Want a High Paying Job? Do the Math

July 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Economics

math_skillsBeing an engineer turned patent lawyer, I had to post a quick link to this article about the most lucrative college majors. Twelve of the top fifteen majors listed in the study are in engineering. The other three are computer science, construction management and actuarial science.

The characteristic common to all of them: math skills.

Unfortunately, many students in the modern era run away from math like it’s the swine flu. They prefer the safety of a dumbed-down “business” degree where they can talk about “marketing” and “leadership” and being an “entrepreneur.” If they are fortunate, they might learn some accounting. If that “business” degree  isn’t enough to get them a decent job, they toss on an MBA for good measure, thereby enlarging the gap in their career preparation.

As I have said before, our economy needs more engineers and fewer MBAs.  Not enough folks acquire the skills to do anything productive – to solve problems, to design/build things that can make a real difference in people’s lives.  On the career earnings side, this becomes a classic case of supply and demand. You want to have something the employers – and our economy – need. Proficiency in math and its practical application is one of those things.

So Mommas, don’t let your children grow up to be cowboys business majors. Show them the math.

(Oh – and don’t send them to law school either. There are way too many of us out here already.)

Photo credit: alist

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9 Responses to “Want a High Paying Job? Do the Math”
  1. Michael says:

    What do you, Mr. TML, think of individuals who are trained in “Math Skill” majors who choose to go on to receive MBAs, or *shudders at the thought* law degrees?

    Take myself as an example: I’ve received both a BS in Computer Science, and an MS in Computing and Information Sciences from an “Engineering” school. I’m very good at what I do (writing code) but I find myself surrounded by “business” folk who have not even the faintest grasp of basic economics and accounting (I minored in both by-the-way). The upshot of that being that I’m seriously considering putting my career as a software engineer on hold (I’m about to turn 27) to return to school for an MBA. I believe that I have worked it out so that I will not have to pay for tuition, and will even receive an assistantship, the downside being that I would have to stop working full-time (one of the conditions of the assistantship) while I’m in the program.

    Am I naive to think that I can bring my engineering/math sense to the business world? What do you think of the prospects of someone with high-level technical skills entering the job market with the hopes of “bridging the gap” between two very different worlds?

    I’m very interested to hear your comments on the idea…

  2. Rick Beagle says:


    I hope you don’t mind me chiming in here, but let me answer your query with this, go for it. Financial institutions have LARGE IT software teams and an MBA with software development skills would do extremely well. If you pick up your certs in project management as well (good way to learn budget mapping, and improve networking skills – imho)….

    One last note, make sure you understand that you will probably need to refresh your skills, and will likely take a pay cut when you come back into the market.

    Rick Beagle

  3. MasterPo says:

    Math is a beautiful thing! I sure hope my children can truly master it.

    But math is as much an art as a science. Like with art you either have it or you don’t. Sure you can teach someone how to paint, sculpt, play a musical instrument etc but there’s a big difference between that and someone who can truly make great wonders with the medium.

    I too am in IT. For me designing a program is easy. I see it in my head and just write the code down. But for others, they see it as nearly magical when I program even the simplest thing.

    Each person has certain talents and a pension for math isn’t always it. I agree it is *crucial* be learn as much as you can but not everyone is going to be a walking calculator.

  4. cjbr549 says:

    I don’t agree with you completely. Although there are people out there who just can’t do the math, because their brains aren’t wired that way, there are many more who just avoid it because it’s difficult. I have a BS and MS in engineering, and can attest to its difficulty in college. In fact, I still wake up bolt upright covered in sweat sometimes from college nightmares. It was traumatic, at best. There were math geniuses that didn’t need to study as much, there were others that had to work their butts off to graduate with the 3.0 that they did and there were the rest of us in between. So I think there are plenty out there with the potential to put their math skills to work, but choose not to because it’s too hard. A case in point: the University I went to was a state school (almost all engineering and hard science), and fairly difficult. Their entry standards were high. So everyone who got in had the math skills the University deemed necessary to complete a degree. Half were gone after the first semester. That tells me that they just didn’t have the guts to go through 5 years of hell to get an engineering degree, not that they weren’t talented enough at math (their SAT’s said otherwise).

    I don’t know if I would rush to get an MBA at your age. From what I have seen, you will likely move into management as your career progresses if you choose to and your employer is fairly large. You might wait till then to get the MBA and focus on something like project management, which is likely what you will be doing. Don’t know if I would give up a paying job right now to go back to school, but If you got canned it would be a good time to think about going back anyway. By the time you finished, the job market will likely be on the way back up. Good luck.

  5. MasterPo says:

    I think everyone can do math just like everyone can do art or play a musical instrument. But “doing” and really being skilled is the difference between me pounding out a tune on a piano and a musician getting the girl with his song. 😉

    But I agree. A great many people take the easy way out and don’t try.

  6. kitty says:

    Michael – another software engineer here, although I’ve worked all of my life for the same company (IBM), more than half of it in Research.
    I would second Rick Beagle in that an MBA with good technical background should do well. I am curious though that you mention “coding” as something you do well. Surely as a highly skilled software engineer with an MS you should do more than just coding i.e. stuff like design/system architecture, some problem solving too e.g. answering a question “How on earth would I do it” where the answer isn’t a type of thing you’ll find in a text book or web, but something you need to think about.

    If your main problem is that you are surrounded by business folks, than you should be able to compete with them nicely by having both MBA and technical skills. If, on the other hand, you’d prefer to be surrounded by skilled technical people you could try to get a job with a technology company like Google, or Microsoft or IBM, in R&D. Than your managers could be guys with PhDs not MBAs. At least this is the case where I work. The managers are mostly PhDs up to the director of Research.

    I would second Master Po in that not everyone has aptitude for math. In my school, in college, and when I was a TA in grad school, I met quite a few people who just couldn’t get it. I remember sitting down with a friend and trying to explain to her the first chapter of the probability theory text book, and she just couldn’t grasp it (and I am actually not bad at explaining). She then failed mid term. Very hard-working woman too.

    A lot depends on a given university and even a given professor. In some places and with some professors it’s easier. E.g. if you get a professor that gives you problems similar to those explained in class, most people can pass. But I’ve had professors who had problems that required actual thinking and creativity. Type of problems where if you blindly followed the same algorithm described in text book, you’d be doing it until the end of exam. But if you just look and think a little, the solution would be very simple. I like Master Po music analogy.

  7. kitty says:

    “That tells me that they just didn’t have the guts to go through 5 years of hell to get an engineering degree, not that they weren’t talented enough at math (their SAT’s said otherwise). ”
    This is the thing. I finished school in Russia and college/grad school in the US, so I haven’t done SATs. If I am not mistaken, SAT is a multiple choice exam, right? How many math problems that requires logical thinking did you have to solve on SAT? How many problems at SAT require you to prove something? Math is not just about computations or substituting formulas you’ve learned. Math is about ability to think logically. Not everyone has that. I think the fact that half of the people were gone after the first semester shows that they aren’t as good as their SAT showed.

    A daughter of a friend of mine got a very good grade on SAT as well. In Cornell she try to take a math course that was taken by math majors (the class was taught by a Russian professor). She just couldn’t do it. She had all the prerequisites, just couldn’t solve the problems they had to do on an exam. BTW — she is a published fiction writer now, her first published short story won O’ Henry award, her first book won a bunch of awards too. So clearly, her talents lie elsewhere.

    Incidentally, one thing I noticed when I was a TA is that how many Americans even CS majors haven’t learned the concept of proof at school. When I was TAing a compiler design class, one homework problem was to prove the equivalency of two grammars. Quite a few guys showed how it works in two cases and thought it was a proof. I actually quite enjoyed crossing it out and writing “this is not a proof”. Back in Russia when I went to school, we learned the concept of proof in 6th grade… First thing at our geometry class – this is the definition of a theorem, this is a definition of an axiom ad this is the difference. Some of the geometry problems they had on math competitions – I’d bet the vast majority of people with excellent SAT wouldn’t have been able to do it. Yet, they didn’t require any specific knowledge beyond some basic geometry, only the ability to think in a certain way.

  8. I completely agree with the post, and would like to just chime in and agree with the comments regarding an MBA combined with a technical degree. That’s a powerful combination that I’ve seen in action.

    Two side points –

    I’m one of the overpopulation of lawyers and I agree that there are too many of us (I’m surprised and excited when someone isn’t a lawyer;))

    There’s a great discussion in Outliers about why Americans lag in math. One of the key reasons was because we let the kids off in the summer. My kids are officially doing math and science camp in the summer – aptitude be damned!

  9. Jinia says:

    The US is suffering from a shorage of math majors.I believe some of the fault can be placed on our schools since the very places we hope will teach us any subject fail to do so.Students aren’t taught that life is hard work,insead they look for the easy way out in any easy subject in college just to graduate.Students have no idea how educaion is more than a diploma to get work afterwards,it is also a lesson in disapline one hopes.

    I have always exceled a math so I can say these things but some people just aren’t good at nath,it’s a fact of life.I’m absolutely terrible at foreign language and have always hated to read unless the subject was about math,geology or astromony.

    All one can do is try and get some hopefuls over the fear of math.There might be some poential math potential out there which wasn’t trained properly.Other than this most people run and hide when they hear the word MATH.The American mindset must change or we will forever be looking for talent elsewhere.

    One huge lost resourse are our girls.In our society instead of encouraging girls we tell them girls aren’t supposed to be good in math.This is such an outrage.Girls of course can do math but we need to get over these rediculous sterotypes or we are doomed.America needs to live up to being a FREE country.Females in other parts of the world never face this gender bias,so neither should American females.I was lucky to have never been brainwashed but I knnow women who think they can’t do math because they are womeb.So let’s stop the sexism and encourage females in rhis field.Our country’s future depends on having both genders encouraged.

    I’m going to take Applied Math in graduate school after I take a solid major in Math.I will be the only person in my family with these degrees.

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