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A Day in the Life of a Mathematician

Mathematicians generally work in theoretical mathematics or applied mathematics, and their daily routine is determined by which of these specialties they’ve chosen. Theoretical mathematicians work with mathematical theory in research and academic settings, rarely with a practical application in mind. Applied mathematicians apply mathematical principles to practical problems, such as cryptography, economic analysis and data-interference patterns. Both theoretical and applied mathematics are important in the real world; advances in both disciplines have led to breakthroughs. Theoretical mathematicians are generally mathematics professors or graduate students, with stipends or grants to work on mathematical problems that concern them. The majority use computers in their analysis, and most work alone a large part of the time. “You don’t really notice that you’re alone,” wrote one respondent about the solitude this profession maintains, “because you’re focusing on the problem.” Professional communication takes up the other large block of time in the theoretical mathematician’s life; some estimate that they spend over thirty percent of their time reading professional journals, talking on the telephone with other mathematicians, and attending conferences on related topics. The applied mathematician works in a business setting, usually on a specific task. He is paid to use mathematical concepts to analyze behavior and improve existing systems. This can involve a lot of guesswork: “About ninety-nine percent of the time you’re wrong,” said one mathematician, “so you try again. Every now and then you get something right.” Those with low failure-tolerance levels should think long and hard before entering this end of the profession. Many applied mathematicians said interpersonal skills are quite important in mathematics positions, and many wished they had taken more writing courses in college as their jobs require regular reports on progress and development. Mathematicians said the best feature of their profession is the intellectual challenge of struggling with these numbers on an everyday basis. No mathematician thought he would ever solve all the problems—most of our responders would agree with the theoretical mathematician who wrote: “You can struggle with an equation for ages, trying to get it to tell you something, but if it doesn’t want to, there’s nothing you can do.”

Paying Your Dues

There are strict academic requirements for mathematicians. Over 180 schools offer Ph.D. programs in mathematics. About 97 percent of theoretical mathematicians have a Ph.D. For entry-level positions in applied mathematics, most employers accept candidates with only a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, but many ask that those candidates have cross-disciplinary experience, such as math/computer science, or math/economics. These new hires input data, write simple analysis programs, and do basic mathematical modeling. To progress to a level of significant responsibility or leadership, many mathematicians find it helpful to earn an advanced degree not in mathematics, but in a related discipline, such as computer science, statistics, or materials engineering. A curious mind, sound deductive reasoning skills, and a willingness to approach difficult (and sometimes unsolvable) problems are all characteristics of the successful mathematician.

Present and Future

The ancient Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Egyptians made significant contributions to our knowledge of mathematics, including such discoveries as the decimal point, pi, and even the placeholder zero. Europeans made advances throughout the Renaissance, and the field truly began to blossom after the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s, which gave us Isaac Newton’s invention of calculus, and Rene Descartes’s concept of analytical geometry. The use of computers has reduced the time it takes to do extremely complicated calculations, somewhat easing the work. The number of jobs in the profession is fairly evenly divided between theoretical and applied mathematics. However, the job market is expected to be sluggish, at best, for both groups. Industry professionals are being selected for both their knowledge of mathematical theory and their proficiency in related areas. Mathematicians who are well versed in another area, such as computer science, environmental issues, medical technology, or aircraft design are likely to fare better than other mathematicians. Positions for academic mathematicians are expected to increase more slowly than other jobs. Reductions in government spending and fierce competition for teaching positions are among the challenges that aspiring mathematicians face.

Quality of Life


Theoretical mathematicians are still doing master’s work, earning their doctorate in an academic setting, while applied mathematicians are doing semi-skilled work in the business world. Those with doctorates can expect to work on projects as part of a team. Flexible academic deadlines give way to the pressure to solve practical business problems. Many new professionals spend long nights at the computer, trying to make the transition from school to work. Job mobility is high in these early years (nearly 20 percent leave the profession) as mathematicians look for an environment they feel comfortable in.


Mathematicians are heads or co-heads of projects with significant responsibility for them. Many have added managerial duties to their job, and are mentors to new hires. Most welcome this new aspect of the job. Interpersonal skills become significant, with the ability to rise beyond this point determined not by intelligence, but by effectiveness and leadership abilities.


Many ten-year veterans become experts in a chosen area of specialization. This sudden directional burst seems to be a result of diminishing career pressure, as many are in satisfying positions, and a desire to continue one’s education. A number of mathematicians become involved in professional organizations and the communities of mathematicians with similar interests.