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Question about Math PhD

  1. Sep 15, 2014 #1
    Hello friends. I am considering mathematics as a potential major. However I have a question about PhDs in mathematics. I understand science and engineering majors are usually funded through research / teaching assistanceships as well as a small stipend. However, is the same true for mathematics? (primarly pure/theoretical math). Math itself is sort of liberal-artsy in a way and I know liberal arts PhDs are usually not funded.

    Are PhD mathematics programs (pure and applied) funded in the same way engineering/science ones are?

    Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 15, 2014 #2
    Liberal arts phd's do get funded. Yes math phd's do get funded as well.
  4. Sep 16, 2014 #3
    is that true?? i had always been under the impression that phds for fields like history..linguistics...humanities etc. rarely received funding.
  5. Sep 16, 2014 #4


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    Math departments usually have teaching assistantships to give out because there all the STEM majors have to take undergrad math classes, but there are relatively few math grad students and faculty to teach them.
  6. Sep 16, 2014 #5

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    It is, however, much more common for math grad students to have TA's than RA's. That means less time to work on one's thesis.
  7. Sep 16, 2014 #6
    My girlfriend of 3 years is currently receiving funding (classical roman history) and has been since she has been a junior in college in one way or another. She says that as far as she knows most of her fellow Phd students receive funding in the humanities field. Though she only knows a select few with RA ships, that is still possible.
  8. Sep 16, 2014 #7
    Would the average time for a math PhD to complete his work be longer than that of other, more research-based fields? (physics , biology etc.)

    Also - is the job market in academia for Math PhDs better than that of for most of the pure sciences?

    Sorry for loading up on questions.
  9. Sep 16, 2014 #8
    I think it's about the same.

    The academic job market is better, but still not good. It's still more likely than not that you won't get to be a professor. If you want to be an adjunct, that's pretty easy. Even I can get an adjunct position, and I'm someone who has exceptional difficulties with teaching. But you don't make much money that way. I'd prefer flipping burgers or janitorial work because it would be an easier way to make similar money.

    It's hard for a math PhD to get a job in industry, unless they have specific skills that are in demand. Apparently, about 1/3 of math PhDs get a job in industry or government, though. My recommendation would be to do a mock job search before doing the PhD, rather than doing it after the PhD and then being slammed in the face with it, like I am right now. Don't believe anyone who casually says stuff like, "If you learn to code, you'll be fine."

    It's more like if you very seriously learn to code and get a couple internships and network like crazy, THEN you'll be fine. The "casually learning to code" approach is only going to work for people who are fantastic at networking and selling themselves and so on. Not that coding is the only solution.

    To some people, given that the employment statistics aren't really all that bad, I probably just sound like I'm exaggerating the difficulty because I'm socially retarded and the job-search is like a well-honed arrow fired directly at my Achilles heel. However, it's not just that I'm socially retarded. I know people with math PhDs who aren't socially retarded who are also having great difficulty getting a job in this economy. The fact is that if you look at the available jobs, there's not much of a place for most of us out there, and we really have to play the game of trying to be square pegs, fitting into round holes. So, the statistics that say that the unemployment rate isn't that bad for math PhD's sort of hides a lot of these issues, like the fact that the people who get jobs in industry have to do a ton of work to get them, rather than just having the job handed to them, just because they got the piece of paper, and the fact that they may be doing something that may not fit their skill set very well, and they are probably not using much of what they learned in grad school.
  10. Sep 17, 2014 #9
    Thank you for the excellent response. Why does it seem that PhDs in all fields have subpar career prospects (at least to careers relevant to their degree)? Are there any disciplines where it's not like this?

    I want to consider a major that can lead to a fine job or a stepping stone to a PhD, so I can keep my options open. I've been considering Applied Mathematics and Engineering, but I fear the latter would not fit me as well. I'll have to find out when I get to college what fields suit me best.

    Nonetheless, despite having not yet touched it, research fascinates me and it seems like that would be a good fit since the nature of research corresponds to my personality and interests. But if a PhD is a research degree and if you don't end up getting a research job or some other type of relevant career in the end it seems a bit redundant for me to do it. As much as I would love a subject there's no point if I am not practicing it.
  11. Sep 17, 2014 #10
    A lot of the liberal arts phd programs have poor to no funding from what I've seen.
    Physics basically always has funding, although often it's TAs and not RAs, it depends upon the school and your sub-field.
    Theory tends to take less time to graduate than experimental.

    I'm not sure why you call math artsy and more like liberal arts than physics??? If anything, pure math is about the single farthest from that of all.
  12. Sep 17, 2014 #11
    Engineering and computer science come to mind. Operations research/industrial engineering.

    The thing you have to consider is what job will suit you the best in the end, more than what major. Unless you change careers a lot, the job is going to take a much bigger portion of your life.

    Some people like it, but a lot of people think that and then find out it's not all it's cracked up to be. It's really hard to say whether you'll like it. Personally, I thought I would like it, but frankly, I find it hard to believe anyone would like it after my PhD, at least in the current academic climate, and this is coming from someone who was initially pretty hardcore about math and ready to go to great lengths to succeed. I think I might have liked research if this were about 200 years ago when things were a little less complicated. I'd rather be like Arthur Cayley, doing his linear algebra on the side as a fun hobby, as he worked as a lawyer, rather than today's overloaded professors, burdened with their high-pressure academic environment and over-grown subjects that are so hard to keep up with. Part of what inspired me to do a PhD was looking at historical figures and the math they did, but I don't think that's such a good inspiration in light of how things have changed. Also, I think it would have helped if I had done physics or engineering or something along those lines because then it's more clear that you are doing things that help you understand nature or advance technology.

    I agree. If you want to practice it, you might think about engineering. If I go back to grad school, it will most likely be computer science, but I'm also considering going back to EE--specifically communications engineering. You might have to slog through some engineering courses that are sort of ho hum, but eventually in EE, you can find a lot of good mathematical material. For example, information theory or coding theory.

    Here's an interesting article about coding theory:

    The astonishing thing about coding theory is that it's so mathematical, yet so useful.

    And here's a nice video series about information theory:

    There's cool stuff in engineering.
  13. Sep 17, 2014 #12
  14. Sep 17, 2014 #13
    It seems like all the jobs I want to have in the future are dead-ends or have awful prospects. I hate business, finance, economics, etc... I cant' tell whether or not I will like engineering as of now, nursing. There's something about computer science I don't like. My brother got a degree in CS ~10 years ago and he says he's only been able to find boring programming jobs. Med school is too expensive. What does it look like for medical research?

    One of my greatest fears is to be locked in a boring career. I want to learn something every day and be perpetually challenged or make a difference in the world. While obviously that sounds like engineering, the engineering process seems so industrial, capitalist, and businessy to me. I don't want to work in a power plant or figuring out how to "maximize product output" or something. A college had an information session at an aerospace firm a few days ago. The board of people they had there from the company was like 10 men who all talked about how they got there and what they did. None of it really appealed to me, but maybe that's just aerospace Maybe I have a misconception of what engineers actually do. It's too bad I always find myself appealed to ridiculous, esoteric, hollow careers.

    Of course there's no point in me spending 4-9 years in school learning something that will never ever be used. I can possibly see myself as a high school teacher but I think teachers need master's and I don't want to pay for that and it seems like a lot of schooling to go through for the kind of low salaries teachers get. While I know as a teacher I would "do it because I love it" that seems to be the case with anyone else going into crappy field that's oversaturated with others of their kind, although that isn't really specifically the case with secondary education.

    Sorry for the rant. My mom has been really urging me to do engineering but I know engineers have very strict course requirements for undergrad.That, and I want to explore many different areas in college. Won't be able to take many electives as an engineering major since they have to adhere to the all-powerful ABET. I guess that's for good reason, but I don't know if I'd like it. I'd love to pick up another foreign language, learn about Super Ancient History in Mesopotamia. Sure, I could pick that up by "reading" on my own time but that is not enough. I'd like to be completely dedicated to the topic I am in, not doing something else and "reading" my true passion on the side. Of course any of my "passions" are dead.

    Is this "theoretical" side of engineering embraced at all? After reading info on Wikipedia it seems fairly interesting but I don't want to get excited for nothing if you get what I mean.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  15. Sep 17, 2014 #14


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    I think you have to try and keep a bit of an open mind about all this. The fields that sound exciting to you now could be boring in practice. It's also almost impossible to know how any field will look in 10-15 years.

    On the flip side, some of the fields you mention hating could actually be tremendously interesting and challenging. For example a lot of smart people work in finance, so it's a supremely competitive and challenging. And can you imagine how much finance actually affects peoples' lives?

    It totally depends what you're working on, and where, same as any other field.
  16. Sep 17, 2014 #15


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    Statistics also have good career prospects, both academic and non-academic, in particular the latter (it is worth keeping in mind that statistics research can also be subsumed under operations research, e.g. look at the Operations Research department at Cornell). And operations research can itself be subsumed under applied mathematics departments in some schools.
  17. Sep 17, 2014 #16
    You're probably right. However for certain personal reasons (not interested in starting a debate here :P) I cannot stand the idea of business or areas that usually fall under business. It bothers me that some of the highest salary potentials are for "Business Administration" majors and some of the highest average salaries are for "Finance" majors, I think that's true...

    I would triple major in Fine Arts, Gender Studies, and Archaeoanthrobiophysics before I'd do Business/Finance etc. Economics is a bit different though (not sure why I included it in my earlier post), but to actually study economics and practice it one would need a PhD and you know how that ends up! I'm trying to keep an open mind and exploring options but I am also trying to keep a practical mind and finding an employable degree.

    My mom knows quite a bit about nursing and the professional fields that you can take afterwards ie. nurse practitioner, doctor of nursing, etc. But nursing seems to be more of a "grind" to me based off my mom's and several of her nurse friend's comments. She works 12 hour night shifts every weekend and a day or two during the week.

    I actually have not looked much into statistics. based off your username I take it you study/studied statistics?
  18. Sep 17, 2014 #17
    I second the idea that you have to try to be open-minded. I never thought I would like business type stuff, but now it doesn't seem bad. If you like certain parts of probability, they are the same as some things you'll find in financial math, so it seems like an artificial distinction to say you like probability, but not the same math when it's applied to finance. I can understand not wanting to work as a quant or something for idealogical reasons. It's not my first choice, but in this job market, it's hard to be a purist. Beggars can't be choosers. I think programming is one of the closest things to math. It's a different subject matter, but writing a program is a lot like writing a proof (there's actually a formal correspondence between programs and proofs, as well).

    After my PhD, I realized that a somewhat boring career might not actually be so bad. My philosophy is that the problem with careers is that you can only choose from the ones that are available on the market. So, to me, hobbies are where it's at. Not careers, unless you're likely enough to find one that closely matches what you'd choose to do in a perfect world. A career is just something to make a living. You just don't want it to drive you crazy, and I think that's all you need.

    Actually, after I spent 7 years on my PhD, so, at the risk of a sunk-cost fallacy, I feel an obligation to FIND a point to what I did and find a way to use it, even if I don't get a job that uses it. Eventually, my goal is to make websites/books and/or software that teach advanced math in a much more fun way than the conventional way. So, it's not quite true that it has to be useless if you can spin it off into something interesting, most likely as a hobby. Of course, maybe I could have still done this with just a masters or with a PhD in EE, so maybe in hindsight, it still wasn't the best idea to get a math PhD, and the original plan was just to be a professor, which is why I did it. But I've got to live with what I have. My other goal is sort of to make sense out of math as a discipline and maybe write a book about that, too. The PhD will definitely play a big role in that. Assuming I can ever get around to doing these things.

    Good woman.

    Yes, how could I forget statistics?
  19. Sep 17, 2014 #18


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  20. Sep 17, 2014 #19


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    You would be correct. I studied math for undergrad and finished with a MS in statistics, and have been working as a statistician for the pharma/biotech/health care sector for the past 13 years.
  21. Sep 17, 2014 #20
    I forgot to answer this. I'm not sure what the job market is like for those things, except to say there are places out there where you can apply that stuff. I found this thread:

  22. Sep 17, 2014 #21
    So I used to think that quantum gravity was the neatest thing and that was the topic I wanted to work on. Then reality reminded me that I'm not that clever and even if I was, I'd be doomed if I tried to pursue it.

    Eventually I came to the realization that happiness is the bottom line, and for me interesting problems are a source of happiness. So instead of quantum gravity I'm looking into computational condensed matter/statistical physics, such as biophysics or materials physics, both of which may be easier to take to industry.

    TLDR: One rule:

    1. Being happy is important, and pure mathematics may be very appealing, but you can work on other challenging problems which could improve your employability to a greater degree. So you will be happy (you have a challenging problem) and you will be more employable.
  23. Sep 17, 2014 #22


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    There can be several years difference between theoretical and applied fields. Especially between theoretical math or physics and engineering fields.
  24. Sep 17, 2014 #23
    I am taking an Intro to Comp Sci class this year and I am finding it somewhat interesting. However I don't like the types of jobs they get right out of undergrad. Is there an over-saturation of computer science PhD? IDK if this is the truth or not, but I would imagine that degrees that earn excellent salaries with undergrad degree wouldn't typically have as many people going into graduate school.

    I never looked at it like that. I do enjoy writing so maybe catering to popular science / math could be an option/hobby. If one earns a PhD and does not immediately decide to try to go down the academia path can you try to do that later down the line? Is trying to be a professor or researcher something you need to dedicate yourself to right after earning the PhD?

    Now that I think about it, I don't think that I necessarily care too much if my job is using large amounts of knowledge from my degree. As long as its somewhat relevant or I am doing something important, I can always start my own initiatives relevant to my degree on my own...

    Are Master's in Statistics usually necessary to get jobs working as statisticians? And do PhDs fare any better or worse ?

    Sorry for unloading all of these questions on you guys. You've been very helpful. Unfortunately most people aren't upfront with the truth and I get lured into all of these interests that end up biting me in the butt. I feel like I am getting far too ahead of myself right now. I know I still have plenty of time to consider these options but I do want to go into college with an open mind.
  25. Sep 17, 2014 #24
    Well, the thing about engineering and computer science is that you still have the undergraduate qualifications, if you can't get into academia, so it's all like one big pool to some extent. Some people might say you're overqualified and so on, but it shouldn't be that hard to find something. Unless maybe you don't like the types of jobs you can get.

    The sooner the better. It shouldn't be impossible to go back to academia, but it's very, very difficult, if you don't just get a postdoc or something right away. It's very competitive, so it's hard to do anything that's going to put you at a disadvantage, unless you are a real superstar.

    Well, you should still keep in mind that something like grad school is going to be a very serious time commitment and a big opportunity cost in terms of the money that you could have made outside of grad school and all the free time that you would probably have that you wouldn't have in grad school. It can really slow your life down. I'm in the position of trying to salvage what I can from what was basically a mistake to get the PhD. You don't want to do that by choice. But of course, even if you do an undergraduate degree, you probably won't use a lot of what you study and that won't be the end of the world. It will still give you a broader perspective on your field. Getting a whole degree for mostly hobby purposes doesn't sound too appealing to me, though. Some people may feel otherwise, but they are going to have to face up to having to make a living, so the minimum requirement is to make sure that happens.
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2014
  26. Sep 18, 2014 #25
    Being able to write well is a useful skill, as this article points out:


    It says, "The ability to write a briefing - two sides of A4, say - summarising a longer report is a typical task a new graduate employee might be asked to do..."

    So why not practice this by starting a blog. You could take long articles from Scientific American, and the like, and summarise/review them. Do a reasonable job with that and you'd have a nice addition to your CV.
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