Unlocking Pathways to Mathematics: Exploring Math Majors and Degrees

14/09/202327 minute read
Unlocking Pathways to Mathematics: Exploring Math Majors and Degrees

Bank statements. Excel spreadsheets. A receipt attesting to the damage incurred from a shopping spree... Numbers and mathematics are part and parcel of our daily lives. They also serve as the language of science — providing ways to calculate and model all kinds of factors and dynamics that make up the natural, physical, organic, and man-made realities we live in, from life expectancy to aerodynamics and black holes...

But what are the academic pathways that aspiring math majors need to consider? And what kinds of math concepts and applications are unique to each pathway? This post provides a full exploration of math majors and degree tracks in college and highlights which math majors are best suited to specific career goals and interests, so you can approach your college decision making with more certainty, clarity, and confidence!


The Importance, Breadth, and Depth of Mathematics

Since time immemorial, mathematics has played a key role in shaping human civilization. There are traces of mathematical notations and formulas going back to important ancient civilizations in Asia and the Mediterranean. And, even in ancient contexts, there’s evidence it was used for record keeping, for commercial transactions, and also for geometry and physics.

In the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, during the 16th and 17th centuries, new pioneers of thought used experimentation and tremendous conceptual powers to make stunning advances in mathematical understanding.

During this same period, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz introduced an elegant and versatile system of math called calculus — one of the most powerful tools of modern day mathematics and physics.

“The development of calculus and its applications to physics and engineering is probably the most significant factor in the development of modern science beyond where it was in the days of Archimedes. And this was responsible for the industrial revolution and everything that has followed from it including almost all the major advances of the last few centuries.”

- Calculus for Beginners, MIT

In the more modern era, math has remained intimately intertwined with explosive growth in scientific advances and top career opportunities requiring strong and specialized mathematical foundations — for locomotion, energy generation and transfer, telecommunications, aeronautics and space exploration, astrophysics, and computer science…

Given the need for math in modeling, exploring, and verifying physical realities too small to observe with the human eye or as large as the infinite reaches of the universe…

And…in light of the ever-evolving technologies and technological solutions that are the engines of progress and economic expansion in industrialized nations today… Mathematics has a very bright future, and so do today’s math majors!

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In addition, new frontiers in economic theory and modeling, financial modeling, quantum physics, and machine learning, among others, are forged by and require  skilled mathematicians and ongoing advances in mathematical and STEM research.

This means aspiring math majors have fantastic career prospects, but as you start your college journey you need to choose from among many possible mathematics specializations and pathways.

From here, let’s explore the most foundational branches of math learning and how they differ. Indeed, charting a course toward either pure mathematics or applied mathematics is one way to begin to home in on the kind of math courses and specializations you want to pursue in college and beyond.

Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics

Pure Mathematics

Pure mathematics is a branch of mathematics that focuses on abstract concepts and principles.

Studying pure mathematics is kind of like studying the very nature and boundaries of math itself and imagining new possibilities as well!

“When I got to Harvard as a first-year student… Math was a subject I was planning on continuing so I could have a solid foundation in science classes. I then learned that there were two types of math I could study: pure mathematics and applied mathematics. Initially, I felt slightly overwhelmed because I had never heard of the distinction before; I thought math was just math!”

- Perrin, Harvard Student, Class of 2023, Harvard Student Voices

Math majors who choose a pure mathematics track study the broad principles, concepts, and techniques of math. Pure math courses are heavily proof-based and deal with theoretical possibilities of math.

As a result, a pure math pathway incorporates lots of advanced mathematics curriculum, with a specific focus on abstract concepts, theorems, formulas, and algorithms.

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The study of pure mathematics in a bachelor degree program will typically entail a variety of rigorous courses, including:

  • Calculus – students learn everything from single-variable calculus to multivariable functions, theorems, and vector analysis.
  • Complex Variables – students do specialized learning about variable-driven aspects of mathematics, including geometry, analytic functions, and residue theory.
  • Data Structures – in this area of math study students are introduced to data structures and algorithms. Topics covered range from stacks and queues to analyzing and plotting graphs.

Because math itself is the object of study in pure mathematics, study and work in this branch may be disconnected from present or real-world applications. In practice, and over time, however, pure math can and does contribute to the critical role that mathematics plays in practical scientific applications and advances.

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Applied Mathematics

Applied mathematics focuses on using mathematical tools and methods to solve real world problems in various fields. In other words, applied mathematics stays connected to practical applications. It involves the application of mathematical models, algorithms, and statistical analysis to understand, explain, and predict phenomena across different domains, such as physics, logic, or financial modeling and computation.

Applied mathematics majors will learn how to use  equations, proofs, and algorithms in ways that apply to specific jobs and tasks.

Courses required for an applied mathematics major include:

  • Calculus — Calculus offers a foundation for using math in physics and for applications related to change processes, such as motion, change, or transfer processes. In the world of knowledge and computing it can help with modeling processes that occur on a continuum.
  • Linear Algebra — Linear algebra explores the properties and operations of vectors and matrices, which are essential for solving systems of linear equations and a wide range of mathematical and scientific applications. Linear algebra provides tools to analyze and manipulate data, model real-world phenomena, and solve problems in various fields, including physics, computer science, engineering, and economics.
  • Numerical & Complex Analysis — Numerical Analysis focuses on developing algorithms and methods to approximate and solve mathematical problems using numerical techniques. Numerical analysts work to ensure the accuracy and efficiency of computations — crucial for applications in engineering, physics, computer science, and more... Complex analysis is a field of mathematics that explores functions of complex numbers — both real and imaginary. Complex analysis has applications in physics, engineering, and various areas of mathematics.
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Applied Mathematics and Computer Science

As computer technology and innovation become increasingly dominant fields of research and development, it makes sense for applied mathematics majors to get exposure to this specialized area of applied math.

“There is a strong link between computer science and math. It teaches programmers to use abstract language, work with algorithms, self-analyze their computational thinking, and accurately model real-world solutions.”

- Mathnasium, "The Five Types of Math Used in Computer Science"

Applied Math Used in Computer Science
Applied MathComputer & Data Science Applications
Binary MathematicsBinary mathematics is an essential math field for computer programming. The binary number system uses only two digits, 0 and 1. It simplifies the coding process and is essential for low-level instructions used in hardware programming. From pictures to games and even videos, computers store data using the binary system.
Linear AlgebraThis branch of mathematics provides concepts crucial to many areas of computer science, including graphics, image processing, cryptography, machine learning, information retrieval, web search, and more. Linear algebra is what makes your video games look so breathtaking, and answers whatever questions you may be asking!
CalculusCalculus is used in an array of computer science areas, including creating graphs or visuals, simulations, problem-solving applications, specialized coding, and algorithms. Differential equations are particularly important in making software tools that can predict future outputs.
Discrete MathematicsDiscrete mathematics studies mathematical structures and constitutes a common language in the universe of computer science engineers and software technicians. It is used in many computer science applications, including algorithms, computer architecture, databases, machine learning, computer networking and security, and the design of operating systems.
StatisticsStatistics help computers process massive amounts of information in the blink of an eye. Statistics is used for data mining, data compression, image analysis, and artificial intelligence.

Source: Mathnasium

“Statistics have been especially useful in speech recognition software like Apple’s Siri. Upon receiving your request, Siri records the frequencies and sound waves from your voice and translates them into a code. Siri then breaks down the code to identify particular patterns, phrases, and keywords. Statistics also back programs such as Google Translate, helping to make online translations. You can thank statistics for revolutionizing the way we use computers!”

- Mathnasium, "Five Types of Math Used in Computer Science"

Applied Mathematics & Data Science

As machine learning evolves the practical applications of data science are becoming more powerful and more widely used and sought after.

As with computer science in general, advanced mathematics is fully intertwined with data science computation. Linear algebra is used for machine learning, data compression, and image processing.

Probability theory is also used in machine learning, to build models that use patterns in data to make predictions about new data.

Statistics helps computer programs turn raw data into useful information or meaningful predictions about future events. Whether it's hypothesis testing, machine learning, or data visualization, statistics is an important application in the data science universe.

Calculus is  essential for working with large datasets and complex models. In particular, calculus is used in data science to perform optimization, for complex problem-solving functions within many constraints and parameters.

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STEM Pathways to Mathematics

Now you know that pure mathematics and applied mathematics are the two key pathways that many colleges and universities use to guide curriculum for math majors.

But, because advanced mathematics skills and knowledge are so foundational for most STEM fields, some ‘math majors’ may actually want to consider majoring in a STEM field instead — which at most schools would include an option to minor in math as well.

Let’s put it this way: if you get a degree in mathematics you might naturally find your way to a career in a STEM field where your math knowledge will be highly valuable! In fact, the right advanced math skills should help you get into leading STEM programs in college.

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Therefore, another way to develop strong math knowledge and ability is to study advanced math concepts as you pursue a STEM major. 

Questions about women in STEM fields and professions? Check out:

Closing the Gender Gap: Celebrating Women in STEM

Specialized Math Majors & Career Pathways

Statistics

At its core, statistics entails the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data to acquire insights and make informed decisions. It is indispensable in various fields like scientific research, economics, and finance.

Some subfields within statistics include descriptive statistics, inferential statistics, probability theory and regression analysis. These sub-fields provide methods for data collection and hypothesis testing, allowing for sound data-based predictions to be made.

Statisticians are high in demand across many industries like healthcare, finance, and government. The core of a statistician’s work often entails helping organizations make informed decisions, and future projections.

Actuarial Science

Actuarial science is a niche field that integrates mathematics, statistics, and business to assess and manage risk in finance and insurance sectors. Actuaries use mathematical models and statistical methods for financial forecasting used by insurance underwriters, financial analysts, and economists for risk management and other financial modeling.

“Today most actuaries are best known for their work in the insurance and pension fields, where they design financially secure benefit programs to protect people. But that is changing, and actuaries are finding themselves involved in many other areas.”

- University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Department of Mathematics

Actuaries often work for insurance, consulting, or financial companies.

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Operations Research

Operations research applies mathematical and analytical methods to optimize complex systems and decision making processes in management and business. It entails the use of mathematical models and data analysis, as well as optimization techniques.

Operations research mathematics is particularly relevant in logistics, supply chain management, and inventory control, to name just a few examples. With a strong background in mathematical models and algorithms, operations researchers are able to optimize processes to help companies bolster productivity and thereby reduce costs of production.

Operations researchers often work in industries like manufacturing, logistics, and consulting, where process optimization is in high demand.

Mathematical Biology

Mathematical biology plays a significant role in the understanding of diseases, ecology, and complex biological processes. It allows researchers to acquire insights, make predictions, and devise strategies for disease management and conservation efforts.

Career opportunities include roles in research institutes, healthcare, and government agencies…

Computational Mathematics

Computational mathematics focuses on developing algorithms and computational techniques to solve mathematical problems. Computers can be programmed to use the computational algorithms  to perform calculations and modeling.

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Computational mathematicians may pursue areas of technical specialization, such as numerical analysis, optimization, and computer-aided design. 

Majoring in computational mathematics opens doors to a career in technology and research institutions, and is also a great pathway for careers in software development.

Want to explore the professional world of computational mathematics in applied mathematics? Check out: 

SIAM (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics)

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Mathematics Education

As the name suggests, this major focuses on mathematical pedagogy and learning. Mathematics education is a field devoted to the research, development, and effective implementation of teaching methods and curriculum for math instruction.

The ubiquity of mathematics in our daily lives necessitates the need for mathematical education, especially with regard to basic numerical skills, logical reasoning, and problem-solving abilities.

Knowing advanced math is one important step to a career in math education, but the ability to teach well — and importantly, to teach math well — is a craft that can only be honed through practice, and not the mere internalization of facts.

To learn more about professional pathways in math education, check out:

AMTE (Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators)

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Common Academic Tracks for Aspiring Mathematicians

High School

Even in grades before high school, some extra focus on mathematical literacy can help younger minds build a stronger foundation for success in more accelerated and rigorous math programs in the later grades.

In high school, seeking opportunities to get into advanced college prep math courses — and stay that course for all four years — is a great way to jumpstart your transition to an undergraduate math program in college.

Also, with achievements in advanced math courses, including Honors or AP math classes, and involvement in extracurriculars that emphasize math exploration, you should improve your chances of getting into leading colleges and math programs.

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Ways to amplify your math learning and accomplishments before applying to college:

  • Talking to school academic counselors, as early as middle school, about qualifying for advanced math courses, as some advanced high school math classes may require completion of advanced math courses prior to high school.
  • Pursuing opportunities to enroll in accelerated, Honors, or AP math courses in high school
  • Participating in math-oriented extracurriculars: math circles, math clubs, pre-college academic programs, or STEM-related extracurriculars with math components.
  • Working as a math tutor, or participating in internships or part-time jobs that involve applied mathematics.

Wondering about math enrichment opportunities where you live? Some organizations offer local programs, so be sure to research opportunities unique to your community. To research more opportunities you can also try:

Math Circles

Math Circles provides support and resources for after-school programs for students, professional learning communities for teachers and mathematicians…There are nearly 300 Math Circles around the U.S., including approximately 150 Math Teacher Circles and another 150 Math Student Circles. Find a math circle near you!

Khan Academy

Khan Academy provides online resources — practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard. Subjects include math, science, computing, history, art history, economics, and more.

SummerApply!

SummerApply! offers tools and resources to help parents and students find, research, and join a wide range of pre-college summer programs, including academic enrichment, residential and online college bridge programs, internships, study abroad, and more.

Undergraduate Degrees for Math

Undergraduate degree pathways for math majors include:

AA or AS degree in math

BA or BS degree in pure math or applied math

Students who want a math-rich curriculum could also opt to pursue an undergraduate degree in other STEM fields, in lieu of mathematics:

  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Various branches of computer and data sciences
  • Various branches of engineering

Other math-rich disciplines exist outside of STEM fields too, including:

  • Economics
  • Math Education
  • Business, Finance, & Insurance
  • Accounting

Questions about undergraduate degrees? Check out:

Exploring the Spectrum: Understanding Different Types of College Degrees

A Comprehensive Overview of the Associate Degree

Charting Your Academic Path: Bachelor of Arts vs Bachelor of Science

How Much Do Engineers Make? The Financial Future of a Career in Engineering

Postgraduate

Students who complete a BA can pursue job opportunities aligned with their degree program and qualifications. And, college graduates interested in taking their math expertise to the next level, can opt to pursue an MA or MS in mathematics, or go even further and seek a PhD.

  • With a masters or PhD in pure mathematics, you would take important steps in qualifying to work in research centers or higher education roles.
  • With a masters or PhD in a specialized branch of applied mathematics, you might seek roles in higher education or, depending on your area of specialization, in any number of STEM fields, or in economics, finance, or business.

Advanced degrees in fields such as these can open doors to a world of career opportunities in the business sector, nonprofit and research sectors, in education, and in government.

Questions about postgraduate degrees? Check out:

Exploring the Spectrum: Understanding Different Types of College Degrees

Where Should I Pursue a Graduate Degree? US, UK, or Elsewhere?

All You Have to Know About an MBA

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Dual Majors and Interdisciplinary Studies

Today’s technologically driven economy has meant that the demand for individuals equipped with mathematical skills is on the rise. A dual or interdisciplinary study path can provide you with the upper hand in entering the relevant industry and securing competitive jobs.

Mathematics and Economics

One popular dual major is mathematics and economics. In this kind of program you would develop specialized expertise in applying math concepts to economics, including tasks related to financial forecasting, analysis of economic policies, statistical research, and more.

A dual major like this is highly beneficial for careers in finance, consulting, and economic research.

Mathematics and Computer Science

Obviously, a dual major in mathematics and computer science would also open doors to many opportunities. With both advanced math skills and a strong foundation in computer science, you should be well prepared to pursue challenging entry-level jobs and have an outstanding foundation for pursuing further CS certifications or technical specializations, including postgraduate degree tracks as well.

A mathematics and computer science dual major is particularly relevant for careers in software development, data science, and cryptography.

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Mathematics and Engineering

Finally, a dual major approach that combines math with a branch of engineering is another excellent way to equip yourself for a bright future with many potential career prospects.

Next Steps: Selecting the Right Math Major

With numerous math majors available, picking the right major can be a daunting proposition to many. Here’s a few next steps to do right now…

  • As you explore pathways, check out some of the links on this page that will provide you with more information.
  • Explore your current passions and interests with a supportive parent, guardian or mentor, and with input from an experienced school counselor or professional admissions advisor.
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Final Thoughts

Congratulations! You now have a truly comprehensive understanding of the world of mathematics, the academic pathways to choose from, insights into larger career prospects, and tips for the next steps on your college journey!

And while math can be a hard subject in college for some, what is certain is that math is not just challenging. It is an amazingly devised language and an elegant, adaptable code. It’s workings span various types of concepts and systems that make it possible to quite literally unlock the mysteries of physical reality — from atoms to galaxies — and the complexities of mental ones as well, across sectors stretching from aerospace engineering to economics, business, and computer science…

And now that you’ve read this far, I hereby nudge you to continue exploring the fascinating world of mathematics — particularly if math is right up your alley!

And, if you’re feeling stuck on your college journey…

Don’t let the opportunities of a lifetime pass you by.

While the costs of college have gone up, there’s good evidence that the return on educational investments are usually well worth it!

What Makes Crimson Different

Want greater clarity, a better strategy, or simply want help figuring out how high you should aim in terms of college choices?... A Crimson Advisor is ready to answer your questions.

Our Advisor and Tutoring networks, and many other targeted services, have helped over 6,000 students get into leading schools around the globe. And, our unique college pathways technology can help you manage your college journey with ease, even on the runway to the school of your dreams!

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Remember, you don't have to navigate this journey alone. Crimson provides a comprehensive suite of services, from academic mentoring and test prep to essay assistance, extracurricular guidance, and career mentoring, ensuring a holistic approach to your college preparation journey.