Without a doubt, the most frequently asked question I get when I tell people that I study math is, “So what do you want to do with that?” And it’s a fair question. The math major offers an incredible amount of leeway and as a result students in the department have a huge range of interests and intents. Some students are dead set on entering academia and pursuing the life of a mathematician, while others are ready to enter the world of industry and never look back.
To get a feel for the academic diversity in the Berkeley undergraduate math community, I talked to three different students with three different careers paths and asked them how they got there and where they’re looking to go. The following responses have been edited for clarity.
Name: Munashe Mazonde
Major(s): Applied Mathematics (Economics concentration)
What made you get into applied mathematics?
M: I came in wanting to do business, and then realized I didn’t want to do that because it was too competitive. Then I switched to economics, but then I realized I wanted to do something more quantitative. And then I was like okay, I already like math, let me do math.
What do you plan on doing with what you’ve learned?
M: Something in data science, FinTech, that sort of thing. When I went back home I worked at an asset management company. And most of the people I know of doing math have, like no intention of pursuing math. I’m pretty sure it’s of the Berkeley influence, since everyone’s doing data science.
Do you think it would be useful for students to have more exposure to academia and what mathematics research entails? What about for industry?
M: Yeah, one hundred percent. Because you’ll never know if you like it until you try it. If it was there, I would definitely try and take it just to see what it’s about. And then I would go from there, like I actually might enjoy it and be like, ‘Oh okay I’m going to do math research now’. For industry, math isn’t really one of those subjects that has an industry. You just kind of hop onto other industries and burrow in there. But it’s on math students to jump in on their own and find these. It shouldn’t be, but it is. There should be more resources, because there are people who take math, but they have an applied math concentration, and they’re going to be looking for industry jobs outside mathematics.
Name: Alekos Robotis
What was your initial interest in mathematics?
A: I guess I always liked it when I was younger. My grandfather taught me a bunch of stuff when I was really young, like five or something, but after that I didn’t really do too much until sophomore year of college. That was when I got properly interested. I took Math 54 and I was pretty interested because I found linear algebra was really cool and geometric and it wasn’t like calculus. You know, I was like oh wow this isn’t calculus, there’s other stuff. And then I took discrete math; it was pretty good but it was interesting since it was very different from what I’ve learned in the past.
Once you decided on math, what areas did you hone in on?
A: One of my friends was going to take Math 113 over the summer after my sophomore year, so I was like “Hey I’ll take it with you, whatever let’s do it.” It was a lot of work, but it paid off and from there I thought algebra was the thing. Then I took Math H104 with Professor Pugh in the fall, and then I thought analysis was really cool. Now I guess I’m really into topology and geometry stuff, but I definitely kind of like everything.
Are you planning on graduate school once you finish at Cal?
A: So I’m doing a masters for now, a two-year masters at the Courant Institute at NYU. I want to do a thesis, and then get into a pretty good Phd program after. They have a really good geometry program, and a lot of applied math stuff but that’s not really my interest.
Have you ever seriously considered working as opposed to grad school?
A: Not really. I kind of entertained the possibility of what I would do. But it’s not really interesting to me, a nine to five has never appealed to me. I don’t like being told what to do by anyone, and I don’t like telling people what to do. I think in a good academic setting, you can kind of just be independent, more or less, of the authority chain. You have obligations, but there’s no boss saying “you need to finish this at this time”.
Have you had any math research experience? Does it affect your perspective going forward into the world of academic math?
A: I didn’t get any REUs, but nonetheless I’ve had a lot of experience talking with and being around a lot of academics. With all the graduate students I tried to make myself close to them, so I could get insight from them often. So I think, maybe, I have an idea of what it will be like. Even with a lack of experience towards participating in math research, I think that if you’re trying to do academia, you’re going to be learning for a long time before you start doing. So I think part of it is just learning to enjoy the journey.
Name: Casey Zhang
Major(s): Mathematics, Computer Science
What made you originally get into mathematics?
C: Back in freshman year I thought I was going to do two out of the three: math, CS, and physics. I was choosing these because back in high school these were the subjects I liked and was good at. And then I realized that math was something that, one, is pretty fun to do, and two, is something that I should probably just know. Especially in the lower division series, you get the feel that this is stuff you need for every other major.
Now that you’re in math and CS, what is your exact math focus? Is it more CS aligned or is it completely disjoint from the CS portion?
C: So this semester I’m taking topology, which I’m actually liking less than I thought I would. Right now I’m really interested in algorithmic studies, so I’m in a reading course with Professor Papadimitriou, and that’s pretty fun. I really haven’t looked at that much math outside of the core classes.
It seems like you’re more CS oriented than math at this point. What are you planning on pursuing in the near future?
C: In the future I would think that the easiest route for me would probably just be to go into CS industry. I’ve thought about grad school, but if I were to do grad school, I think I would probably choose CS over math. I feel like if you go into math grad school, you hardcore do math. After math grad school, chances are you’re going to be researching math or be a math professor somewhere. I’m not sure if that’s what I want to do because I still like the CS side of things, and I still want to do CS throughout my life. If I were to do grad school in CS, I would still have a range of options from teaching to research to also industry.
So this was a look into the past and some projected futures of three different students. If you’re still looking to hear more stories and perspectives, feel free to come to any of the peer advising office hours in Evans 959! Our times and specializations can be found at https://math.berkeley.edu/programs/undergraduate/advising.