Mathematically Speaking: The Many Lives of Harvard Math Alums

Building on Harvard campus

Students with mathematics degrees have a wide range of career options–many more than you might think!
Image: Shutterstock

You might think that getting a degree in math doesn’t offer a whole lot of career options besides teaching or accounting. However, alums of Harvard’s various applied mathematics and related degrees have gone on to many different sorts of careers, from television writer Ken Keeler to Microsoft’s chief executive officer Steven Ballmer. And given the close association of the math department and the computer science department, the options are endless.

According to the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, “Industrial careers for those with a background in mathematics rarely carry a simple title like ‘mathematician.’ The very idea of a career in mathematics has evolved and diversified. Mathematics may stand alone as a science, but as a career, it’s almost always coupled with a specialty or area of interest.”

Harvard’s integrated mathematics program, which offers a variety of interdisciplinary opportunities with the computer and social sciences, places graduates in a wide variety of careers at places like government labs, engineering research centers, software firms, and financial businesses. Here are just a few examples:

Christopher Flowers, Managing Director and CEO, J.C. Flowers & Co.

Chris Flowers graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with an A.B. in Applied Mathematics. He went on to found a high-powered private investment firm in New York, as well as the JC Flowers Foundation, a nonprofit that works to end malaria in African countries and also provides opportunities for parolees in Harlem.

Ken Keeler, comic writer and TV producer

Ken Keeler is probably best known for his work on The Simpsons and Futurama. He earned two mathematics degrees from Harvard: an A.B. in 1983 and a Ph.D. in 1990. While his career might seem a bit odd for someone who spent so much time focusing on math, he’s made it his mission to include as many math jokes as possible in all of his projects.

Joel E. Cohen, Professor of Populations at Columbia University’s Earth Institute

Joel Cohen took his skills in math and transformed them into a successful career in research on topics like food, infectious diseases, and human population growth. He’s a prolific writer, and his most well-known book is How Many People Can the Earth Support? In 2002, the mayor of New York honored him with the Excellence in Science and Technology Award.

Interested in finding out more about just how many great options there are in applied mathematics? The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics has an information hub that’s a great place to start–check it out here.


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