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Author Info

Elizabeth J. Kelly

Team Leader for Environmental Risk Assessment, Member of Technical Staff
Sandia National Laboratories

Barbara G. Epstein
Applied Mathematician
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Original Article Author

What is a mathematician?

A mathematician uses numbers and symbols in many ways, from creating new theories to translating scientific and technical problems into mathematical terms. Some mathematicians are more focused on pure mathematics. There are two types of developing mathematicians: the theoretical mathematician, who works with pure mathematics to develop and discover new mathematical principles and theories without regard to their possible application, and the applied mathematician, who uses mathematical methods to solve practical problems in such diverse areas as physics, astronomy, engineering, computer science, biology, ecology, medicine, economics, and psychology.  The pure or theoretical mathematician is more likely to teach and do research at universities or other research institutes, while the applied mathematician is likely to work for business, government, or industry. Some mathematicians have their own consulting firms.

What makes a good mathematician?

According to Karl Weierstrass, a famous German mathematician, “A mathematician who is not also something of a poet will never be a complete mathematician.” A mathematician appreciates beauty, symmetry, and order in nature and in logical and analytical thought. She should have a logical mind, a sense of curiosity, the desire and ability to solve problems, and numerical aptitude. A mathematician cannot be easily discouraged, for solving research problems often requires months of work. Some mathematical problems have remained unsolved for centuries. An applied mathematician must be able to communicate effectively and bring structure and analytical rigor to what is often a morass of confusing information. A mathematician, however, need not be a genius; a desire to work hard and an ability to formulate problems in mathematical terms is what makes a good mathematician.

What is life as a mathematician like?

A mathematician’s life is spent learning and discovering new principles and using mathematics to formulate and solve problems. The tools of a mathematician, whether she teaches in a university or works in a laboratory, government, or private industry, are few in number: she needs a pencil (and an eraser!), paper, sometimes a computer or calculator, a good library, and professional colleagues. A mathematician rarely works completely alone. A theoretical mathematician will discuss new theories with co-workers and learn from their comments, and an applied mathematician will work closely with the scientists, engineers, or other clients, who need a mathematician to help solve problems in their fields. Besides communicating with co-workers and clients, a mathematician reads mathematical and scientific publications, attends national and international professional meetings here and abroad, gives presentation talks about her work based on her research, writes technical papers, and may teach. The love a mathematician has for her work and the satisfaction she derives from it make her professional life stimulating and rewarding.

How do I become a mathematician?

A future mathematician should take four years of mathematics in high school, including algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and analytic geometry, or precalculus (if it is offered, she should take calculus). In college, she should take many theoretical math courses (calculus, algebra, real and complex analysis, geometry, and differential equations), applied math courses devoted to problem solving (probability, statistics, numerical analysis, and computer science), and physical science courses (physics, chemistry, and engineering). To widen her career options, she should acquire a broad background not only in both pure and applied mathematics, but also in the sciences such as physics, chemistry, engineering, and biology. College English composition classes are also invaluable; the ability to write clearly and correctly is essential in any profession.

A bachelor’s degree with a major in mathematics is the minimum requirement for starting positions in mathematics. To advance to higher-level positions and do research or teach at the college level, a master’s degree or a Ph.D. is necessary. Most mathematicians seeking advanced degrees decide in graduate school between pure and applied mathematics as their specialty.

What/where are the jobs?

The college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics can qualify for some positions in business, industry, government, and teaching. The opportunities and the pay increase significantly with higher degrees. Companies in the computer and communications industries employ many mathematicians as do oil companies, banks, consulting firms, and insurance companies.

Almost every bureau and branch of the federal government employs mathematicians in some capacity. Mathematicians work in universities and colleges, teaching and doing research. In most four-year colleges and universities, the Ph.D. is necessary for full faculty status. Many mathematicians with a master’s degree teach at the high school level.

Many other job titles apply to mathematicians who have specialized in an applied branch of mathematics. Actuaries assemble and analyze statistics to calculate probabilities, and thereby set insurance rates. Operations research analysts apply scientific methods and mathematical principles to organizational problems. Statisticians design, carry out, and interpret the numerical results of surveys and experiments. All of these careers begin with an education in mathematics and a curiosity about the use of mathematics to solve problems.