Am I “Smart Enough” For Math?

June 22, 2008

Editor’s Note: Of the two posts that I lost, this one I miss the most. I can’t seem to recapture what I was thinking at the time that I initially wrote it… But below you’ll find my closest approximation.

This REU has had me thinking a lot about what I really want to do in terms of academics (which is kind of the point). And more and more, the program is pushing me away from chemistry and towards mathematics / computational science / physics.

What does this mean? It means that I’ve decided to switch over to the dark side and pick up the math major again. I’m not quite ready to drop the chemistry major (though the thought has crossed my mind to switch over to a chemistry minor in order to pick up more comp sci / physics classes), and I justify this by considering chemistry as a useful background in the physical sciences and an invaluable introduction to laboratory science (even if I eventually want to avoid the lab like the plague).

Which brings up the above question: am I ‘smart enough’ for math? I know that I could easily get through remainder of my chemistry major with little fuss. The classes haven’t required all that much work (except the two semesters of organic, which required ‘putting in the time’ to memorize a lot of ‘stuff’). I’ve already had quantum chem, which is supposedly as hard as the chemistry comes. And it wasn’t really that bad (again, because it’s basically just applied calculus, and as such something I really enjoyed). That’s a pleasant thought: getting my undergraduate degree with little to no work.

But then comes the thoughts of the math major. That will take work. I haven’t had to put in the effort in the calculus courses, but I have in the proof-based ones (largely discrete). Of all my undergraduate course load thus far, it’s been the math classes that have stretched my abilities the most. And I know that the harder courses are still yet to come (I’m mainly dreading Real Analysis [think of the epsilon stuff from Calc I and II, and then make an entire course out of it…] and Abstract Algebra [I don’t really know, but I’ve heard both good and bad things on this one]). I know for a fact I’ll have to work at Real Analysis, because I don’t really find the material all that applicable to what I want to do (which is funny, because it’s apparently considered ‘applied math.’ Who knew?). Though maybe the course just has a reputation of being hard… I’ll know after I’ve had it.

And then comes the POST undergraduate experience. What do you do with a math degree? You become a professor, a high school teacher, a quant, or you work for the government. I’ll admit that the quant job sounds kind of cool (using math to make money, eh?), but I don’t think I could pull that off for too long. Of course, there’s the ‘third way,’ which is to go into applied mathematics and focus on something like mathematical physics or chemistry. Which is what I’ll probably end up doing. But it’s just kind of strange to go through all that work (more work than for a chemistry degree) and end up with a degree that’s less valuable (as a BS, MS, or PhD chemist, one can easily get a job working for the pharmaceutical companies and make big bucks in the process). It seems counter-intuitive.

But I enjoy the math. And any part of physics or chemistry that I’ve enjoyed has been because of the math. So the math I shall pursue, even if I end up broke and on the street. In which case, I’m going to rely on my engineering friends with their much more practical degrees to help me out. :)

Well, I think that more or less capture the idea of the original post. Something’s been lost, but such is life.

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4 Responses to “Am I “Smart Enough” For Math?”

  1. dave in the west said

    Pain. Fear. Doubt. You have to let it all go Neo.

  2. Vincent said

    Thanks for this. I am considering a change into a field that is very math intensive. I find myself asking myself, “Am I smart enough for this?” Having no real history in math classes makes me question this. However, this article gives me something to chew on. Thank you.

  3. Sean Carrigg said

    I enjoyed this article… I am going through a similar situation. I am currently a chemistry and bioresource research major (BRR, a thesis-oriented program that most people have never heard of even on my campus), and I am thinking about switching from the chem/BRR combination to mathematics/BRR. I’ve realized that I really love math, have enough skill, and I guess that is enough reason to switch majors. As an aspiring biologist, I know that math is becoming more and more important to this field. It has been said that while the 20th century was the century of physics, the 21st century will be the century of biology; we should expect the field to undergo drastic changes, and soon enough biologists will be required to be just as math-literate as today’s chemists and physicists. I have been thinking that building the math skills should prepare me for a successful career in biology or any of the sciences because it builds a firm analytical background.

    I wouldn’t worry about “ending up on the street.” From what I have read, math majors tend to be employed more often and have higher job satisfactions. First of all, employers tend to like math majors because they know how to solve problems, think analytically, think “outside the box,” and apply previous skills to new situations (all skills gained from the math major. Think about the applications of math; in a way, math forms the foundation of our society. It has applications in almost every field, including (but certainly not limited to) science, engineering, finance, business, economics, law, medicine, the list goes on and on… in fact, you’d probably have a higher chance of getting into medical or law school than your fellow chemistry majors. If you didn’t think you had as much of a chance in graduate school, you could always attend professional school to get a more “practical” graduate degree. While an art major is basically useless and you would be likely to end up on the streets, math is definitely NOT.

    Even though you have probably made your decision by now, good luck!

    • Hi Sean,

      Thanks for the kind words. I have in fact made up my mind. I am currently in a PhD program in Applied Mathematics and Scientific Computation at University of Maryland, College Park. And I am very happy with my decision!

      At the time that I wrote this post, I didn’t really know anything about the opportunities afforded to a mathematics major. I come from a family of chemists, and that is the only career path I had known all my life. I saw mathematics more as a hobby then as something I could pursue full time. The following summer (of 2009) I did an REU in applied mathematics and found my true passion.

      If you enjoy math and excel in mathematics classes, I say you go for the switch! Switching from chemistry to mathematics was one of the best things I ever did academically.

      Good luck with all of your future endeavors!

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