What can you do with a maths degree - Hindustan Times

Unmatched opportunities in mathematics and computer science programmes

Aug 24, 2023 06:00 PM IST

The author provides facts and arguments to show a university degree in mathematics is a great option for those considering undergraduate degree programs.

One of the questions I often get in my work as a mathematics educator is, “What can you do with a maths degree?”

Careers that require a background in mathematics are rapidly growing and taking centre stage in the digital economy.(Getty Images)
Careers that require a background in mathematics are rapidly growing and taking centre stage in the digital economy.(Getty Images)

It’s understandable, of course, to think of studies in mathematics as not immediately practical in the same way that studies in law, medicine, or engineering might be. People often think of mathematicians as cloistered away in the ivory towers of academia, similar to the solitary introverts of Romantic-era poetry.

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There are two principal answers that I give to the question of what you can do with a maths degree.

First, mathematics leads directly to some of today’s most important careers. For example, the career research and information group Careercast shows that of the top jobs in the world, based on salary, mobility, and satisfaction, eight out of ten are related to a degree in mathematics or computer science, with data scientist number one.

And on the topic of careers in data science, it was without the slightest hint of irony that Harvard Business Review named data scientist the “sexiest job of the 21st century.”

Why is data science such a hot career field? It’s because of the enormous value that data holds. Industry observers note in a recent study for The Economist that data is now the most lucrative commodity in the world, even surpassing oil and gas.

Artificial intelligence is another area that has seen massive growth in recent years. Businesses and organizations of all kinds are looking to capitalize on the power of AI to transform how they operate and better connect with customers, and it is mathematicians and computer scientists who are leading the charge.

According to research by the World Economic Forum, AI is set to create 97 million new jobs by 2025. While traditionally associated with computer science, AI fundamentally involves mathematics.

Mathematicians working in the field of applied math and combinatoric are developing and deploying next generation AI tools, just as computer scientists are. And every computer scientist working on AI needs to have a sophisticated background in mathematics to work effectively with algorithms.

Mathematics students, no matter the field, have many opportunities to engage with cutting-edge AI and machine learning techniques in their coursework and in their experiential work terms as well.

Another big growth area for mathematics-linked careers is information security. It’s an incredibly lucrative area that we consistently hear from employers they have trouble filling positions. Every market and sector is consistently calling on institutions of higher education to encourage more graduates with skills in cybersecurity and cryptography. Research by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that careers in cybersecurity are expected to grow by 35 per cent in the next few years, which is significantly faster growth than the average for all occupations.

These are just some of the areas that a degree in mathematics opens to students. And as the digital era continues – and, in many cases, accelerates – it is easy to imagine that soon, a degree that doesn’t involve mathematics and computer science will leave students wondering if they need to take another degree program with a mathematics focus to upgrade.

The second and equally important answer to the question “What can you do with maths degree?” is “Everything!” Mathematics graduates are in demand worldwide in professions that don’t seem to be directly mathematical. Why is this? Because maths graduates have learned how to think and solve problems.

Our world is in dire need of possible solutions for many big challenges, and the ability to see several steps ahead, to come up with creative possible approaches, to logically think through consequences of actions, and communicate about all of this are all hallmarks of people who have studied maths. If you need someone who understands maths to work for your company, would you hire someone who understands your business and teach them maths, or hire someone who understands maths and teach them your business?

But mathematics is not just in the domain of maths graduates and people in STEM professions. We all think mathematically on a daily basis, when we visualise, when we estimate, when we weigh one option against another. While you might not realize it, you are using, often indirectly, what you have learned in the mathematics classroom.

It is time for all of us to acknowledge the value of maths and to embrace it instead of fearing it. Mathematics is not just for a few people who we think are “really smart” -- it is for all of us.

(Author is director of the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Views expressed here are personal.)

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