Is A Math Degree Useless?

"I started out as a computer science major, but I’m in my second year of college and I’m thinking seriously about changing my major. I don’t really like CS; I don’t find it intuitive, and I’m not really very good at it either. I do like math, though, and I have taken several calculus classes as well as a geometry class. My professors have been trying to convince me to switch. The idea is appealing; I would certainly be happier as a math major than I am as a CS major, but there were a lot of job opportunities in CS. Are there many jobs in math? It’s not exactly my dream to stand in front of a high school class teaching algebra to sleepy students. Is a math degree useless?"

asked by Evelyn from San Jose, CA

Whether or not math is the right field for you, Computer Science is probably the wrong field for you if you do not enjoy it. Yes, there may be a lot of job opportunities out there, but if you would struggle every day in those jobs and ultimately be unhappy, they will not pay off for you anymore than becoming a high school math teacher would. So that is something to think about; regardless of what you ultimately major in, you may want to consider switching degree fields simply so you are not studying something you do not excel in.

As for mathematics, you are right that a lot of math majors end up teaching high school and middle school students—or elementary school students. Those aren’t the only possibilities for a math major, though.

There are many opportunities in different fields. In business and finance, you could become an applied mathematician, economic or financial analyst, investment manager or analyst, market researcher, or actuary.

Statisticians can find jobs in various sectors, and if you are still interested in computer science, you will be glad to know that math majors also can become programmers and do work similar to that which you are already pursuing. There are also emerging opportunities in genomics, data mining, neuroscience, and digital imaging.

And if teaching interests you (outside of secondary school), you can become a university instructor if you pursue a higher degree in mathematics. Many university professors who teach math are primarily researchers. They teach classes in exchange for funding and support for their scholarly pursuits exploring the frontiers of mathematics.

So is mathematics a useless degree? I see no reason to think so, particularly if any of those opportunities interest you. Sit down with an advisor in your department and discuss the possibilities. What specific field of mathematics you are interested in may impact your choice for other classes.

For example, if you were interested in business mathematics, you might consider a double major in business or simply take a number of business or finance classes as electives.

Good luck pursuing your dreams. Your chances of success and happiness are always greatest when you do some advance research and come up with a specific plan for achieving your goals.

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