May 5, 2013

Majoring in Math

It’s May. I have a few finals left before I can say that I’ve completed my first year of undergrad. You could say that I’ve changed my mind a lot about what I wanted to accomplish over these four years, but you could also say that I haven’t. As for my major, I think I’ve landed on something. I want to major in mathematics.

I applied to the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) at UVa, also known as the E-school. To be honest, I didn’t think about this at all. I saw “engineering” and marked the box, essentially. My focus was on getting in. After I was accepted, I started to think about what I wanted to do.

I didn’t want to do computer science. My thought process was, if I’m going to continue managing a web hosting company and develop cool products, I don’t need to spend money to learn things I was already learning. For almost a decade, I’ve been learning about technology almost exclusively from the web. I can continue doing that. So to maximize my value, I thought perhaps the commerce track was the way to go.

The McIntire School of Commerce was one of the major reasons why I chose UVa. It’s the second best undergraduate business school in the nation. Since I live in Virginia, I also get in-state tuition. That sounded amazing. I did some more reading and came to the conclusion that it might be annoying to satisfy both the E-school prerequisites and those for pre-commerce, or pre-comm. I requested to transfer into the College of Arts and Sciences (CLAS), also known as the College. This was still over the summer, so I didn’t have any issues. Eventually it was time to select courses, and I started my pre-comm trek.

I got really bored during my first semester. My only STEM-ish (if that makes sense) classes were statistics and astronomy. I don’t really know how to put this. Doing problem sets for econ didn’t seem useful. I wasn’t interested, and I didn’t get a chance to figure out what I was going to learn if I continued taking econ courses. I didn’t want to keep going. I also hated writing around 25 pages about E-books for English.

The next semester, I took things to another level. I signed up for 12 credits worth of technical classes. Three math and a 1 credit Haskell course. People are sometimes surprised when they hear I’m taking three math classes. It doesn’t really make sense. They’re still different classes, but they just happen to be in the same department. In short, I had to do a lot of math homework this semester, I got better at math, and (more importantly!) I wanted to do more math.

So, here I am. I want to major in math with a concentration in financial mathematics. I still have to take a couple of econ/comm courses, but that’s fine with me. I might want to check out Wall Street if I can. I’m still avoiding CS since I find that focusing more heavily on math will be a better investment of my time (and money) and it will complement my IT skills well.

So why math? I’m bad at it. I want to get better. I’ve never been good at math. It was my worst subject in high school. I used to say, “what’s the point of this?” But last year, something changed. I stopped asking that. I took a course called Advanced Math Techniques for Scientists and Engineers. It was more of a survey into different fields of math. It was a preview of what to expect. I liked it. A lot.

Picking a major isn’t really a big deal for me. I’m not sure what I’ll do after undergrad. It’ll probably something in IT. I’d love to start a company, get funding, and tackle a challenging problem in the world. Anyway, I’m not letting my major limit the scope of my future. If anything, it’ll make it more interesting by giving me more potential.

I asked Hacker News what I should expect in the future. I wish I got more responses, but “it is what it is…!” I liked this response the most:

The cool thing about IT is that a lot of people don’t care what your major is (though admittedly there could be some “must have degree” at large companies). There’s CS people, Information Technology, Infosec, Information Management, and more. There’s not just 1 major. I worked with a Linux admin with a masters in Physics, and was entirely self taught.

There’s a bunch of neat things you can do with a math degree in IT. Off the top of my head, anything involving statistics. Most people can’t do any statistics at all, and the ones who can are limited. There’s a lot in the areas of business intelligence that requires math majors. I think my company employs a few.

Another area is algorithms. There’s a lot of algorithms to be had - spam filters, job schedulers, search, etc. It could be a good fit for you if you’re into that area.

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