You hear a lot about the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, but how do you choose between them? While studies in all of these in-demand technical fields are valuable, there are pros and cons for each educational path. If math is your favorite class and you are leaning toward majoring in mathematics in college, the good news is that there are many benefits of studying math over one of the physical or life sciences. Generally, many of the math occupations compare favorably to their science equivalents in terms of earning potential and job outlook – often, with no Ph.D. required.
All of the STEM occupations have a reputation for offering high pay rates. However, as a whole, math occupations have a higher median wage, $84,060, than physical scientists, who earn a median salary of $78,790, and life scientists, whose median wage is $73,700, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported.
The $103,010 median wage for mathematicians and the $101,560 median salary for the math-related career of actuary are higher than that of nearly every science occupation, according to the BLS. The median wage for astronomers is $100,590. Materials scientists make a median wage of $99,530. For atmospheric scientists, the median salary is $92,070. Biochemists and biophysicists earn a median wage of $91,190. For geoscientists, $89,850 is the median salary. The $82,090 median salary for medical scientists is also below the $84,060 median wage for the math-related role of statistician. Even the lowest-paying of the math occupations, operations research analyst, pays a higher median wage – $81,390 – than many jobs for physical and life scientists, including:
- Hydrologists, with a median wage of $79,990
- Chemists, with a $74,740 median salary
- Microbiologists, who earn a median wage of $69,960
- Epidemiologists, with a median salary of $69,660
- Environmental scientists, whose median wage is $69,400
- Agricultural and food scientists, with a $62,910 median salary
- Zoologists and wildlife biologists, who earn a median wage of $62,290
Only physicists earn more than mathematicians, with a median salary of $118,830, the BLS reported.
More Rapid Career Growth
Overall, mathematical science occupations are also seeing jobs grow at a faster rate compared to those in the life sciences and physical sciences. The BLS predicts a 28 percent increase in job opportunities in the mathematical science occupations over a decade, compared to just 10 percent growth anticipated for life and physical science occupations. All math occupations are growing at a much faster than average rate. Statistician is seeing the fastest growth, with a 34 percent increase in jobs expected, followed by mathematician’s 30 percent rate, operations research analyst’s 27 percent rate and actuary’s 22 percent rate. The fastest-growing science careers, geoscientist (excluding hydrologists) and physicists, are still only growing at half the rate of math careers.
Though math careers are seeing much faster than average job growth, all of the life and physical scientist occupations are also growing, but at rates equal to or somewhat faster than the average rate of job growth expected across all occupations.
More Opportunities Without a Doctorate
For many roles in science, an advanced degree is mandatory. Only the lower-paying life and physical scientist careers are available without having at least a master’s degree, if not a Ph.D. Physicists, astronomers, biochemists, biophysicists and medical scientists all require a doctoral degree. If you earn a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, you will likely earn less in this occupation even with the advanced degree than you could earn with a bachelor’s degree in a math occupation like actuary or operations research analyst. You can become an atmospheric scientist, geoscientist, hydrologist, chemist, materials scientist, microbiologist, environmental scientist, agricultural and food scientist, zoologist or wildlife biologist with a bachelor’s degree, but your career options will be limited without a more advanced degree.
An advanced degree is necessary for some math careers, but there are plenty of opportunities for those who don’t go to graduate school as well. Mathematicians and statisticians usually need a master’s degree or Ph.D. for academic and private industry roles, but government jobs – which are among the most plentiful and the most lucrative – often require only a bachelor’s degree. Most operations research analysts start out with only a bachelor’s degree. For actuaries, a bachelor’s degree meets the formal education requirement needed for certification, and graduate school is not part of the traditional path to career advancement in this occupation.
Even in science careers that don’t require a Ph.D., you typically need a doctorate if you want to carry out independent research either in private industry or at a university.