Are you thinking of studying Mathematics?

Image shows a blue fractal pattern.Mathematics students have a lot of reasons to feel pleased with themselves.
Mathematics graduates are constantly in short supply, they have a plethora of well-paid and stable careers to choose from (until civilisation collapses, we will always need accountants) and in undergraduate my-degree-is-better-than-your-degree contests, they have a fairly good chance of winning.
What’s more, though the numbers haven’t shifted in a decade, Maths is no longer the sole preserve of nerdy men: 38% of Maths undergraduates are female, way above the 15% in Engineering (though their nerdiness remains unconfirmed). Maths has now beaten English Literature as the single most popular choice at A-level, so it seems likely that the number of students studying Maths at university is only going to grow in future. If you’re considering becoming one of them, here’s what you can expect.

What kind of things can I expect to study?

Image shows a diagram of a sphere.
You’ll build on what you learned at A-level.

In first year, your compulsory modules will mostly build on what you’ve learned from A-level, to give everyone on the course the same solid foundation regardless of their exam board or the teaching they’ve had up to that point. This is likely to include algebra, probability, statistics, geometry, calculus, analysis and dynamics.
In years 2 and 3 (or 4, if you’re taking a four-year course – which might give you the option of graduating with a Masters), you’ll cover a more varied set of modules, such as number theory, topology, special relativity, quantum theory, history of mathematics, cryptography, optimisation, actuarial mathematics, fractals and metric spaces. Many universities also offer the chance to spend a year in industry (usually the third year of a four-year course). Areas you might get a placement in include banking, insurance, professional services, logistics and the automobile industry.

What do I need for a Mathematics degree?

Maths is unusual in its simplicity of requirements. You simply require A-level Maths and, if you’re capable of it, Further Maths, plus STEP for some universities (i.e. more Maths exams). You might find that the majority of Maths students have studied other sciences – most usually Physics, which is taken by nearly half of Maths applicants (Further Maths is taken by 54%) – but you could take Spanish, Sociology and Geography for all it really matters, particularly if your degree course of choice leans more towards Pure than Applied Mathematics. It is simply the case that you need your A-level Maths results to be the best that they can possibly be.

Image shows formulae in a Maths book.
Extra reading around the subject is effectively all you can do.

While super-curricular activities are handy on any application, Maths is possibly the subject for which they are least important, as a) it is challenging to think of a super-curricular activity that demonstrates interest in Maths better than simply dedicating the time to improving your A-level performance and b) A-level Maths is a better predictor of university performance than A-levels in most other subjects, so universities don’t need as much additional information to assess whether you’d be a good fit for their course.
The only subject up for debate is Further Maths. The Guardian recently published an article in which a top UK private school advised an Oxbridge hopeful to take it “only if you are guaranteed to get an A” but this is a little misleading – if you can’t get an A in Further Maths, you shouldn’t be applying to study Maths-related subjects at Oxbridge in the first place. If your school offers Further Maths, you should take it. If it doesn’t, you should be prepared for a relatively steep learning curve in your first year at university, though it should not be unmanageable.
STEP is required by Cambridge and Warwick, and is encouraged by Bristol, Bath, Oxford and Imperial. It requires minimal preparation beyond past paper practice as it’s designed to test the same skills and knowledge as the A-level syllabus. STEP uses no calculators or graph paper, so may be different from your exam experience in that respect. How suited you are to studying Maths can be tested to a certain extent by whether you view this with a sense of dread or as a fun additional challenge.

What skills will I acquire?

Image shows someone using a computer.
Your ICT skills will be valued.

You’ll learn specialist skills in mathematical theories, methods and practices, data analysis and the skills in forming and testing theories. You’ll also gain high-level ICT skills, particularly in the area of scientific computing. Additionally, you’ll gain the usual degree skills of logical thinking, time management, presentation skills, teamwork skills, attention to detail and organisational abilities.

Will I get to travel as part of my degree?

The study of Mathematics is more-or-less identical the world over, so presuming you have the requisite language skills (and many Maths degrees, even in non-English-speaking countries, are taught through English), there are more opportunities for spending a year of your degree abroad than there are for many degrees. Then there’s the possibility of spending a year in industry. If you’re interested in spending that year in a company based overseas, your university might well be willing to help facilitate that.

What careers are possible with a Mathematics degree?

Image shows an accountant's desk.
Accountancy is a popular career for Maths graduates.

The most common careers for Maths graduates are finance, investment and accounting, and programming and software development – both fields that are usually experiencing a skills shortage, and which offer healthily high graduate starting salaries. While you might well have to undertake extra training and gain extra qualifications for these fields, if you can get on a good graduate scheme or if your degree classification was high enough, your employer may well sponsor you through the process.
For those less keen on sitting in front of a computer screen all day long, the UK has a shortage of Maths teachers, which means that there are considerable incentives on offer for graduates interested in such a profession – while it’s unlikely that you’d be paid as much as you would as an accountant, the contrast between the level of pay in the public and private sector isn’t as huge as you might expect. There isn’t quite an open door, though – you’ll still need to prove your aptitude for education and working with children.

Related degrees

Image shows a saxophone lying on some sheet music.
Mathematicians are often drawn to Music as an alternative degree choice.

If you’re interested in studying Mathematics, you might also wish to consider:

  • Physics – Maths students might scoff that Physics is just applied Maths, but for some people that’s what makes it so interesting.
  • Engineering – you’ll learn many of the same things as in Maths and require the same skills, but with quite a different potential career path at the end.
  • Music – this might seem entirely unrelated to Maths, but many musicians are excellent mathematicians and vice versa.

A final thought on Mathematics

Skilled mathematicians have a lot of options. Most of the fields open to them – which is all of the more mathematically-orientated STEM courses – are short of applicants, and even more so for applicants belonging to disadvantaged groups, so it can be a choice between a variety of good, undersubscribed choices, all of which offer perks like bursaries and the like to encourage more applications. It also seems to be the case that people who are indecisive about choosing Maths often struggle to decide between Maths and a quite unrelated course – hence the surprising popularity of Joint Honours courses like Maths and English or Maths and Law.
So why choose Maths? The consistent shortage of Maths graduates across all kinds of fields means that you won’t have the same worries about job prospects as some of your peers (after all, demand for engineers can wobble in a recession, whereas demand for Maths graduates takes less of a hit). And if you love Maths now, chances are you will find it even more enjoyable at university level, and probably just as much in your future career.


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Image credits: banner; diagram; reading; computer; accountant; saxophone.