You like math, but you aren’t sure exactly what you want to do with your math skills. Do you become a mathematician, using mathematical techniques to analyze data and solve problems? Or do you become a math teacher responsible for educating students at the elementary, middle or high school level? There are significant differences between mathematics and mathematics education degree programs, including the classes you study, the level of degree you need, the outlook and salary range of your future career and what your daily work will look like.
Math vs. Math Education Curriculum
When you earn a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in mathematics, your core courses will consist mainly of math classes. Abstract and linear algebra, calculus and differential equations are generally the most important subjects of study for math majors, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). You might also take other math courses, such as geometry, numerical or data analysis and probability and statistics. Depending on whether your program awards a BA or BS degree, you might devote more of your studies to the social sciences, humanities and liberal arts or to physical and natural sciences. Some undergraduate math degree programs encourage or require students to complete a sequence of non-math coursework relevant to their mathematical career interests in a subject such as computer science or computation, statistics, business, life sciences or physical sciences.
For a math education major, courses in teaching are as essential as coursework in mathematics is. Education coursework includes studies in inclusive education, socio-cultural foundations of education, effective teaching, child and adolescent development, instructional technology, classroom and conflict management and assessment and evaluation. You will spend a semester gaining student-teaching experience in a real classroom setting. Often, aspiring math teachers also take courses that combine their two fields of study, such as Teaching and Learning Mathematics courses tailored for the middle grades and the high school grades.
While some schools offer a major in mathematics education, others offer the program as a dual major. When double majoring, students must complete all graduation requirements for both their mathematics degree and their education degree.
Degree Level Required
Another difference between a math degree and a math education degree is how much post-secondary education is required of you. Educators working in elementary schools, middle schools and high schools usually have a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license or certification, the BLS reported. Some states require teachers to obtain a master’s degree after they have begun working in the profession, but not before they get their careers started. In other states, teachers may choose to go to graduate school to advance into administrative roles or simply to take advantage of the pay bump that accompanies a master’s degree.
Though not required of most teachers, earning a graduate degree can boost your pay by thousands of dollars. On average, having a master’s degree results in a salary increase of more than $3,000 for new teachers and upwards of $8,000 for highly experienced ones.
Career Opportunities and Earning Potential
Once you’re out in the workforce, the differences between a background in mathematics and one in math education keep growing. In terms of job outlook, opportunities are growing at a faster rate for mathematicians, but teachers will see more new jobs overall. While careers for mathematicians are growing at a much faster than average rate of 30 percent, this occupation is so small currently that even this considerable career growth will only add 900 new jobs, the BLS reported. Teachers are seeing average rates of job growth, with seven to eight percent increases expected over a decade. However, that average growth will yield 104,100 new jobs for elementary school teachers, 47,300 new jobs for middle school teachers, 76,800 new jobs for high school teachers.
When it comes to salary potential, mathematicians generally earn considerably higher wages. The median wage for mathematicians is $103,010, and statisticians earn a median salary of $84,060. Among teachers, median wages are $57,160 at the elementary school level (not counting special education teachers), $57,720 for middle school teachers and $59,170 for high school teachers. However, the wage variance across industries is remarkable for mathematicians. In the highest paying industry, management, scientific and technical consulting services, mathematicians earn a median wage of $120,840, while the 16 percent of mathematicians working for colleges and universities earn a median salary of $56,320, much closer to that of a teacher.
There are currently only 3,100 mathematicians and 37,200 statisticians in the U.S., compared to 3,059,900 elementary through high school teachers, the BLS reported.
Daily Work Experiences
Perhaps the most important difference between these two degrees isn’t the classes you take or the money you make, but instead, what you do every day of your career. Mathematicians work primarily in offices, often alongside scientists and engineers, while math teachers spend their days in the classroom, educating classes of children as young as five or up to their teenage years. For mathematicians, job satisfaction often takes the form of solving real-life problems with their mathematical analyses of data, while for teachers, it is playing a crucial role in the development of young people that is fulfilling.
The benefits of work as a mathematician include the opportunity to discover new mathematical theorems and concepts, while for a teacher, they include breaks in the summer or, for schools following a year-round schedule, between sessions.