When it comes to the financial side of business – the side that deals with the management of money and other assets – math is a crucial piece of the puzzle. Finance is certainly among the business majors that most emphasizes mathematical skills. While there are similarities between studies in finance and math, there are also significant differences in regard to the core curriculum, the importance of math to the field and the career paths graduates of these programs are most likely to pursue.
The Focus of the Core Curriculum
In any program of study, students should expect to complete mandatory core coursework in their broader field of interest. These classes expand students’ knowledge beyond their narrow major program of study and equip students with the educational foundation and the context they need to understand their major courses.
For finance majors, the core curriculum encompasses courses from different fields of business. Introductory and foundational coursework in accounting, management, operations, marketing, supply chain management, business strategy and business law are common. Math doesn’t play a primary role in many of these studies, especially at the lower-division levels. Some business schools might include a business statistics course or a computer science-related class in management information systems as part of the core curriculum. Students then complete major coursework in financial principles and theory, often with a focus on investment types and financial analysis, and further focus their studies with the strategic use of electives.
Students majoring in the mathematical sciences – including general math majors, actuarial science majors, statistics majors and others – instead complete extensive math coursework as part of their core curriculum. Studies in linear algebra, modern algebra, differential equations, statistics and probability, calculus and geometry are common. One factor that affects the classes a math major will take is whether the program is a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) program, which is based in the liberal arts, or whether it is a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) program, which is more science-intensive.
While most colleges have instituted university-wide general education requirements that include a mathematics component, most business majors satisfy this requirement by taking Calculus I or a business calculus class.
Math as an End vs. Math as the Means to an End
Perhaps the single biggest difference between finance and math degrees is how central the principles and applications of mathematics are to the field of study. For math majors, developing a more thorough understanding of mathematics is the goal of their studies. While people who work in the math occupations do apply math theories to real-life problems, they do so through the math skills they cultivate studying and researching the subject. For finance majors, the goal is often the analysis of financial markets or investments. Finance professionals use math and statistics to analyze this information, usually so they can make investment decisions or recommendations, not for the sake of learning math.
Despite the differences in academic and philosophical approaches, there remains a good deal of overlap between mathematics and finance. Some colleges have developed multidisciplinary programs of study that combine math and finance as a major.
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Career Prospects for Finance and Math Majors
There are a number of business jobs, including financial analyst, market research analyst and personal financial advisor, for which either finance or math is an acceptable major, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Each of these careers involves a great deal of analysis of markets, financial trends or investment performance. Naturally, majoring in mathematics can help students develop these analytical skills and math skills used in evaluating this data. Finance degree programs also emphasize these specific math and analytical skills, but without the broader focus on other areas of mathematics that aren’t as relevant to financial analysis.
Finance majors are more likely to work in these financial specialist roles than math majors are. With experience, they may ascend to financial manager roles that include treasurer and controller, or they may even join the C-suite management team as a company’s chief financial officer (CFO).
Math majors who don’t pursue a business career can explore opportunities in a number of different fields. Math occupations include mathematician, statistician, actuary and operations research analyst, the BLS reported. Other possibilities include analysts of all kinds, data scientists and math teachers.
Finance and other “math-focused business majors,” like accounting, often lead to better career outcomes – like higher wages and lower unemployment rates – than more general business programs of study, according to The Washington Post.