Math Gets Around: Finding a Job and Keeping Your Soul

Hello friends.  My apologies for not writing over the past couple of weeks, but I was away at a conference.  Being at math conference has its pluses and minuses (pun intended), but one nice thing about being surrounded by other mathematically inclined individuals is that you never have to explain what it is mathematicians do.  You may talk a great deal about your research specifically, but everyone understands what it is to do mathematics.

In general, however, math jobs don't get much buzz, aside from academic jobs and the oft-mired quants who have received varying degrees of blame for the recent recession.  That's why I'd like to highlight this recent post from the Scientific American blog, which discusses quantitative non-academic job opportunities at start-ups that have nothing to do with finance.

At first glance, it might seem like these companies have nothing to do with one another.  Kickstarter aims to connect people with fundraising opportunities for projects they may be interested in, ranging from film, to journalism, to art.  OkCupid, arguably the most well known company discussed, is a free online dating sight.  Simulmedia data mines information from TV set-top boxes to "address the growing audience fragmentation problem for television networks and simultaneously help viewers discover the shows they might enjoy."  Finally, Snooth is building a database and online community for lovers of fine (and not so fine) wine.

While the mission statements for these companies are quite different, the problems that each company faces have a common thread: the need for strong and meaningful quantitative analysis.  Whether you're analyzing the effectiveness of a fundraising project, or trying to help people find other people to hook up with, there is undoubtedly a mountain of data running around behind the scenes that is begging for analysis and modeling.  Moreover, this disparate collection of companies all beholden to mathematics is not really new - indeed, as our ability to collect reliable data increases, so too will our need to analyze that data to draw accurate conclusions.  If anything, this post highlights the growing need for mathematical minds in a variety of fields.

For some, however, simply giving math students a career opportunity outside of finance is the greatest reward.  As Columbia mathematician Chris Wiggins points out, "I've been watching very talented students go price derivatives and have their souls sucked dry … You can stay on the island [of Manhattan] without inventing weapons of financial mass destruction."  Indeed, whether you have a passion for art, love, television, or booze, this goes to show you that a background in mathematics will serve you well.  The same is likely true no matter what your passion, if you can only find a way to bring mathematics into the fold.  Be warned, however: if you don't figure out a way to do it, chances are someone else will.

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