue the traditional or the applied mathematics major, or the statistics major, the curriculum will give you enough flexibility to take courses in other disciplines which complement and enrich your education in the way most suited to you. Recently, in addition to the traditional combination of mathematics and physics or mathematics and computer sciences, mathematics has been linked to philosophy, economics, psychology, cognitive science and theater.
The trend of seeing mathematics as a natural counterpart to a liberal arts concentration is also reflected in the job market. The interest in quantitative methods is expanding into new areas such as medicine, psychology, cinema and advertising. Today it is more and more common to find math majors in hospital settings, financial establishments, marketing, and as main characters in movies and plays. For those who wonder what kind of jobs mathematicians can get, the Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains a web site with information about Training, Employment, Job Outlook, Earnings and Occupational Employment statistics at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos043.htm#oes_link. What about the image of the profession? Well, for better or worse, the old stereotype of grumpy and nerdy mathematicians, far removed from the influence of the outside world, deprived of humor, oblivious to fashion and aesthetically challenged is itself being challenged.
Math major John Cleese, the Monty Python icon and unforgettable Basil Fawlty cannot be accused of lacking a sense of humor. Beauty and charm cannot be said to be lacking in actress Danica McKellar, who portrayed Winnie Cooper on Wonder Years. She took a leave from her successful acting career to earn a math degree from UCLA, graduated summa cum laude and went on to author the book, Math Doesn’t Suck.
Who knows which formulae are hidden in the “Sound of Silence” singer, Art Garfunkel, who earned an M.A. in mathematics from Columbia University? Some sports celebrities have mathematics in their past. San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the United States Naval Academy, while tennis player and 1977 Wimbledon singles winner Virginia Wade received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from Sussex University. Michael Jordan started college as a math major but switched majors in his junior year. (That must have been the reason why he was never in my classes when I was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.) I should add that Frank Ryan, former star quarterback of the Cleveland Browns, was a mathematician and a professor in our department at the same time he played for the Browns.
Among the famous political figures who were math majors is retired Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. He received a degree in Mathematics from Harvard. Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry holds a bachelor’s, master’s degree and Ph.D. in mathematics from Penn State. Civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy and former New York mayor David Dinkins both hold bachelor’s degrees in mathematics from Howard University. The president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, has a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Last but not least, Leon Trotsky began studying mathematics in Odessa in 1897 before his career in mathematics was cut short by imprisonment and exile in Siberia. Who knows what kind of revolutionary mathematics he would have produced had he continued!
Chair, Department of Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Statistics