Should I do a degree in maths?

If you have a flair for maths you are well placed to succeed in a degree that is well regarded by employers, though if you're less keen, bear in mind that it is essential for relatively few careers.

If you’re a talented mathematician, a maths degree can be a good option. The fact that there is a right answer to questions means that it’s possible to achieve high marks, most courses offer the chance as you progress to specialise in the areas that most interest you, and your skills will be useful in many careers. However, there are few careers for which a maths degree is essential and your grade is sometimes more important than your subject, so be wary of choosing this subject because you think it will make you more employable – especially if you are not a natural mathematician.

Which A levels or Highers do I need to get onto a maths degree?

To get onto a maths degree you need A level maths or equivalent. Some top universities also either require or prefer further maths. Students from Scotland need at least a Higher in maths and may need an Advanced Higher in maths. A few top universities require or prefer you to have passed a STEP paper in maths – this is an additional qualification and, depending on your school, you may need to study for it by yourself. A few also require you to sit the Maths Admissions Test exam.

Most universities are fairly flexible as to what other subjects you have studied in addition to maths. However, some Scottish universities require one or more science subjects.

What will I study on a maths degree?

Standard maths degrees typically include a mixture of pure maths, statistics and applied maths. In your first year you are usually expected to study core modules that cover a broad range of topics. There is likely to be the opportunity to specialise more if you wish in subsequent years. For example, you might choose to take largely statistics modules, and may even have the option to be awarded a degree in, say, statistics rather than mathematics.

Alternatively, you could apply for a degree that sounds a bit more specialised, such as maths and statistics or applied maths. However, you are still likely to have to study a broad range of core modules in your first year, so in practice there may be little or no difference.

Typical first year topics include:

  • calculus
  • algebra
  • analysis
  • mechanics
  • probability
  • statistics
  • geometry
  • vectors
  • computational maths.

More specialised modules later in your degree vary by university. A number of options overlap with other subjects, such as:

  • mathematical finance
  • mathematical physics
  • mathematical biology
  • actuarial maths
  • history of maths
  • special relativity
  • quantum theory
  • medical statistics.

What teaching methods are used on a maths degree?

Teaching methods are likely to include:

  • lectures – learning by watching, listening and taking notes
  • problem classes – working through maths problems individually but with a tutor on hand to help when you need it
  • tutorials – meeting with a tutor and a handful of other students to talk through challenging maths problems
  • potentially, practical computing classes held in computer labs.

The names that these types of sessions are given vary from university to university.

How many contact hours will I have on a maths degree?

Around 15 to 18 hours of contact time a week is typical, though this varies depending upon your university and year of study. Contact time is time when you are being taught by university staff. You are also expected to spend a good chunk of the rest of your time studying by yourself, which could be another 15 hours or more.

How difficult is a maths degree?

It might seem surprising, but maths is a subject in which a high number of first class degrees – the highest grade you can get – are typically handed out. However, if you’re finding A level maths a challenge and having to work hard to keep up, you might want to think twice about maths as a degree. Even those who find A level maths fairly easy can notice a distinct step up in the difficulty level of a degree.

John Norrie graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2016 with a first class degree in mathematics, and will be starting an MSc in applied mathematics at Imperial College London in the autumn. He explains: ‘If you’re good at maths, a maths degree is quite a nice one to go for. There’s a right and a wrong answer, which is one of the good things. In English you can work for hours and hours and you’re still not going to get above, say, 70%. Whereas in maths you can work for hours and hours and get 90%. I’ve known people to get 100% in modules, which is completely different to the arts. If you’re good at maths you can do really well at it.’

Dan Nicholls also studied at the University of Nottingham, graduating with a 2.1 in mathematics in 2016, and is staying on to take an MSc in financial and computational mathematics. He comments: ‘I did further maths, which wasn’t required by my university, so the first few weeks and months involved a lot of repetition of what I’d already done. However, after Christmas the intensity does start to ramp up a bit. It was quite surreal going from A level, where you knew the answer to pretty much everything, to going to uni where you don’t know the answers to much really. It was quite different.’

What careers could a maths degree lead to?

Some maths graduates pursue careers that closely relate to their studies; others use their degree as a stepping stone into a different career.

Careers using maths

Finance careers offer a good opportunity to apply maths skills to real-world situations and problems. For most roles in finance you don’t actually need a degree in maths but you do need to be good with numbers. Options include:

  • accountancy – helping businesses, public sector organisations and charities to look after their money and use it legally
  • actuarial work – calculating risk for insurance companies
  • investment management – helping organisations and wealthy individuals to invest their money wisely
  • investment banking – buying and selling on the financial markets to make a profit or advising companies on taking each other over, raising money or floating on the stock exchange
  • retail banking – helping banks to provide services to ordinary customers.

Some maths graduates find work in engineering. However, not all engineering employers accept maths degrees so if you know that is the career you want, an engineering degree could be a better bet.

A number of IT companies employ maths graduates, for example in computer programming roles – though again, some require a more directly related degree.

Other options that include a good element of maths include:

  • defence and intelligence roles (for example at GCHQ)
  • working as a statistician (for example in the civil service)
  • operational research (using maths to help businesses make management decisions)
  • being an academic mathematician (working at a university to teach students and carry out your own original maths research)
  • teaching in a primary or secondary school as a maths specialist.

Careers outside maths

Many jobs are open to graduates with any degree subject. A small sample includes:

What skills will I gain on a maths degree? Will employers like them?

As well as maths skills and knowledge, a maths degree is likely to help you develop the following, all of which employers like:

  • problem-solving skills
  • perseverance
  • analytical skills – in maths there is a lot of focus on absolute proof, which calls for precision and careful reasoning
  • communication skills – you might need to explain your reasoning in a written answer, talk through a complex maths problem with a tutor, give a presentation or work in a group with fellow students
  • potentially, computer programming skills, depending on the modules you take.

What other degrees could I consider?

If you’re considering a maths degree, you might also want to think about the following subjects:

  • economics
  • engineering
  • computer science
  • physics or theoretical physics
  • another science subject such as chemistry, biology or psychology (all will have an element of maths)
  • a specialist maths degree, eg statistics, financial mathematics or actuarial science
  • accounting or finance (though be aware that most organisations that recruit into these areas don’t require a directly related degree).

What happens to maths graduates after they leave university?

Each year, all universities in the UK contact their former students six months after they finish their degrees to ask what they are doing. The results are compiled in the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, which has data both on graduates from different degree subjects and on graduates as a whole. The 2015 survey explores the paths that students who graduated in 2014 have taken.

Maths graduates were considerably more likely than graduates as a whole to be doing further study – 23.3% of maths graduates described themselves as being in further study, training and research, compared with 12.8% of graduates from all subjects. Of these, just over a third were taking a masters degree and another third were taking a PGCE, which trains graduates to become teachers. A further 8.2% of maths graduates were combining work and study, compared with 5.5% of graduates from all subjects.

Maths graduates were slightly more likely than the average graduate to be unemployed, but not much (7.7%, compared with 6.3%).

Among maths graduates who were working, the top five job categories were:

  • business, HR and finance professionals (40.4%)
  • IT professionals (10.8%)
  • clerical, secretarial and numerical clerk roles (a category that largely covers admin roles) (9.0%)
  • education professionals (8.9%)
  • retail, catering, waiting and bar staff (8.7%).

Unsurprisingly, those who were working as business, HR and finance professionals were often in jobs that made good use of their maths skills.

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