Is it worth it to study math?

I was a math major and had ambitions to be a mathematician. That didn’t happen. Instead, I found myself in the business world.

In contrast to writing, which I consider an essential skill for almost any job, advanced mathematical ability is not clearly necessary for most jobs. But as I look back at my career, though, I can see lots of places where my mathematical and statistical skills paid off. (I took lots of stat classes, too.)

If you’re in school and are pretty good at math, you may wonder if it’s worth pursuing. My experience may help you decide.

How math paid off for me

Here’s where my math skills made a difference:

  • My first job was as a technical writer for a software company — but I got it because the hiring manager was looking for a writer who was good at math to write about a math-centric piece of software. (She wanted a writer who was good at math; she got a mathematician who could write.) My math skills made that an easy hire, since I stood out from the mass of technical writing candidates.
  • My next job was at a startup that created numerical calculation software — it was attempting to compete with spreadsheets. Again, they were comfortable with me because of my math background.
  • My first director level job was at a company called MathSoft. They wouldn’t have gone near me without the math background.
  • After that, I ended up as a VP working for a software-focused textbook publisher. The math never came up directly, but it allowed me to do all sorts of things with ease, such as projecting time and resources needed for projects and estimating page counts and costs.
  • In my 20-year job as a technology analyst, nobody said they were looking for mathematical ability. But it came up all the time. I ended up modeling market sizes in spreadsheets that were fairly sophisticated. I used matrices to model adoption of new PCs, which lead to them tapping me for a new consumer survey-based project they were debuting. Writing about surveys required me to know some statistics, and again I could go back to statistical techniques I learned more than a decade earlier. I built new products and new product features based on collection and analysis of data — and once again the statistics came in handy.
  • As a freelancer, I’ve used math to model my own work and effectively budget and estimate where my business is going — plus it occasionally comes up in the content I write about or edit.

About 90% of the math I used was simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, proportions, and percentages. I did most of it in spreadsheets. But I did those spreadsheet manipulations with a high degree of confidence, based on the mathematics background I had.

The hidden benefit of mathematics training

Math isn’t just about numbers. At higher levels, it’s about creating proofs. And that means when you study math, you develop a facility with logical reasoning.

That has stood me in good stead at every job I had. Logical argument (as opposed to emotional or fallacious reasoning) is very effective at helping you make good decisions, and at enabling you to explain those decisions to others in a persuasive way.

A businessperson armed with mathematical training is always at an advantage in any organization that values facts and truth. Looking back at my career — and across the world of business at the careers of many people I worked with — that is the true advantage of mathematical training.

If you’re any good at math, take the courses when you have the chance. They may not be the easiest things you do in school, but they’ll pay off later.

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  1. It’s completely worth it. If nothing else, a rudimentary understanding of probability and statistics helps one intelligently frame issues. Confidence intervals are invaluable in life.

  2. Agreed. My math and science majors have served me very much as you describe. They have given me strong skepticism for much of the data and research that businesses present to the world. I am continually amazed that a business will do its own research on its own offerings and the marketplace, and then present the results as proof that people should do business with them. Jeesh.

  3. My career over the past 50 years followed a similar track -early jobs programming software for numerically controlled machining systems. 6 years as an Air Force pilot followed by 3 more as a 737 Captain – the off to work in the software engineering aspect of Flight simulators. That led to 11 years at Apple as an Engineering manager before I started my own multimedia software company. All that led me to what I wanted to be when I grew up – teaching Mathematics at CSU Chico and then DePaul University – Math rocks