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Education and Training: Master's or doctoral degree

Salary: Median—$81,240 per year

Employment Outlook: Poor

Definition and Nature of the Work

Mathematics is the study of the measurement, properties, and relationships of quantities and sets, using numbers and symbols. Mathematicians use tools such as mathematical theory, well-defined procedures called algorithms, and the latest computer technology to solve economic, scientific, engineering, physics, and business problems. Mathematics is divided into two areas: theoretical, or pure, mathematics, and applied mathematics. However, these two areas often overlap.

Mathematicians working in theoretical mathematics are concerned with expanding and clarifying mathematical theories and laws. They seek to increase basic knowledge about mathematical relationships and formulate new laws of mathematics. Although the few mathematicians in theoretical research do not consider the practical uses of their findings, their work has been essential in many areas of science and engineering. For example, a new kind of geometry developed in the 1850s formed part of the basis for the theory of relativity, which in turn made the development of nuclear energy possible.

Mathematicians doing applied work use the theories and laws developed by theoretical mathematicians. Applied mathematicians solve specific problems in such fields as physical science, social science, business, computer science, government, biology, and engineering. They may work in the electronics industry developing new kinds of computers and software. Applied mathematicians sometimes study numerical information about medical problems, such as the effect of a new drug on a disease. Mathematicians working in the aerospace field may provide calculations that help determine whether the outside surfaces of a spaceship are properly designed to keep it on course.

Although mathematicians work in many different fields and apply their work in a variety of ways, they all use numbers. Mathematicians take abstract ideas or specific problems and put them into numerical form. They use computers regularly, as well as more traditional computational devices such as slide rules and calculators.

About three-quarters of all mathematicians are employed by colleges and universities. Most of these mathematicians teach, but some also do research. Other mathematicians work for private companies in industries such as aerospace, communications, and electrical equipment manufacturing. Most mathematicians who work for the federal government are involved in space or defense-related projects.

Many workers who are not considered mathematicians use mathematical techniques extensively. Statisticians, actuaries, systems analysts, computer programmers, and mathematics teachers all use mathematics.

Education and Training Requirements

You generally need a doctoral degree to become a mathematician. As an undergraduate, you can major in mathematics and include courses in related areas, such as statistics and computer science. If you have a bachelor's degree, you may be able to find a job as an assistant to a mathematician. You may also be able to obtain a position in an area related to mathematics in government or private industry. However, your opportunities for advancement as a mathematician will be limited. Many jobs in teaching and applied research are open to those who have a master's degree in mathematics. A job as a theoretical mathematician or a teaching and research position in a university requires a doctoral degree in mathematics. It usually takes four years to earn a bachelor's degree, another one or two years to receive a master's degree, and an additional two or three years for a doctoral degree. A career in mathematics often requires you to continue reading and studying in order to keep up with new developments in the field.

Getting the Job

Your professors and college placement office may be good sources of information about getting a job in mathematics. You can also apply directly to colleges and universities, private companies, and government agencies that hire mathematicians. You sometimes need to pass a civil service examination to get a job with the government. Professional and trade journals, newspaper classifieds, and Internet job banks may also list openings for mathematicians.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Advancement opportunities are good for mathematicians who have an advanced degree. They can become supervisors, managers, or directors of research. Mathematicians who have a doctoral degree can become full professors at colleges and universities. Many theoretical and applied mathematicians advance by becoming experts in a special area, such as algebra, geometry, or computing. They may gain the recognition of other mathematicians by publishing their findings in professional journals. Mathematicians who become experts are also often rewarded by higher salaries, especially in private industry.

Employment of mathematicians is expected to decrease through the year 2014. Those holding bachelor's degrees are usually not qualified to be mathematicians. Those with master's degrees will likely face keen competition for jobs in theoretical research. Those with master's and doctoral degrees who have strong backgrounds in mathematics and related disciplines, such as engineering or computer science, should have the best job opportunities.

Working Conditions

Mathematicians who are employed by private companies or government agencies often work a standard thirty-five to forty-hour week in well-lighted, comfortable offices. At times they may have to work overtime to complete special projects. Although mathematicians working at colleges and universities usually have flexible schedules, they often put in long hours.

Although their work is not strenuous, mathematicians must have the patience to spend long periods of time concentrating on complex problems. They must be able to work independently. They should have good reasoning ability and enjoy working with abstract ideas and solving problems. At times, mathematicians must work with others. They need to be able to listen carefully to specific problems that need to be solved in applied mathematics. They must also be able to present their own ideas clearly.

Where to Go for More Information

American Mathematical Society
201 Charles St.
Providence, RI 02940-2294
(800) 321-4267

The Mathematical Association of America
1529 Eighteenth St. NW
Washington, DC 20036-1358
(800) 741-9415

Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
3600 University City Science Center
Philadelphia, PA 19104-2688
(215) 382-9800

Earnings and Benefits

Salaries for mathematicians vary according to the location, kind of job, and education and experience of the individual. Median annual earnings of mathematicians were $81,240 in 2004. In 2005 average annual salaries for mathematicians employed by the federal government were slightly higher, at $88,194. Benefits usually include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans.

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