Math Degrees: Master's, Doctorate & Online Training Info

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What will you learn in a mathematics degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's degree and PhD and potential careers.
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Studying Mathematics: Degrees at a Glance

In graduate degree programs in mathematics, students with mathematical interests and backgrounds advance their knowledge of the theoretical foundations of mathematics and explore practical applications. Graduate degrees lead to employment in a number of different career fields, from theoretical to applied math areas. Students in PhD programs typically pursue academic careers in teaching and research. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that postsecondary teachers overall will see an employment increase of 17% from 2010-2020, about as fast as the average across all occupations. Master's degree holders will see a variety of career paths open up to them in engineering, manufacturing, finance, and more. Master's degree holder working as mathematicians can expect an average growth in the field, about 16% from 2010-2020 (www.bls.gov).

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? Individuals who wish to work in the field, teach in a junior college, or advance to PhD study Students who wish to enter the academic world as a teacher or researcher
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Mathematician ($101,000)*
- Actuary ($103,000)*
- Statistician ($77,000)*
- Financial Analyst ($88,000)*
- Junior college teacher ($72,000)*
- University mathematics professor ($77,000)*
- Post secondary education administrator ($97,000)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time; some part-time programs can be completed in approximately 3 years About 4-6 years
Common Graduation Requirements - Coursework in the subject
- Master's thesis
- Seminars
- Coursework in the subject
- Proficiency in foreign language
- Qualifying and final examinations
- Seminars
- Dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree; some experience with advanced mathematics and computer programming may be required - Bachelor's degree
Online Availability Yes None available as of June 2012

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's Degree in Mathematics

If you have a strong interest and some undergraduate experience in mathematics, you may be considering obtaining a master's degree in the field. A master's degree program in mathematics will allow you to build on your existing knowledge in a variety of topics, such as statistics, variables, and number theory. Many programs offer the option to choose a specialization track, such as applied mathematics, computational science and engineering, actuarial science, or financial mathematics. These programs will prepare you for a variety of career choices. You may find yourself working as a mathematician alongside an engineer. If you have studied financial math, you may work as a hedge fund manager, investment banker or portfolio manager.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • You will find options for flexible master's degree programs that can be completed part-time or online
  • A master's degree program in mathematics will provide a broad foundation of knowledge in the subject, covering many different areas of math
  • According to the BLS, job growth for financial analysts is projected at a faster rate than the average across all professions (23 percent from 2010-2020)*

Cons

  • Some programs only allow enrollment for students who wish to pursue PhD study in mathematics
  • Statisticians may be required to work overtime to meet tight deadlines
  • Graduates may pursue careers teaching in junior colleges or high schools, but state certification and supervised teaching experience is an additional requirement for public secondary school teachers

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Common Courses

As a student in a master's degree program in mathematics, you will be required to take a number of core courses in various areas of the subject. Some programs offer the opportunity to specialize in a particular concentration, so the courses you take may vary depending on your specialization. For example, if you are following a concentration in financial mathematics, you may take required courses in math, statistics and engineering, and electives in business and computer science. There are commonalities between the different programs available to you, and you will find yourself completing courses that provide a strong foundation of knowledge in mathematics.

Some courses you may take include:

  • Abstract algebra
  • Algorithms
  • Graph theory
  • Linear programming
  • Differential equations
  • Mathematical physics
  • Symbolic algebra
  • Scientific computing

Though it is not always required, some programs will also ask you to complete a master's thesis in a research subject of interest.

Online Degree Options

Online master's degree programs may be offered completely online or as hybrid programs that allow you to take some courses on campus. Both of these options can be useful to working professionals seeking to advance their education. Students in online programs generally take the same types of courses as students in campus-based programs. You may find some programs are specifically designed to prepare graduates for a career teaching in a junior or community college.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

For students preparing to enter a specific profession after completing a master's degree program in mathematics, earning certifications from professional associations may be a great way to advance in their chosen career field. Actuaries, for example, can become certified professionals by taking exams through the Society of Actuaries (SOA). These exams can be taken while you are still a student, and can help you get ahead by showing potential employers that you have demonstrated knowledge in this area and are serious about your career. Financial analysts may also become certified, though doing so requires work experience in addition to education and passing certification exams.

PhD in Mathematics

Students entering PhD programs in mathematics are generally preparing for a career in teaching or research in the academic world. The purpose of a PhD program is to help develop students into scholars who are capable of conducting research and working independently on their research. Graduate level courses provide a solid foundation of knowledge, but students in PhD programs spend much time answering research questions and exploring their findings. This advanced level of scholarship takes students from merely studying mathematics to doing mathematics; coursework is necessary, but original research will be the focus of your PhD program.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • PhD holders are considered qualified to work as university professors
  • Students in PhD programs generally find much independence as they pursue their own research interests
  • As enrollment in post secondary schools continues to increase, there should be continued job growth for mathematics professors

Cons

  • Some programs only allow students who wish to study full-time to enroll
  • Earning a PhD is a long process, even for a focused student, and can take up to 6 years
  • Some institutions are moving away from tenure-track appointments, so competition for these coveted positions may be strong for professors

Courses and Requirements

The required courses in PhD programs in mathematics are very similar to those of master's degree programs. You can expect to take a number of courses covering various core topics in abstract algebra, theory of complex variables, logic, probability, and more. You may also be required to study foreign languages, as you will be using technical publications in your research that may be in a foreign language. After demonstrating competence through your coursework, you will take qualifying examinations before advancing to PhD candidacy. Most of your time and efforts will be concentrated on your dissertation from that point, and the eventual dissertation defense process.

Online Degree Options

It would be very unusual to come across an online PhD program in mathematics at this time. If you do find an online program, it is important that you research it thoroughly, as it may not be from an accredited institution. Since PhD programs generally require residency and close collaboration with faculty, a campus-based program is currently the best option.

Stand Out with This Degree

Many institutions prefer to hire professors with teaching experience, so you may wish to seek out opportunities to work as a graduate teaching assistant while completing a PhD program in mathematics. Gaining classroom experience will help develop your teaching skills and confidence as a mathematics professor. Standing out is especially important as some schools are moving away from tenure-track appointments and towards part-time and limited-term professorships; competition is expected to be high for tenure-track positions.

Alternative Degree

If you're interested in working with mathematics but want to work in a more applied field, you may consider earning a doctoral degree in physics. According to the BLS, physicists earned a median annual salary of about $106,000 as of May 2011, and they were expected to see a job growth of about 14% from 2010-2020. Physicists use advanced mathematics, as well as equipment like lasers and particle accelerators, to conduct experiments or develop theories about the forces that govern the universe. A doctoral degree in physics could include coursework in subjects like astrophysics, electromagnetism, thermal physics, atomic physics and quantum mechanics. A dissertation based on original research is commonly required for graduation of this program.

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