Absolute Value-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Absolute Value

From the chalkboard to the boardroom, mathematicians are in demand

Photos of math alumni

Clockwise from top left: Zalenda Cyrille (S’01), Mark Fields (S’08), Eileen Tucker (CMU’09) and Tamara Friedlander (S’07)

For years the groans of math students have echoed off academic walls far and wide: ‘When am I EVER going to use this stuff??’ But a ranking of the 200 best and worst jobs in the country reveals that using that stuff may be just what the doctor, or teacher, orders for a successful career. It turns out that mathematicians—those theorem-proving denizens of the derivative—have the best job in the country.

From CNBC and NPR to the Wall Street Journal, everyone has been talking about what makes mathematicians stand out above other occupations. And it’s not just the pleasant, autonomous, low stress work environment. Mathematicians earn excellent salaries and the job outlook is very promising—they’re in demand in industries ranging from software giants and global marketing firms to banks and government entities like the Food and Drug Administration.

That high demand is good news for Carnegie Mellon’s math majors. While recent graduates are facing one of the toughest job markets in memory, MCS math grads are easily finding jobs, some of them with starting salaries topping most anything seen in the recent past.

“Industry recruiters are looking for people with good quantitative skills, and mathematicians are hard-wired to be problemsolvers,” said Renée Starek, assistant director of Carnegie Mellon’s Career Center. “Our math majors have what these companies are looking for. They can pursue any career that they want.”

So what makes a mathematician so versatile? Zalenda Cyrille, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2001 with a degree in math, says it’s the “analytical, problem-solving mind” that a math major develops from his or her education.

And there are problems aplenty in both industry and academia that can benefit from a mathematician’s acumen. Take Cyrille, for example. As an undergraduate she interned at the National Security Agency, where she learned the basics of cryptography and worked on real-world national security problems. Now, she’s an associate engineering manager at Lockheed Martin, where she directs teams of engineers that work on special projects for the defense contractor.

Cyrille’s career is a far cry from the stuffy academic image most people have of mathematicians—an outdated stereotype dating back to days of pocket protectors and hornedrimmed glasses. These days you can find math “nerds” leading teams of engineers, like Cyrille does, or helping Las Vegas’s top casinos decide how to invest their money.

“The most common question I get from students is, ‘What can I do with a math degree?’” Starek said. “My answer: ‘Anything!’ ”

After her internship with the National Security Agency, Cyrille had recruiters from companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon pounding on her door. She went with the offer from Lockheed Martin, which, she says, gave her a blank slate to plan her future.

“It was basically, ‘What do you want to do?’ ” she said.

Lockheed gave Cyrille the opportunity to join a rotational program that allowed her to try out different jobs, which she did before working her way up to a management position. They also helped her earn her master’s degree in systems engineering from Virginia Tech.

It’s a Mathematical World

“At our core is the desire to know numbers, to dig down to the essence of a problem to find out what makes it tick,” said John Mackey, associate department head for Mathematical Sciences. “Is there a discipline out there that doesn’t need someone to analyze at such a deep level?”

In the aerospace industry, mathematicians model airflow over airplane bodies and develop tools for inventory control for airplane parts in the factory. In the biological sciences, mathematicians use differential equations to determine how cells move and to create models that describe the dynamics of the immune system, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and various drug combinations. For mathematicians, in a world that is becoming more quantitative and more mathematical, the possibilities are endless.

Mark Fields, a 2008 Carnegie Mellon math grad, took the problem-solving skills he developed from his undergraduate education and turned them into a full-time position at Microsoft. Fields, who considered applying to graduate schools before beginning his job search, says that the training he acquired as an undergraduate prepared him for his career in ways that might not have been obvious at first.

“The process of debugging a program is not too different from the process of going through and checking to see if you wrote a proof properly,” Fields said. “You can have a bug in a proof just like you can have a bug in a program.”

A fair number of recent Carnegie Mellon math grads are also applying their skills where you might least expect them these days—the moneyed halls of high finance. While it seems like the opposite should be true, jobs in finance are still there, waiting for trained mathematicians to fill them.

Eileen Tucker, a 2009 Carnegie Mellon grad with degrees in mathematical sciences and statistics, works for JPMorgan, but she didn’t have the smoothest ride getting there. After her sophomore year, Tucker completed a 10-week internship with Bear Stearns that culminated in an internship offer for the summer after her junior year (2008). When the company collapsed and was sold to JPMorgan, JPMorgan not only honored the original internship offer but also offered Tucker a full-time job in its Financial Analytics of Structured Transactions (FAST) division.

As an intern, Tucker worked with the FAST group, which does all of the analytics for the company’s fixed income products. Now that she’s an analyst for the group, Tucker develops different models at various default and interest rates, follows them over different yields, and relays the model’s predictions to traders who use the information to make decisions. A good portion of Tucker’s fellow interns were business majors, but Tucker’s background in math and statistics set her apart.

“It was particularly advantageous to have a less conventional background doing an internship in finance,” said Tucker. “The math degree just seems to be very versatile. You can apply math to pretty much anything; it’s more a way of thought than necessarily a trade skill.”

Tamara Friedlander is another math graduate who turned her degree into a job in finance. After graduating in 2007 with degrees in mathematical sciences and statistics, she landed a job with Bank of America’s Quantitative Management Associate Program (QMAP), which prepares individuals with exceptional quantitative and interpersonal skills for careers as quantitative management professionals. Her current job is to develop reporting and analytics that deal with overdrafts for corporate and commercial clients. Given the current economic situation, there has been an increased focus on all areas of risk, including overdrafts, explains Friedlander.

“Allowing a client to overdraft is in essence extending unsecured credit, so it is important to understand this behavior in terms of what drives the overdrafts, how quickly clients pay us back, if systemic overdrafts are reflective of something else, etc.,” she said.

Friedlander is part of a group that is answering these types of questions through data analytics and by developing meaningful reporting and metrics to better understand and manage this risk.

She says the problems she analyzes at Bank of America require the same core skills she learned at school. And despite the trouble in the financial industry, those talents remain in high demand at Bank of America.

“I’ve noticed at the bank that they really do value this skill set,” said Friedlander, whose program hasn’t reduced its targets in terms of recruiting.

It’s not just the banks that are on the lookout for math students. Starek, who provides career and professional development advising to students in the college’s math department, says she doesn’t foresee a waning demand for our students.

“In the past three years, despite the economy, there has been no difference in the rate of math students accepting employment offers or going on to graduate school, which indicates that the jobs are still there and that our students are in high demand,” Starek said.

In a world that’s becoming more mathematical, where a math education can springboard its students into more fields than even their own models could predict, the answer for teachers confronted with the “What will I ever do with this stuff?” question is simple.

Whatever you want.