What can I do with a math degree?

Marketing and Communications staff

Mathematics and statistics are the tools for a much wider variety of great careers than you probably realize. Click on the topics below to learn more about careers in the mathematical sciences in statistics & data, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), business, industry, & government (BIG), math education, actuarial science, and pure math research.


“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty.”
Bertrand Russell

In pure mathematics, people solve problems that are intrinsically interesting, regardless of their practical application.  You’ve probably experienced the deep satisfaction that comes from solving a challenging problem, or the excitement of an “a-ha” moment.  Pure mathematicians are motivated by a sense of exploration and discovery, as if we are charting new territory in a vast landscape.  The tools we use to solve problems in pure mathematics include deep conceptual understanding, careful reasoning, and creativity.

You may have wondered whether it’s possible to make a career out of pure mathematics, or whether this has lasting value.  The answer to both questions is yes!  There are thousands of professional pure mathematicians working in a variety of occupations all over the world.  While most work at universities and combine their research with teaching, many work at research labs, in industry, and for the government.  Google and Microsoft employ pure mathematicians to develop new results that might eventually have practical application.  And it pays off – results in pure mathematics have an uncanny habit of turning into exactly the right tools to solve real-world problems, in unforeseen ways.*

A strong background in pure mathematics is also good preparation for a variety of careers that involve applying mathematics to solve problems in business and industry.  Employers value the conceptual understanding, critical reasoning, and general problem-solving ability that you develop in pure math coursework.  For more on careers in business, industry, and government ("BIG"), see our page on applications to BIG.

Some of the areas of pure mathematics are algebra, analysis, geometry, topology, number theory, and dynamical systems.  For a complete list of mathematical areas, with short descriptions, see this Wikipedia list.

If you want to study pure mathematics, the B.S. in Mathematics is a good choice.  Discuss your interests and career plans with your advisor.  If you want to do research in mathematics, you will probably want to earn a doctoral degree; see our page on Preparing for Grad School for more information.

*The famous physicist Eugene Wigner reflected on this phenomenon in his 1960 essay The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.

Galileo said that mathematics is the language of science.  The STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are full of opportunities to use math to express and solve problems.  Whether you’re designing aircraft wings, computing the spin of a subatomic particle, optimizing circuitry, modeling the impact of pollution on an ecosystem, or creating CGI animation for the movies, math provides the essential tools.

With a degree in Mathematical Sciences, you’ll be prepared to model and solve real world problems, to analyze data, to think logically and critically, and to draw sound conclusions using quantitative reasoning.  Just as importantly, it’ll prepare you for a career of lifelong learning, giving you the flexibility to learn new skills and technology and to adapt to an ever-changing STEM landscape.

Here’s just one example:  If you’re interested in a career in meteorology, this is what the Graduate Program in Atmospheric Science at the University of Washington has to say about your college background:

Do I need to have a degree in Atmospheric Sciences to be eligible to apply to your program?

No – graduate students in the atmospheric sciences come from a variety of disciplines…. Students of atmospheric sciences should have in common a sound background in the fundamentals of physics and applied mathematics and an interest in complex natural phenomena.

Interested in Environmental Science?  Fredonia offers an Interdisciplinary Studies Major in Environmental Science.  Pairing this up with a second major or minor in Applied Mathematics would be a distinctively strong background for graduate school or the job market.

Biostatistics is an emerging high-demand field that involves applying statistical methods to research in public health and medicine.  If you’re interested in preparing for a career in biostatistics, start by declaring a major in Applied Math with a minor in Statistics, complement it with extensive coursework in biology and chemistry, and make sure you learn some programming and how to use statistical software.

Interested in engineering?  Consider Fredonia’s Cooperative Engineering Program, with a major in Mathematics or Applied Mathematics.

Telecommunications?  Big data?  Robotics?  For any STEM career that interests you, chances are good that a major or minor in Mathematical Sciences will strengthen your preparation and enhance your resume.  Discuss your interests and career plans with your advisor in order to identify the right academic program and coursework for you.

Making sound decisions in a complex, data-infused world requires a strong math and statistics background.  Increasingly, employers in business, industry, and government (“BIG”) are looking for people to solve problems involving complex systems, optimization, data, and risk analysis.  A degree in Mathematical Sciences can prepare you for a wide variety of careers in BIG and the non-profit sector.

Here is a quick sample of such careers:  Data Scientist, Operations Research Analyst, Economist, Cryptographer, Information Security Analyst, Actuary, International Trade Specialist, Investment Specialist, Quantitative Analyst, Real Estate Analyst, Market Research Analyst

Multiple recent studies have found that Actuarial Science is one of the best careers out there in terms of work environment, employment outlook, job security, growth potential, and salary.  A 2013 CNN Money article describes it as “the best job you never thought of.”  What does an actuary do?  An actuary provides financial risk analysis using tools from mathematics, statistics, and finance.  Most actuaries work within the insurance industry or related fields.  For more information on how to prepare for this career, see our page on Actuarial Science.

Predictive analytics is an emerging high-demand field, in which people use data analysis to identify predictors of future states or trends.  To prepare for a career in predictive analytics, start with a major in Applied Math with a minor in Statistics or Data Science, complement it with coursework in a field of interest such as business, economics, finance, or one of the sciences, and make sure you learn the relevant computing tools, such as R and Python.

Wall Street is now a significant employer of mathematicians and statisticians.  Quantitative Analysts (“quants”) apply mathematical and statistical methods to solve financial and risk management problems for investment firms, often with the assistance of complex computer models.

Interested in cryptography or government intelligence?  The US Government is one of the biggest employers of mathematicians in the world, primarily in cryptography, cryptanalysis, and security analysis.  For these careers, choose the Mathematics Major and complement it with coursework in computer science, such as computer architecture, algorithm design, and programming in C, C++, Python, or Java.  The US Intelligence Community offers a variety of competitive summer programs within various government agencies for college students interested in security or intelligence.

In all areas of business, industry, and government, people need to make sound decisions based on quantitative models and data.  If these are the kinds of problems you want to solve, then a degree in Mathematical Sciences can get you closer to your career.  Discuss your interests and career plans with your advisor in order to identify the right academic program and coursework for you.

Our modern world requires a quantitatively literate society, and there is increasing emphasis within education on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).  There are plenty of interesting and critical problems to solve in the area of mathematics education.  We need mathematics educators who can implement new pedagogy and curriculum, and engage diverse learners.  Our program prepares you to do this, and our graduates go on to become leaders in their districts and the profession.

Our mathematics education program is recognized as one of the best in New York State, with innovative coursework, extensive field experiences, and an emphasis on strong content knowledge.  Our program is one of the only ones that offers a field placement in your first year of college, and every year after that.  You’ll get many opportunities to put your knowledge into practice and bring those experiences back to the classroom.  Our math education courses are a synthesis of content knowledge and pedagogy, with special attention to literacy and technology within the discipline.

Every fall we take students to the annual conference of the Association of Mathematics Teachers of New York State (AMTNYS), where they have the opportunity to meet veteran teachers and principals from across the state, attend talks, and present their own work.

If you complete either of our undergraduate bachelors programs, the BS in Mathematics-Adolescence Education or the BS in Mathematics-Middle Childhood Education, you will have initial certification to teach in New York State.  Many of our graduates continue into our Masters of Mathematics Education program, which leads to professional certification.  You can attend graduate school part time or full time.  Students who attend full time usually complete the program in one calendar year.

We live in a data-driven world.  Increasingly, people in science, industry, business, sports management, and government depend on statistical analysis of data to draw conclusions and make sound decisions.

What is statistics?  It’s the science of collecting, organizing, analyzing, interpreting, and presenting data.  For example, medical researchers might collect data about a sample of people receiving a form of treatment, and draw conclusions from the sample about a larger population.  Modern statistical science has its origins in the late 17th Century, emerging from work on probability, and it was broadened and made more rigorous during the course of the 19th and 20th Centuries.  The 20th Century also saw the introduction of computational statistics, in which computer technology is harnessed to analyze ever larger data sets.  Today’s internet connectivity allows us to gather and share data on any imaginable subject.  This has greatly widened the scope of inquiry of statistics and made it an indispensable tool in almost all areas.

Our department offers a major in Applied Mathematics as well as minors in Statistics and Data Science.  If you are interested in being a professional statistician, you should consider the Applied Mathematics major with a Statistics minor, and prepare for graduate studies (aiming for a masters or a PhD) in statistics.  To prepare for a career as a Data Scientist, complete the Applied Math major with a Data Science minor.  Actuarial Science is a specialized application of statistics to risk analysis in the insurance industry; for more information on this high-demand career and how to prepare for it, see our page on Actuarial Science.  There are a wide variety of careers in science, business, industry, or government which involve applications of statistics to data analysis, risk analysis, or predictive analytics; for more information on those careers and how to prepare for them, see our page on applications to STEM and our page on applications to BIG.  Finally, a minor in Statistics or Data Science can add value to majors in business, economics, computer science, any of the physical or social sciences, and education.  Discuss your interests and your career plans with your advisor in order to identify the right academic program and coursework for you.

An actuary is a person who works in actuarial science, which involves applying tools from mathematics, statistics, and finance to analyze financial risk, especially in the insurance industry.  Multiple recent studies have shown that actuarial science is one of the top-ranked careers in terms of work environment, employment outlook, job security, growth potential, and salary.  In order to enter the career and advance through it, actuaries take actuarial exams administered by the Society of Actuaries.

To prepare for a career in actuarial science, we recommend that you complete a BS in Applied Mathematics with one or more of the following minors:  Statistics, Accounting, Economics, or Business Administration.  In addition to developing general knowledge and skills in these areas, you will need to earn VEE credit and prepare for actuarial exams.

The following courses are approved for VEE credit:

  • VEE in Economics:  ECON 205 or ECON 305, and ECON 210 or ECON 310
  • VEE in Accounting and Finance:  ACCT 201 and ACCT 202 and BUAD 417
  • VEE in Mathematical Statistics:  STAT 355

The following courses will help you prepare for actuarial exams:

  • STAT 354 and STAT 460, for Exam P (Probability)
  • MATH 369, for Exam FM (Financial Mathematics)

Consider additional coursework in statistics (such as STAT 351 and STAT 352), business (including marketing and finance), computer science, and communication (such as courses in writing, technical writing, and public speaking).

For more information on preparing to be an actuary, consult with Dr. Lan Cheng.

For more information on actuarial science as a career, see www.BeAnActuary.org and www.soa.org .

While some careers are accessible with only an undergraduate degree, for others, a masters or doctoral degree is recommended or required.  If you are interested in pursuing a graduate degree after college, discuss this with your advisor so that you can plan for it.  See also our advising page on graduate school for more information, including information on Graduate Record Exams.

Our department offers a Masters in Mathematics Education for teachers seeking professional certification to teach mathematics in grades 7-12 in New York State.  You can enroll in the program on a part time or full time basis.  A typical full time student enters the program in the fall and completes the degree by the end of the following summer.  Students take coursework in education and advanced mathematics, and then complete a masters thesis.  For a complete description of the program and its requirements, see here.  We typically offer several graduate assistantships on a competitive basis to our most qualified students.  There are also opportunities throughout the year for graduate students to take a leadership role in outreach activities, such as the Annual High School Math/Science Challenge in May and our one-week Camp COMETS for middle school students.

A degree in Mathematical Sciences pairs well with a wide variety of second majors and minors.  In addition to adding value to your education and making you better prepared for your post-graduate goals, completing two majors or a major and a minor enhances your transcript and sets you apart from the crowd.  Many jobs these days require skills and knowledge from a variety of disciplines, and interdisciplinary graduate programs are increasingly common.

For example, for a career in Biostatistics, you should consider a major in Applied Mathematics with a minor in Statistics plus a second major or minor in Biology.  Combining a degree in Applied Mathematics with a second major in Business Administration-Marketing or a Minor in Business Administration would be good preparation for a career as a Market Research Analyst.

Successfully completing more than one program requires careful planning, so it’s best to start early and discuss your plans with your advisor.  If you are considering a particular career, you should do some online research and perhaps consult with someone already in that career to determine which degree programs are recommended.  Your advisor may be able to help you with this process.  You and your advisor should develop tentative course plans for several semesters in advance in order to make sure you’ll be able to fit everything in.  Many courses in the STEM disciplines have prerequisites (courses that must be taken prior to that semester), so it’s important to be mindful of this in long term planning.   Finally, there are some restrictions on which majors and minors can be paired up; your advisor can help you find this information in the catalog and other sources.

A research experience or internship as an undergraduate can be valuable preparation for your career, and there are a variety of opportunities for pursuing this.

Research in the mathematical sciences is different from research in the sciences.  We don’t work with lab equipment or run experiments, at least not in the usual sense.  Instead, we pose a problem, seek the solution, and justify our solution.

For example, we might observe a pattern among prime numbers, and wonder whether that pattern persists.  We might form the conjecture that all primes behave in this way, and in order to justify this, we would need a mathematical proof of our conjecture.  Learning how to identify fruitful questions, formulate conjectures, and prove or disprove them is part of the process of preparing to do research in pure mathematics.

As another example, we might need to find a “best fit” solution to an optimization problem involving resource allocation.  A business or non-profit engages in many activities, all of which require resources.  Finding this solution requires understanding how all of these activities work together as a system and modeling that system using mathematical and computational tools.  This is typical of research in applied mathematics.

Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) is one of many programs funded by the NSF and run by universities around the country.  These are selective programs, and students typically apply during the early spring for a program that runs in the summer, often before a student’s junior or senior year in college.  The MAA page on Undergraduate Research has a complete list of REUs in the Mathematical Sciences, as well as other summer and semester programs that include research.  By following links to the various programs, you can find out what coursework or other preparation is necessary for admission.  Some REU programs include a stipend for housing and expenses.  Students in an REU usually work in teams with one or more faculty guides.  If you are interested in pursuing research in graduate school, particularly in a doctoral program, then an REU is excellent preparation.

Our department has a selective Math Honors Program that includes a Senior Thesis component (MATH 490).  This is taken as an independent study with a member of the faculty, and it is an opportunity for the student to research a topic in depth and present at a conference or other venue.

The Math Club holds weekly Pizza and Problem-Solving sessions in which students work together on problems.  These fun experiences can help prepare you for research.

Internships can provide valuable work experience and a chance to learn more about a career or industry.  To find out more about these opportunities, check out the Career Development Office, or websites such as Internships.comLookSharp.com, or CareerRookie.com.

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