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All in the numbers: Jobs for mathematicians

  1. December 09, 2007
  2. Caroline Cadwell and Richard Berman
  4. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2007/12/09/JOBScadwellberman.DTL

Einstein was one of them. So was Euclid. But mathematicians in the Bay Area today don't have job titles like "E=MC2 guy" or "father of geometry." On the other hand, math whizzes have plenty of opportunities to make differences outside of traditional academic settings. So while the word "mathematician" might conjure up images of ratty tweed jackets and chalkboards festooned with arcane symbols, the reality is that they are helping to design products, make hedge funds successful, cure cancer and even make cell phone calls more reliable.

In fact, job candidates with advanced training in math — of which there are more than a few right here in the Bay Area thanks to several world-class programs right in our backyard — can work in industries such as finance, programming, academics and insurance, just to name a few. People who hold master's degrees or doctorates in mathematics may be skilled at crunching numbers, but their real value to many employers is that they are advanced problem solvers, and the types of problem solving skills necessary to achieve a master's in science or a doctorate in math are valuable and transferable in today's job market. Growth in the last 20 years in the computer industry, especially related to the Internet, has aided in creating many new jobs requiring an advanced knowledge of math and an ability to analyze data and solve problems.

It may be trendy to mock mathematicians as the uber-geeks of our society but the reality is that being a numbers savant is anything but a ticket to a life of friendless isolation. In fact, working in the field often requires mathematicians to network extensively and work in teams to find the best solutions and methods to complete tasks, and many jobs — even outside of universities — encourage scholarship. Many people would be shocked to discover that papers published in mathematical journals are just as likely to be written by mathematicians working in private industry as they are by full-time academics.

Mathematicians are often hired to study markets, examine patterns and find ways to evaluate large amounts of data. Even marketing, advertising and sales departments in a variety of industries require the services of mathematical analysts to help them understand the best approaches and most effective methods to succeed, whether it's developing insurance products, defining a go-to-market strategy for a consumer item or analyzing poll data to support a candidate during an election campaign.

Many technology-industry positions ask that candidates have some knowledge of certain programming languages or databases. Other industries, such as the pharmaceutical and medical research industries, also seek mathematicians. "Most of the nontraditional roles I see mathematicians taking on have to do with being in a team that is trying to analyze complicated number sets," says Robert Bryant, director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, a Berkeley-based organization that has been providing a forum for mathematicians to seek peer support, participate in workshops and discuss ideas in math-related fields for the last 25 years. "A lot of this work is being done by teams of mathematicians and biologists who are looking for patterns and working to be able to match gene sequences, which are useful in various developmental aspects of biology. Teams of mathematicians are also studying the progression of diseases in humans, even how agents like HIV, hepatitis or influenza move through the population, to understand what the best strategies are for stopping them."

The financial services industry also depends heavily on mathematicians to study and analyze money markets and often depend on them to also create tools for others to use in the industry. Barclay Global Investors, headquartered in San Francisco, is seeking a trading research analyst, who will "design, develop, maintain and support trading analytic tools used by trading, research, portfolio managers and strategists across the firm."

Security is another industry in which mathematicians in the Bay Area may find themselves working. The National Security Agency highlights the value of a degree in mathematics within the security field, including sub-specialties such as cryptography and complex algorithms. Like other employers that hire numbers specialists, the NSA also values the ability of mathematicians to work as part of a team when coordinating with other departments within the organization, and encourages its mathematicians to "train with professionals in such fields as computer science and signals analysis."

The number of industries that rely on mathematics in a behind-the-scenes way is surprising, and continues to expand as new technologies and applications for math are created. And because mathematicians are historically in somewhat short supply, the expansion of career opportunities for them creates an even better market for job candidates.

For mathematicians seeking a more traditional career path, there are still plenty of opportunities for academics who prefer to work in what is often called "pure mathematics." In fact, in a well-known (although possibly apocryphal) story related by Paul Hoffman in his book "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers" (Hyperion, 1999), a mathematician who had spent his entire career in universities until being recruited to work on the Manhattan Project, said that his work on the nuclear bomb was so mundane that he fretted about "having to work with actual numbers" rather than in abstract concepts.

The breadth of opportunities for mathematicians is good news for Bay Area job seekers, whether they wish to teach, research, write textbooks, create algorithms for security or hedge funds, create tools to analyze insurance risks or financial market behavior, decode cryptic messages for the government or private firms or consult with biologists to understand and cure cancer.