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Math Math Major - Stories please

  1. Jul 15, 2012 #1
    I'll try to give you guys the short of it.

    I am usually quite critical of myself and focus on the negatives, but right now I think I need to list some positive things, to be more optimistic. Forgive me if I sound "immodest" since I have absolutely no intention or reason to "brag."

    I like math a lot and major in it at a top US school. I have done well in courses like real analysis and abstract algebra, partially because I like it while many others find it tiresome. I have also done well in writing and humanities classes. While I know gpa doesn't mean that much, I'm proud of getting nearly a 4.0 while taking many difficult classes.

    I also managed to score top 200 on a national math competition, called the "putnam." I think I can do much better in my remaining two years, after learning from my mistakes.

    Yet I know I'm not anything remotely like the "geniuses" or even "very good." But I'm definitely competent. I can learn abstract theories quickly and am good at mathy problem solving.

    I like math a lot but my level of talent doesn't justify me going into academia. I absolutely cannot afford to be a poor graduate student. I need to make money to support my aging parents and I want to build a better financial foundation for my life as well.

    I also don't want to do law, medical school, or software engineering/hardcore programming. Not like there's anything wrong with those, but it's simply not for me.

    In high school it was easy to go above and beyond, because math was so much better than the dull subjects in school. Pushing myself through Rudin's intro analysis book and parts of Herstein's group theory chapter really opened my eyes about math.

    Not only that, it helped me achieve a very concrete goal (getting into a top school, and at the time I still had vague ideas of wanting to do research).

    But now I feel that the clear path is gone and all I see is fog. I have nothing to grip on, to pull me through life.

    Obviously I have heard "finance" and "consulting" tossed around a lot, and have read some things. but for me it's kinda hard to get excited about them. I definitely don't want to do investment banking, and consulting feels kinda meh...(I mean, what good has McKinsey done for society?)

    I know I just need to think more creatively, to stop being defined by other peoples' paths. To not be afraid to try something crazy. But I am so lost, and I have to admit, somewhat scared.

    I guess what I want most is to see people talk about their experiences. Obviously I'm not the first one to have a crisis like this. Although I'm not a physics major, I feel like math and physics majors face similar things when approaching graduation.

    TLDR: lost college student, stories and experiences or any advice please!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 15, 2012 #2
    When in doubt, go to Business or Law school. Also, find a company you think would be interesting to work for, say Google, and look at the types of jobs they are hiring for, figure out what you need to get those jobs. Or an area, like AI.

    You don't have to be right the first time around. Life is full of failure. And the failure is often more interesting.
  4. Jul 15, 2012 #3


    Staff: Mentor

    Invariably once you're hired you will only use 15% of the courses you learned in college. The remaining 85% is in communicating with others, understand what your boss is looking for and searching for new ways for doing things.

    The other thing is that your path mayvwind around your actual degree but your experience will get you to the next job...

    So enjoy your life and be adaptable to things and be willing to compromise to achieve your goals.

    By the way, I was a physics major who became a programmer who'd like to become a math major but may eventually retire to raising bees :-) (reference to Sherlock Holmes's retirement in after Doyle novelizations)
  5. Jul 15, 2012 #4
    Huh? You have a good GPA which might just be because you don't go to a challenging school (I don't know.) But, you did very well at putnam, which means you are probably pretty talented. Now, if I remember correctly, you can take the putnam any of the four years you are an undergrad, right? So, let's say that of the top 200 students, everyone but you is graduating this year and going to grad school. Now, I'd say there is *slightly* more than 200 new math grad students each year. So, I really have no idea why you think that your level of talent doesn't justify you going to grad school.

    And, why can't you afford to be a poor grad student? If you get into a Ph.D. program, the chances are high that you will receive some sort of financial support. So, you won't pay tuition and you will get a slight stipend. In the worst case, you will probably *just* end up with a Master's Degree, or at the very worst, you will just have "wasted" a year of your life. But, you'd only be 22-23, so you can bounce back.
  6. Jul 16, 2012 #5


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    Hey cauchyapple and welcome to the forums.

    Have you looked at more applied disciplines? Apart from programming, what about applied mathematics, statistics, and any area that need analytical minds without a predetermined agree (like engineering)?

    How are you with communication? Can you take a complex subject and break it down to a 12 year old? Are you good with presentations both verbal, written (or both)? Have you worked on any projects with your mathematics to take a dirty real-world situation and analyze if effectively while keeping the results at a level that other non-specialists can understand?

    I'd recommend if you have the background to get into a program (if you can't get a job right away) is to find a program where you do these kinds of things but keep it not super-specialized that you get pigeonholed. Things like statistics, applied mathematics, or other similar programs that have a project component, a presentation or report component, and any opportunity to have to work with non-technical people is good (if you can get that environment).

    Lots of people will hire you if they can see that you can have both of these skills (technical to do analysis, but communication and all that other stuff to work with people that don't have, desire, or have the time for technical skills).
  7. Jul 16, 2012 #6

    Hi Robert, thanks for the response. Whether my school is "challenging" is subjective and depends on the courses, but it is a highly ranked private university (for what that's worth). There is grade inflation but not so much in the math and science courses.

    The reason why I can't be a poor grad student isn't that I couldn't get into a good grad school. People from my school get into places like Chicago, Princeton, Columbia, and other strong math phd programs every year. With a ton of hard work I could probably get into somewhere comparable.

    The reason is that I need to start making money earlier, for various reasons. If I was well-off I would definitely go to grad school because I really like math. If I was God's gift to math maybe it would be worth it too but the world of math research loses nothing by not having me =p


    Thanks for the advice. I think explaining complex subjects in a simple way is probably one of the things I'm best at. Some math people I know are very talented yet aren't good at clearly expressing their ideas.

    I don't have much experience with applied mathematics. I have taken some courses in the CS department. I'm also planning to take statistics next year.

    I think what you mention about working with non-technical people is definitely what I'm looking for. Perhaps I should look into jobs involving statistics and data analysis? Do you have experience working in these areas?

    What you said about not getting pigeonholed definitely is true, I certainly don't want to become a calculator with an expiration date.
  8. Jul 16, 2012 #7
    He did say that he needs to be able to support his aging parents. While he may not have to pay a lot, or anything, if he goes for a PhD, he also won't be making any money (as far as I know), or at least, he won't be making enough to efficiently support his parents.
  9. Jul 16, 2012 #8


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    I've had people teach me data mining of which one was an engineer in industry, one a post-doctoral lecturer (i.e has his PhD and does research and some teaching) as well a post-doctoral research statistician.

    They all come from different backgrounds and have highlighted their experience with data mining in different contexts and it has a wide use. I've also listened to a guest speaker who does consultancy work with data mining outlining the kinds of areas it is used as well as the kinds of projects.

    I am aiming to (hopefully) get into statistical roles soon enough, but I can't say that I have had working experience myself. I can only say from communicating to people with experience that the statistical area is a good one for both breadth of application as well as for employment.

    Lots of data floating about, not enough people to make sense of it is a current theme. In Australia we have a shortage of statisticians and to put this into context, I took a Bayesian Inference course last year that was distance based for my university and was offered primarily on campus at another. I was the only student in my university taking it and there were at the end about 3 people in the lectures taking it over there.

    Granted this is a very small and biased sample, but in talking to other people it seems that this is actually in some representative of how many people are doing this kind of thing (statistics).
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