The business of mathematics

I first decided to study economics at the beginning of sophomore year, when I went to an alumni breakfast at homecoming weekend. I told an alumnus I happened to be sitting next to that I liked the subjects of history and mathematics the most out of everything I studied at St. John’s, which both felt very opposed to me, and I wasn’t sure how to choose or pursue these subjects. He suggested that I look into economics.

I began my pursuit of economics by doing a lot of reading in my spare time. I read books and newspaper articles, and I began looking at the requirements of getting a PhD in economics. I also applied to a Pathways Fellowship, a grant offered by St. John’s that allows students to take classes in the summer. I took macro and micro economics and thoroughly enjoyed both.

I began to seriously pursue career options junior year. My first step was to find alumni in economics, and also business and finance, because there were only a few PhD’s in economics. I attended networking lunches, asked Career Services to put me in contact, and asked upperclassmen if they knew any recently graduated Johnnies in the field I was looking at. I also ran for and became one of the Annapolis Campus’ two BVG representatives. The Board of Visitors and Governors, or BVG, is the ruling body of the business side of St. John’s College. As the student representative, I sat in on their meetings, in order to report back to the student body on the proceedings, which gave me more exposure to financial discussions and matters.

Networking allowed me to speak to a lot of alumni in order get a good idea of what my next steps should be. Doing a lot of research into PhD programs, I realized that high proficiency in math and quantitative skills were more important to PhD programs than a theoretical background. This was encouraging, because I really loved math. However, I realized that I would not have the expertise to get into a top PhD program in economics right away. Many alumni recommended I try to land an internship, and then a job in finance or economic consulting, and, after a few years in the field, try to transfer to a masters or PhD program. In the meantime, I used every opportunity at St. John’s to improve my proficiency in math.

A large part of my junior year was spent applying to internships at a variety of different firms and research positions at think tanks. I also applied to take more math classes with the Pathways. In the end, I landed a few interviews at very competitive firms and got waitlisted at a statistics research lab at Carnegie Mellon. However, I didn’t make the final cut, and ended up doing mathematics classes between junior and senior year. Additionally, I used my preceptorial choice, which is a St. John’s equivalent to an elective, to study Mathematical Philosophy.

Towards the end of the year, I found myself talking to a consultant about possibly applying for consulting jobs my senior year, to pursue after college. My conversation was very frank, and my contact made it clear to me that the primary judgment for candidates was not only intellectual quickness and flexibility, but customer relations. I realized that while I liked working with people, consulting was not the right fit for me. The more I tried to pursue economics, the more I ended up pursuing business-related endeavors. For the past year, my favorite parts of the career search had been the extra mathematical pursuits.

I went ahead with my plans to take classes that summer, and ended up deciding to further pursue graduate education in mathematics, although I am not closed off to working in an applied field. Fortunately, as a lot of my preparation for economics involved studying math, it became very easy to shift my focus.

As a senior, I have taken another preceptorial in mathematics, this time in Abstract Algebra. I spoke to my tutor, who was very helpful in giving me suggestions in how to look for programs and funding for mathematics. I applied to a post-bac program as well as a few research positions, and am waiting to hear back. I have also reached out to a few Johnnies in mathematics. This has been very helpful, because speaking to these Johnnies, I have a very easy time communicating with them. The more I look at science, the more I see it as a fit for my personality, which has always been more angled towards the academic side of things. Although I still have a difficult road ahead of me, I feel more comfortable with the hard work I will have to do to achieve my goals, which is important.

In short, the thing I most highly recommend is speaking to alumni and tutors, who give excellent advice and will know what programs and internships are out there for you. Communicating, making contacts, and finding people to write your references and recommendation letters, are the most important things you can do. Doing research about the requirements of your long-term goals are important, as well as speaking to alumni about what you can do to circumvent or fulfill these requirements. Most of all, keep continuing to search and try things, even if you don’t like them. Although I decided not to go into economics, I still made some decisions that helped benefit me, such as my choice to become a Math Assistant. I also have a polished resume and a lot of experience interviewing and writing cover letters. Further, I am more aware of my own goals and comfort zones. In this way, it really was not a waste of my time at all. I think that as long as you are looking and trying, you will be gaining valuable skills and experiences that will benefit you, even if you are not quite sure how, yet.