Edit: This question is now closed for being not related to math, but many people pointed out that becoming an actuary is one of the most viable career path for someone with skills in pure math.

Noone I've ever talked to knows what mathematicians do when they drop out of grad school or fail a postdoc or don't get tenure. That's because professors are exactly the people that didn't experience those things, and don't seem to keep in contact with those that do.

I went to an AMS research session for recent grads over the summer, and they admitted that they don't know either, and that they are planning to do a study or two to find out.

My question is this: for those who planned on a career in pure math and then stopped at some point by choice or otherwise, what do you do now?

I'd also be interested in anecdotes about friends and other students you know or knew, and also other related stories.

As for my stories, I have a friend with a PhD in pure math who teaches at a cool private high school, but everyone else I know is at a teaching college or a postdoc or still in school.

Brian Rushton
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    I am an undergrad economist, and this can be my research field! Very nice question. Up now I always thought that grad math students are the blessed ones, and they can handle any math with ease, but you have opened my eyes as well as a new way! – Silent Dec 29 '13 at 04:14
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    One word: Industry – Alex Dec 29 '13 at 04:16
  • Is pure math useful at industry? Or do they go to the fields with no-math or applied math? – Silent Dec 29 '13 at 04:19
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    This seems like the kind of question that might get closed quickly, but it might last longer if it was CW. – Stahl Dec 29 '13 at 04:37
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    @Brian Rushton : this is a sampling of what some of the people I went to grad school with are doing (most of them in this list finished their Ph.D. and couldn't get an academic job they liked and that paid enough): actuary (actually several of them), NSA, programmer for computer graphics firm, statistician for some U.S. government agency, lawyer (that is really a stretch - I don't know how that guy did it). – Stefan Smith Dec 29 '13 at 04:40
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    I agree with Stephan but, for a lawyer you have to be good with your words. I'm currently studying to be an actuary although I'm almost done with my undergraduate. Don't forget engineering and teaching high school is always an option for math oriented students. Also, unrelated but, I know a lot of failed artists who end up going for architecture. – MathematicalAnomaly Dec 29 '13 at 04:48
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    *Mathematicians don't quit, they fade away* - Yeah... but then they come back to Stack Exchange with a vengeance ! ;-) – Lucian Dec 29 '13 at 05:12
  • Re Stahl: You might get more traction by asking questions of these kind of chat. – Eric Stucky Dec 29 '13 at 05:13
  • Would an account of this happening, but with a slightly different but related field (Physics) be on topic? –  Dec 29 '13 at 05:51
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    My friends from my student times who leaked out of the research pipeline at some point: untenured university teacher/researcher, high school teachers, government worker in charge of civil safety in case of a nuclear accident, composes and plays music at medieval festivals, works for a consulting company, works for an insurance company. Most of them are pretty happy, especially the musician. – Phira Dec 29 '13 at 11:09
  • Industry and education. Both recruit PhDs (and MScs). – Jyrki Lahtonen Dec 29 '13 at 12:53
  • No one has mentioned finance, which has a hunger for mathematicians educated up to grad school level, to work as traders, structurers, model validators, derivative pricing quants, risk quants, developers/researchers for trading algorithms etc etc. – Chris Taylor Dec 30 '13 at 13:57

4 Answers4


I completed 2 years of a Mathematics Ph.D. program, and after several discussions with my advisor, decided that a tenure-track path devoted to research was probably not a good one for me. My work ethic was average and I had a huge hill to climb with a limited background in Math studies that was based largely in the U.S.

I decided to leave the program before starting the dissertation work and entered into the business world working for a small, local insurance company with the goal of becoming an actuary. My advisor told me that if I didn't like the business world and wanted to come back to try Pure Mathematics again, they would welcome me back.

Nearly ten years later, I've completed all exams to become a Fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society and now happily lead a team of ten people as a Second Vice President at a large U.S. Insurer. Sometimes late at night I wonder what might have been, and secretly long to solve original, advanced problems, but overall I am very happy and glad to have found this alternative career path.

Chad Wilson
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From the Book Mathematical Apocrypha , there were two extreme cases: One mathematician turned to a convicted axe murderer and kept doing math for rest of his life (from Prison) and another finished his Phd and became a Plumber (Plumbing was their family business, he was doing math just for himself, all along it was his intention of going back to family business).

There are no requisites for someone finishing something to continue or not to continue with it, depending on them being creatures of habit or not.

According to the same book Madonna was also a math undergrad for sometime

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    In the vein of that axe murderer, there's always [Ted Kaczynski](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Kaczynski). – Mark S. Dec 29 '13 at 04:30
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    @MarkS.: there might have been some CIA related mind control experiments in there : from that page "According to author Alston Chase, Kaczynski's records from that period suggest he was emotionally stable when the study began. Kaczynski's lawyers attributed some of his emotional instability and dislike of mind control to his participation in this study" – jimjim Dec 29 '13 at 04:42
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    Meta-World-Peace (AKA Ron Artest) Majored in Math – Amihai Zivan Dec 29 '13 at 06:27
  • @Arjang: I fail to see any reference about Madonna being a math undergrad. Could you try and find the source? – Quora Feans Dec 29 '13 at 12:20
  • @QuoraFea : http://books.google.com.au/books?id=HxpQFHGMfNIC&pg=PA141&lpg=PA141&dq=mathematical+apocrypha+madonna&source=bl&ots=qLAbXNrpb3&sig=nNx_vTg9TnvFTUVA83wbF3tngKg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=CxnAUt3qFYPCkwXUnoCADA&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=mathematical%20apocrypha%20madonna&f=false – jimjim Dec 29 '13 at 12:44

Quite a number of them end up in industry as computer programmers - in our team of about 12 programmers for instance, three of them are mathematicians. I think this is a pretty normal ratio.


Since I have hired quite a few Math Majors in my days, I know that some substantial chunk moves to what is effectively "Applied Math", i.e. computer software development. Many software specific algorithms are mathematical in nature, and it helps to have a decent foundation of Math to stand on before tackling those. But with that comes the downside, which is that these people are not particularly good in abstract or intermediary constructs to create well designed software. More often than not, it is all about formulas, with functions and arguments with as short names as is possible. So, such person can't be let loose to write entire systems, at least not early on...